In what has been a week filled with sorrow for Minnesota sports fans that started Sunday with the announcement that Minnesota Timberwolves coach Flip Saunders had died of complications with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Wednesday morning’s announcement that Minnesota Gophers head football coach Jerry Kill would be resigning immediately after suffering a pair of seizures Tuesday in his ongoing battle with epilepsy was another hit. For those who knew and worked with both of them, it was a 1-2 punch to gut and a strain on the heart and mind.
Two of the more beloved coaches in the area were no longer going to be able to coach the sports they love and came to define them as human beings. Gone from the sportscape in the span of 72 hours.
During an emotional 30-minute press conference, Kill made it clear that he didn’t want to walk away from coaching, but that if he didn’t the potential existed that his life could be significantly shortened.
Just as the outpouring of affection directed toward Saunders from former players, co-workers, colleagues and the media types that covered his career from a player at the University of Minnesota to the team president of the Timberwolves had waned, the impact of Kill’s influence on a large circle of people helped bring home the impact that he and his family have made on the U of M in particular and the state of Minnesota in general.
The announcement that Kill was stepping down reverberated into the Minnesota Vikings locker room, where three former Gophers – wide receiver Isaac Fruechte, cornerback Marcus Sherels and safety Brock Vereen – all felt the sense of loss that accompanied Kill’s sudden and unexpected announcement.
All three players were at Winter Park when the news broke and the shock was such that Fruechte thought that a teammate and coach were pranking him … until he got the sad confirmation he didn’t want to hear.
“I was in meetings and Kyle Rudolph said, ‘Sorry to hear about your coach,’” Fruechte said. “I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’ I didn’t believe him. Then (tight ends) Coach (Kevin) Sefranski said, ‘Hey, really sorry, man.’ I was like, ‘You guys are screwing with me, right?’ Then I looked it up on my iPad right away. I was shocked. It’s been a shock for me, Brock, Marcus – all of us.”
Sherels played for the Gophers before Kill arrived on campus, but one of Kill’s first hires was to add Sherels’ brother Mike to his staff as linebackers coach. Sherels was asked to come visit the campus often and the welcome mat was always out for Gopher alums to come and interact with the current players.
“We wish him nothing the but the best,” Sherels said. “He was a great coach and a better man. He’s done a lot of things for my family with my brother being over there. He was really down to earth, very honest with the players and welcomed all the (former) players back. I went and sat in on the meetings during spring ball sometimes. He’s a great guy. It was just sad.”
The announcement hit Fruechte hard because, like so many former players, Kill and his wife Rebecca remained a part of his life after his days with the Gophers were over.
Fruechte texted both of them after hearing the news and offered whatever support he could provide. He knows better than most the struggles Kill has endured trying to keep coaching with an illness that can sap strength with the medication required to keep his epilepsy in check.
Witnessing the seizures that hit Kill when Fruechte was a player and the daily struggles he went through attempting to control the disease earned Fruechte’s unending respect for his coach.
“He’s probably one of the strongest human beings I’ve ever met in my life,” Fruechte said. “He’s been through a lot of things. He’s had a tough life. Just the way he’s overcome things, it’s hard to see things like this happen. It’s unfortunate, but we’re praying for him.”
Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer is all too familiar with the time demands that are placed on a head coach. Coming on the heels of the tragic word that Saunders had died Sunday, Zimmer said that the State of Minnesota has suffered another loss of a very good coach and a much better human being.
“It’s disappointing to have another great coach that you respect and the things he done to retire,” Zimmer said. “But, by the same token, I’m glad he had the fortitude to be able to do it when he felt like he was ready to do it or needed to do it. We’re all going to miss him in the Twin Cities. He’s an awful good football coach and he’s got the program going the right way.”
One of the problems Kill faced was that one of the triggers for seizures can be stress and few professions carry with it the amount of stress that comes with coaching at a high level.
Zimmer spends almost every waking hour from the time prior to the start of training camp until the end of the season constantly working to make his team better. He has a unique insight to the rigors of the job and the toll it can take on both body and mind.
“This is always a grind,” Zimmer said. “For me – I know everyone’s personality is different – you put every heart and soul, every minute you have in one week to win a football game. It starts specifically in the middle of July for us, but there’s really not a day that goes by that you don’t think about how can we get this better. It’s a tough, tough profession.”
What differentiates Kill from a lot of coaches from the “Power Five” conferences is that he wasn’t all about X’s and O’s and finding the next big thing. When Fruechte was looking to enroll at a Division I school, it was Kill’s personality, genuine concern for his players and engaging personality that tipped the scale in favor of attending the U of M.
As the son of a coach, Fruechte saw a lot of the same qualities in Kill that he loved and respected from his own father, making Kill’s announcement today feel more like a family tragedy than anything else.
“Coach Kill reminded of my dad,” Fruechte said. “Being a coach, he reminded me of my father. It was just something that made Minnesota very attractive for me. Coach Kill just being a tremendous man made it so much easier. He was more about making sure that the players were alright and that things off the field were more important than football.”
For those who know Kill, they know how much football means to him, and, more importantly, how much his players and coaches mean to him. All of them are part of Kill’s extended family and he is part of theirs. When asked to describe the quality of Kill he admired most, Vereen said it in one word – “selflessness.”
The bittersweet nature of his departure will take some time to fully take in, but Vereen shared the thoughts of many of Kill’s current and former players. Unlike Saunders, Kill still has a lot of living to do. As he said in his emotional farewell press conference, he doesn’t know what the future holds because he’s been a football coach all of his adult life. But, in the end, the fact that stepping away from football may well give Kill a better quality of life for decades to come is more important than being on the sidelines on Saturday afternoons.
“It’s unfortunate,” Vereen said. “But for someone who has spent his whole life doing everything for everyone around him, I guess I’m just happy that finally gets to do what’s best for him for everything that he’s given to the university.”