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MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — When Minnesota coach Jerry Kill came back from a leave of absence sooner than expected, everyone took notice.
Last year, after a bout with epileptic seizures forced Kill to miss an entire game for the first time in his career, he appeared in the locker room at Northwestern to give the Gophers a surprise pep talk.
The speech was routine: He talked about playing hard, having fun. He was proud they'd handled the disruption of his absence. But what he said was secondary to the message Kill's presence sent to the team. His wife, Rebecca, drove him the six-plus hours to be there.
"That definitely showed his character and what kind of person he is, that no matter what he goes through he wants to be with his family," safety Cedric Thompson said. "That gave me more motivation to be a leader. Because if he can go through that kind of thing and still be here with his kids, so to speak, then hats off to him."
Kill's still there, getting the Gophers ready for the Citrus Bowl on Thursday in Orlando, Florida. This will be the first time in 53 years that Minnesota will play on New Year's Day. Questions were raised last season about Kill's ability to fulfill the job with a potentially debilitating condition, but they've since been quieted.
"The thing I'm probably most proud of is the players and how the ones who came in and the ones who were here blended in and went through those times. A very close group," Kill said.
Camaraderie comes from the top.
Kill had dealt with seizures for a while, but never had he missed an entire game until the first weekend in October last year when he was too ill to travel to Michigan. He made it later that month, only to see specialist Dr. Brien Smith in Grand Rapids instead of "The Big House" in Ann Arbor.
This season, the Gophers won there for the first time in nine years. When Kill stopped for the on-field postgame television interview, he extolled his players, praised his wife — and thanked Smith for saving his career.
Kill had to do his part, putting aside his stubborn personality and prioritizing rest, diet and exercise over the time-consuming demands of being a major college football coach. But his determination was what pushed his path from that tiny hometown of Cheney, Kansas, through the unglamorous NCAA Division II level and to a job running a Big Ten team. That inner drive was also what completed the process of endearment for him with a group of players who weren't sure what to think after a grueling, no-nonsense first season. The Gophers went 3-9 in 2011.
"We know everything he's been through. The man sacrificed his health to be out here with us," running back Donnell Kirkwood said. "You just don't find a lot of people who can do that."
Though there's no cure for epilepsy, Kill has turned a corner this year. He resumed driving, for one, and didn't miss any time with the team in 2014. The Gophers made progress, too, after a breakthrough 8-5 season in 2013.
The schedule was tougher, with losses to TCU, Ohio State and Wisconsin, teams ranked sixth, fifth and 17th in the latest Associated Press poll. The Gophers trumped their victory over Michigan by winning at Nebraska and blew out rival Iowa by 37 points. Kill, who raised his record with the Gophers to 25-25, was named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
Kirkwood, one of the few fifth-year seniors who played for previous coach Tim Brewster, smiled as he reflected on the maturation of team that Kill has treated as "grown men" and not like "little kids" in setting standards of discipline and behavior.
"Even when we're out and we're having a good time, the first thing that comes up is like, 'Hey, man, chill out. Remember what coach Kill said,'" Kirkwood said. "That's just something where he talks about it so much he instills it in you. Guys don't do it just for themselves. They do it for their teammates, they do it for the coaches and they do it for coach Kill, too."
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