I usually don't look at Twitter. But for some reason, as my work computer was booting up and I was settling into my cube at the old day job on October 28th, 2015, my fingers drifted to the bird-shaped app on my mobile device. Just checking on the sports landscape for a moment, I thought to myself. When I scrolled just a bit upwards, a bizarre combination of words ran across the small screen that had me double-checking my calendar in case it was already October 31st or somehow April 1st. Surely, this was some kind of trick or prank.
But alas, it was not. The first tweet was confirmed by a second. And then a third. Jerry Kill was stepping down from his position as football head coach of the Minnesota Golden Gopher due to concerns about his health. In the aftermath of the premature death of longtime Gopher and Minnesotan Flip Saunders, this was the proverbial salt in the wound. A man who had inherited a program in utter chaos and dereliction and turned it into a group of academically sound, physically talented, and mentally gifted men was leaving the thing he loved most in life because his body would no longer allow him to do the job the way he felt it had to be done.
Jerry Kill is not a person to go through the motions halfheartedly. He attacked each coaching stop in his career with veracity, enthusiasm, and an important life perspective. He has always understood and has always taught his players that there is more to life than football. But that never stopped him from putting his life on the line for the sport. Unfortunately, he finally realized that his health was more important than the game he had dedicated his life to. He may love the game of football more than anything but the type of person Jerry Kill is wouldn't allow him to continue doing his job at less than 100%. If he could no longer give his all, then how could he continue to do his job that required 100% from his assistants and players?
Countless former and current players are releasing tributes of one form or another. Fans of other teams are pouring into our spaces at The Daily Gopher to offer their support for Coach Kill. A man who lived his life as a football coach seems to have done so much more than win a Pig or a Jug. He has turned boys into men, on and off the football field. He has remade a program and lifted it out of a dark abyss that seemingly had no reasonable exit. He has touched the lives of many individuals throughout the state, in one fashion or another. But eventually, the physical toll it had taken was too much.
Something that Coach Kill said during his press conference made me think of this film scene:
Obviously, the quotation recited by Michael Caine's character is taken from Dylan Thomas's "Do not go gentle into that good night." This poem reflects on the end of one's life. Coach Kill isn't dead. In fact, he's stepping down to avoid a premature death. But he also mentioned he had no idea what was next because football has been his whole life.
However, he did state that one thing to focus on in the future would be the efforts of the Epilepsey Foundation of Minnesota and their Chasing Dreams initiative. And it is this effort that reminds me of the scene and the quote. Coach Kill could have literally worked himself to death by maintaining his position at the University of Minnesota. Instead, he is eschewing this fate for something greater. To spend time with his family, to focus on his health, and to hopefully positively effect the health and lives of countless other individuals that suffer from a condition similar to his own. He will not go gentle into that good night. As the crew of the Endurance were heading towards the unknown in an attempt to save humanity in the above clip, Jerry Kill similarly leaves behind the thing that has he has loved and defined him for 32 years in order to save himself for his family and contribute to an effort that touches thousands of lives daily.
This is not meant to eulogize or canonize Jerry Kill. Amidst the sadness of the day it is important to keep in mind that he hasn't passed away. He may very well have many, many happy years of life ahead of himself. And, after all, he was just a college football coach. No one should confuse him with Mother Theresa or Martin Luther King, Jr. or other individuals whose influences have positively extended to countless millions of lives.
But there is something to be said about the legacy that Jerry Kill will leave behind at Minnesota, not only on the gridiron, but in the classrooms, the weight rooms, and countless other places across the state. The outpouring of support reiterates that Kill is more than football coach. He is a mentor to countless young people, some of which have viewed him not only as a coach but as a father. He is a health advocate for countless individuals who felt they didn't have a voice. He is a representation of what a person can become if they work hard and pursue something with a relentless work ethic and genuine compassion to the people you meet along the way.
The Minnesota Golden Gophers will play a football game on Saturday. Fans will pour into TCF Bank Stadium, cheer for their beloved maroon and gold-clad squad and hope for the best. Sports writers will manufacture many a word to describe the proceedings as they peer down from the press box. Coaches will still prowl the sidelines shouting instructions to the players on the field. And student-athletes will still try to win the right to hoist a piece of earthenware that is over 100 years old.
Jerry Kill will be absent from the sidelines of the spectacle, not because he wanted to be but because he had to be. Let us hope that his influence on this program, the people of Minnesota, and those suffering from the condition Coach Kill continues to battle will extend well past the Battle for the Little Brown Jug. Let us hope they all do not go gentle into that good night.