Cancer scare allows Huskies coach Kill perspective on football and life

DEKALB, Ill. -- The first thing Jerry Kill says as he sits down for a long interview after a Sunday practice during fall camp is that he doesn't lie.

It sounds like a gimmick, a ploy to put people at ease, but as he begins talking in a deceptively Southern Kansas accent, making eye contact from the beginning, one quickly realizes that the new coach at Northern Illinois is for real.

But when he's asked about the fight for his life less than three years ago, he looks away. He doesn't want to start crying or show weakness. He's a football coach to the end, even in a vulnerable moment.

He stares out a large glass window that overlooks Huskie Stadium. The events of that first day changed his life and his family forever.

"I think my wife knows how bullheaded and tough I am, but I think when you feel like you may lose somebody, things change," Kill said. "It puts things in perspective. If our quarterback throws a couple bad passes, no one's going to die over it. The damn c-word has touched and even buried our lives. I'm just very, very fortunate that my body and the good Lord decided to spare me at the moment."

It was Oct. 15, 2005, that Kill, then the coach at Division I-AA Southern Illinois, collapsed and began convulsing on the sideline in the final seconds of the Salukis' 61-35 loss at Illinois State. His wife, Rebecca, who had made her way from the stands to the Illinois State sideline, met Kill's secretary, and the two women raced across the field, weaving in and out of 300-pound linemen to be by Kill's side. The Kills' two daughters, who went to every game, had left the stadium just a few minutes earlier because they wanted to get something to eat.

"He was, of course, having a seizure and I'd seen him have them because he'd had a couple before that, but this one lasted quite a while," Rebecca said.

It puts things in perspective. If our quarterback throws a couple bad passes, no one's going to die over it. The damn c-word has touched and even buried our lives.

--Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill

Kill was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. He was placed in a heavily medicated state to control the six other seizures he suffered over the next few days, one of which he believes contributed to a couple of broken ribs. And during each one, Kill, who said he doesn't remember any of this, would grab his back or clench his stomach in pain. Rebecca had seen him do it before and asked the doctor to do an X-ray. The doctor did so and told Rebecca that her husband had gallstones.

But there was still the issue of the seizures, so Rebecca agreed to have her husband airlifted to St. Luke's Hospital in St. Louis for diagnosis.

For three days, Kill was poked, prodded and tested to determine the cause of the seizures, which is still unknown. But as the family was packing up to head back to Carbondale, Ill., a two-hour drive, the neurologist came in with some fateful news.

"He sat down with us, told him [Jerry] what we had to do with the seizures and stuff, and then he said, 'I also think you need to see your urologist when you get back home because I think you have cancer. It looks like you might have kidney cancer."

Even now, nearly three years after her husband was diagnosed, Rebecca's voice cracks a bit when she says the c-word. She looks down for a moment, takes in a breath, then continues to describe the trip to the urologist two days later and the call that confirmed their fears.

Kill's kidney cancer was a slow-growing cancer, so he asked the doctor whether he could wait until the football season was over before having surgery to remove it. Kill's doctors told him that chemotherapy is ineffective with kidney cancer, so the growth and sometimes the entire kidney must be removed. The doctor gave him three months, which was enough for Kill. He didn't miss a game during the entire process, taking his Salukis through the final five weeks of the regular season and to the second round of the playoffs.

He didn't tell anyone at school about the cancer. He asked his daughters -- Tasha, now 17, and Krystal, now 20 -- to keep it quiet, though each later confessed to a friend after spending days crying in school.

On Dec. 3, 2005, after Southern Illinois lost to Appalachian State 38-24, Kill was on the plane for the flight back to Illinois when reality set in.

'"I've been coaching football, but the true game day is coming up," Kill remembers telling his wife. "I knew then what I was facing. I think if I was ever down, it was when Appy State kicked our butt and then on that airplane ride back home, that's when I really realized and reality hit about what was going to happen."

He had the surgery Jan. 2, 2006. Surgeons took a quarter of his kidney. He was in the hospital three days and by the fourth, Kill, still in a great deal of pain, hit the recruiting trail. He even signed a player right after surgery.

He has been in remission for more than two years.

There's something about a near-death experience, Kill said, that makes a man appreciate life. In two days, he'll turn 47, and in the three years since the seizure that ultimately saved his life, Kill has rearranged his priorities. He doesn't stay at the office until 1 a.m. going over game plans and strategy anymore. He doesn't let his assistants stay that late, either. He's home for dinner every once in a while, and he has taken a deeper interest in his daughters' lives. He has embraced Catholicism, which the entire family converted to about five years ago. He's trying to reconcile being a great coach, a great father and a great husband, a feat he said he never mastered.

"You read that, 'I Am Third' book where it talks about God, family and then football, and you'd say, 'Jerry Kill, have you lived that way?' No," Kill said. "All these coaches tell you they do. I need to meet one of them. Am I proud of that? No. But I've lived that way. In my heart, did I want it that other way? Yes. But there's a lot of times I put football and family and God in no particular order. But I spent more time doing football and worrying about career. I love my family, but was it really first? That's a lie."

If my daughters or my wife said, 'Hey, I can't take this anymore and we need you and this game's wearing you out,' I'd give it up.

--Northern Illinois coach Jerry Kill

After Kill's cancer became public knowledge in 2006, he and his wife set up a charity called the Coach Kill Cancer Fund (www.coachkillcancerfund.org), which raises money to provide low-income families in the Carbondale area with money for gas and food, up to about $2,500, while battling cancer. The fund has collected about $200,000; Kill donated his $50,000 prize from winning the Liberty Mutual Coach of the Year award last season.

The fund partnered with Southern Illinois Health Care, which takes care of the day-to-day work and allows Rebecca to manage applications through the Internet. She said that she receives two or three applications a day and that the fund has helped more than 100 people.

For Kill, there's a peace that comes from the turn his life has taken. He said there's no doubt he's a better man, but he also said he's finally at peace as he settles into his job with Northern Illinois. He never has told his team his story and doesn't plan to, for the same reason he never told his players at Southern Illinois: He didn't want to detract from the work that needed to get done on the field.

He's not going to change the way he coaches after going 50-14 his final five seasons at SIU. He'll still bring an infectious energy to the team. He's still diving into piles of players at practice, and he's still getting after players for bad decisions. At Southern Illinois, he was known for celebrating victories with cookie dough ice cream at Dairy Queen. He would punish players for tardiness by forcing them to wear T-shirts that read, "I Let My Teammates Down."

"He's the most demanding guy I've ever been around, but at the same time he's the most caring person that I've ever been around," said NIU defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys, who has been with Kill since 1995. "There are a lot of Division I coaches that just aren't like that. You work and you get your family whenever you get that time. I think that started before he was diagnosed with cancer, but there's no question that since the cancer stuff it's even went to another level. … Other guys, as they move up the ladder, I think they separate themselves from the staff and they think they're overlooking everybody. But he's great to work for because he doesn't think he's anything special compared to the rest of us. He hasn't changed a bit, the same people that saw us practice then could come out to practice now and say, 'Well, you do some things differently, but it's the same Jerry Kill.'"

But now Kill has dreams beyond football.

"I want to catch a marlin," he said.

He wants to take his family on vacation, see Tasha graduate from high school and eventually see both of his daughters married. He has given his family plenty of chances to force him into early retirement.

"If my daughters or my wife said, 'Hey, I can't take this anymore and we need you and this game's wearing you out,' I'd give it up," Kill said. "I wouldn't have two years ago for them. But I would do that for them [today] because they've sacrificed a hell of a lot for me."

But he knows they'd never ask him to leave football before he's ready. Kill and his wife both say football saved his life, not just by distracting him from the cancer but by allowing him to realize everything he was missing out on and everything he has yet to do.

"If the good Lord said to me tomorrow that it was my time, I'm a hell of a lot better prepared than what I was, and I'm OK with it," Kill said. "The only thing that I would regret is not seeing my youngest daughter graduate. But if I can get them through school and all that, the good Lord has blessed me great. Any time after that is icing on the cake."

Graham Watson covers college football for ESPN.com.