Wolfson: Cancer fight still strikes a chord with 'U' coach Jerry Kill
There are occasional -- and maybe not frequent enough -- moments that remind us how fragile life is.
A recent conversation with Gophers football coach Jerry Kill was one of those times.
Jerry was kind enough to respond to an email from longtime Gophers fan Sam Sigelman on March 15. But it was more than the phone call Kill made the next day. It's the friendship the two have struck. One kidney cancer survivor getting to know another.
Kill beat kidney cancer in 2006. Sigelman is cancer-free for only a few weeks after major surgery at the Mayo Clinic in mid-April.
As a team official recently told me, "He's Jerry. There's nothing about him that screams Coach Kill."
Sam and Jerry's newly formed relationship is a perfect example.
Below is a Q&A I conducted with Kill about Sigelman and how he's changed over the last five years.
One thing that struck me in your speech (Kill was the keynote speaker at a luncheon on April 28 in front of Sigelman's attorney colleagues) was when you said that Sam has done more for you than you've done for him. What do you mean by that?
When he emailed me, I think he was surprised I called him, because it was during a pretty busy time. I said, 'Hey, come on in!' I think when I got done visiting with Sam I said, 'You know what? I've got life pretty good.' Maybe when I was going through that, maybe I handled it better than I thought I did. It puts a spin on things. It tells you a story of don't forget. Don't start to go off that curve. Make sure you're doing all the things that you said after you had cancer you would do. Make sure you're treating people well. Make sure you are a good person. So, Sam coming in went back to 'Hey, that happened just six years ago.' Maybe I better go get that checkup. Sometimes after you have something like that, you get macho'd up again and say, 'I don't have to do that.' Meeting Sam put life back into perspective a bit. It really did.
Is that hard at times? Is it moments like that that help you get better?
Absolutely. Moments like that help you. Reaching and talking to people who are going through tough times puts you back into that six-year period. You need to have people put you back into perspective. I believe that. And you have to listen. Even though I reached out to Sam and gave him some advice to maybe help him, just listening to his story, first of all, it told me a lot about the technology and how far we've come in the last six years. The other part of it said, 'Hey, look at how this guy is dealing with it. You never know this could happen to you again.' I guarantee when I went home that night the first thing I told my wife was that I met someone special today going through the same thing. I said sometimes it's good for you to go back down that road and not forget. I would say, 'Don't forget where you come from.'
From personal experience, how much stronger and how much better of a person will Sam be because of this?
First of all, Sam is a much better person than I'll ever be. Sam was a good person before this happened. I could tell that the time I met him. You could tell that when meeting his father and mother. I listened to his mother. She is very proud. He's got a lovely wife and two children. He's a good role model for a lot of people. But it will slow him down a bit, I promise you. He's going to hug his wife a little tighter. He's going to tell his mom and dad he loves them. I guarantee he'll spend a little more time with those children than maybe he once did. You just do. It's just a natural reaction to that word 'cancer.' It puts into perspective that if I'm not going to be here tomorrow, what do you want to do? That's what it did for me. What's your legacy going to be? Is it football, in my case? Or is it being a good person and treating your family right? How do you want to leave a legacy. I think it makes you think a little bit.
You said the hardest day of your life was when your father passed 11 years ago. Was the second hardest day the day you found out you had cancer?
It was unique. When I found out I had cancer, and I'll never forget it, I was preparing for a football game and preparing for Youngstown State University. I had had some problems. I went to the doctor. I was back to work going 100 miles per hour. I got a phone call and I didn't take the time to go to the doctor. I got told over the phone and I told them to tell me over the phone because I said 'I'm doing a game-plan.' He told me I had cancer and I said 'Are you sure?' He said 'Yeah, I'm sure.' I said, 'Well, I got to get a game-plan done. I'll come and see you tomorrow, I promise you.' So I finished the game-plan up with our coaches and went home. My mom happened to be there because she had come down to watch the game, and my wife. I said, 'Hey, I think I've got cancer.' Of course, it was a shock to them. I went in and went from there. It was more, just like Sam said, it's a shock to your system. My way of dealing it was that I stayed busy, went right into something and didn't think about it. I had just lost my dad to the same disease, just recently. It was more of a shock and kind of a denial, so to speak.
Did you have anybody to lean on? Sam told me his wife is a rock. His mom and dad are rocks. But his experience with you, his first-hand experience, has meant the world to him. Did you have anybody you could lean on?
I leaned on my wife, without a doubt. I think we leaned on each other together. I think the most important thing I leaned on was my faith in God. You get a little closer to your faith in a situation like that. Whether it's right or wrong, you do. The people who I leaned on and got me through it the most was our players, because it gave me a chance to show them how to handle adversity. I talked to them about how to handle and I got to show them. I believe the game of football, my family and our players saved my life.
How special does it make you feel when Sam shares the message that he was just about brought to tears talking about what it meant to sit in your office for 30 minutes and chat in person?
First of all, I respect Sam and what he's went through. I'm just glad that I was able to get to meet him. I've got a new friend. That's the way I look at it. If it was able to help him that's great. But he also needs to know it helped me too. That's what life is all about. Again, it goes back to that legacy. The good Lord is not going to judge me on how many wins or losses I have in a football game. It's how you treat people. I've learn through my last six years that people are important. Your family is important and God is important. You better have your life in order. He gave me a little bit, and we've helped each other and we're both better for it. That's a good thing. I didn't do anything that anybody else wouldn't have done, I don't think.
What did you tell Sam in that meeting?
I told him that he had to be strong for his family, because, let me tell you, I think it affects your wife and children as much as it affects you, if not more. You have to be strong for them. We talked about his doctors and who he is seeing. He's got the best in the world here, which is fantastic. He told me about the procedure and I said, 'Boy, technology has come a long way in the way they handled his situation.' I told him to be positive. I thought I had it bad, but when you go to those cancer centers and see all those other people, I realized I had it pretty good. I said, 'They caught yours in time it looks like. Now you're going to have game day here in a week. It's a lot more important than any other game day. I said you mentally have to approach it as game day. Be strong and you'll be OK. Lean on your family and your faith and you'll be OK.'
If you had a 100 Sam Sigelmans in your locker room, you would have a damn good football team wouldn't you?
Absolutely. We're going through that with a young man on our football team right now named Connor Cosgrove. I sit down in front of our football team and say, 'If we had a team full of Connor Cosgrove and Sams we wouldn't have to worry about winning football games, we'd win a lot of them.' Because those people are mentally tough. They're courageous. They're fighters. They're great representations of what we should all should be. Some day I hope to grow up and be like Connor Cosgrove and be as mentally tough as him. I hope I can be as mentally tough as Sam. You put things into perspective sometimes. I'm proud of both those people and what they stand for. I know they are going to do well because of what's inside of them.
Did you always know you'd survive?
No. When you get told that (about having cancer), they never know how far it's gone. They don't know if it's contained. You don't know. I watched my dad pass away and watched him go down in weight. What he suffered was terrible. Then to have come off those four or five years into what I had, if I didn't fear that, I didn't want to pass that way. That man suffered like I've never seen anybody suffer. And I saw my family suffer for it. Kidney cancer, back six years ago and even now, is an unusual cancer. There are not a lot of great ways to treat it. You either get it or you don't. That's the scary thing about it. I think things have changed a little bit, but you don't know. I'm getting ready to visit some people today and be on the road for two hours, I don't know what's going to happen. I don't know what tomorrow is going to bring. That's what I always tell people. I can't control what's going to happen the next day. You better live every day like it's your last. You better treat people everyday like it's your last. You better treat people everyday like it's your last. You need to embrace life and enjoy it every day, because you don't know what the next day brings.
I've had a player get killed. I've had a lot of things happen through being a coach and I've seen a lot of things. I don't want to be one of those guys that pass and didn't let people know how he felt about them. That's the one thing I shared with my dad that was unique. I saw him for the last time at Christmas. And my dad was a hard-nosed, tough guy. He wasn't one to pass many compliments. I was walking into the kitchen, and I can remember as plain as day and I can see his face, he grabbed me and said 'Son, I love you and I'm proud of you.' I knew I wasn't going to see him again and he knew he wasn't going to see me again. That memory has stayed with me for the rest of my life and it motivates me to this day. When you get something like that, it puts those kind of things into your mind -- What have I done? Did I tell Krystal and Tasha I love them? Does my wife know how I feel about her? Do the players really know who I am? You go through those things. I promise you Sam is going through them right now. It changes your perspective and until you get it, I can't explain it. I love people. And I've loved everywhere I've been. I've loved everywhere I've coached and people have been good to me. But at the end of the day there is nobody more important than your family. And I'll never forget that. Part of that is your football family.
I told you, if it wasn't for those kids at Southern Illinois, I wouldn't be alive, and I believe that. They motivated me to get to practice everyday. When I was in the hospital, those kids went to see my daughter play volleyball on her senior day because I couldn't be there. How about that? My family extends a long way, but at the end of the day, when you go in for surgery, no different from Sam, the ones you probably don't spend near as much time with as you should were the people that were there. I found out how good I had it and what special people I had around me. And that my wife was one tremendous, special lady. And I had two tremendous daughters and a great brother, and a great mother, and a great team chaplain. But I also had a great deal of people there at Southern Illinois who took care of my family.
Is it cathartic to talk about what you went through? You said you were reluctant at first, but when the reporter, who you still have a relationship with, got the word out, how does that make you feel?
Certainly, being a head football coach here your life is visible all the time. Every once in awhile, I like to go and hide (laughs). But as far as the time that happened, I wasn't real crazy about it because I knew it could affect my career. It's pretty hard to hire a guy who has cancer. I was at an age that I wanted to have the opportunity to coach at the University of Minnesota. Once I got cancer and developed cancer I figured my career was over. I figured I would be coaching at Southern Illinois for the rest of my life. But I guess by opening up what happened to me, it can inspire people to say just because you have a learning disability or you do something different or you physically had something wrong, it doesn't mean you can't chase your dream. Once you get cancer, you've got cancer. I've got a seizure disorder, but I'm still coaching major college football, because people gave me a chance. They know I'm passionate at what I do. Maybe that will help somebody else. Maybe that will help Sam grow in what he is doing. Evidently it has, because he's in there working today. That's the neat thing. And I'm sure Sam will reach out to people and maybe there is somebody in that room who is going to get cancer and they'll say, 'Geez, I've seen Sam and six weeks out he's out there working.' If it helps, hey, that's what you are supposed to do.
You touched on it a bit, but over the last six years has life slowed down a lot for you comparatively speaking to maybe when you were in your thirties?
It did until I took this job (laughs). I think that you go through a period of time, and I got to be honest, it slows down a whole lot. As time goes that motor will get to picking up. What really happens to you is that it slows down, but it speeds back up again because life becomes very, very valuable to you. Time becomes very valuable to you. I'm trying to accomplish everything I can possibly get in life with my family and children, Minnesota and everything. I know people aren't patient. They want to win right now. I'm no different from them. I'm not real patient about anything, because I want as much as I can get while I'm living and breathing. You go through a slow process, but then you go right back to that speed. And I may be trying to go faster than I've ever had, because I know life is short and I want to try and take advantage of every single ounce of what I have while I'm here.