Cooper learns, grows from Tinsley tragedy

The Gophers have worked the entire season to keep Gary Tinsley’s memory alive.

Minnesota linebacker Keanon Cooper wore No. 51 in honor of the late Gary Tinsley against Michigan on Nov. 3 at TCF Bank Stadium.

Mark Vancleave, File Photo

Minnesota linebacker Keanon Cooper wore No. 51 in honor of the late Gary Tinsley against Michigan on Nov. 3 at TCF Bank Stadium.

by Dane Mizutani

Keanon Cooper’s return to his home state for the Gophers’ bowl game in late December will be filled with emotion.

It’s the first time in his college career his family in Texas will see him in action.

It’s also the last time Cooper will have a chance to pay respects to his best friend, the late Gary Tinsley, on the football field.

Cooper has led the Gophers on and off the field this season — a role he was thrust into on April 6.

That was the day Tinsley, a former Gophers linebacker and Cooper’s roommate, died of an enlarged heart.

Cooper still remembers the most miniscule details from that morning.

Eight months later, he still replays the events in his head, but he said he’s tried to move on and remember his best friend in a positive light.

That’s been a common theme of the team. The Gophers begin every practice with a moment of silence for Tinsley. Cooper and others said they wanted to make sure Tinsley’s name lived on.

“We’ve got his picture all over the place and the ‘GT’ on the helmet and on the jersey,” linebackers coach Bill Miller said. “So he’s with us every day we’re on that field.”

The Gophers also rotated Tinsley’s No. 51 jersey to a different player each week in place of that player’s regular number.

Cooper wore the jersey in the first game of the season against UNLV on Aug. 30.

Cooper said the game was emotional.

“It was an honor to pay tribute to him in that way and kind of keep him alive on our team,” Cooper said. “We can’t spend time with him, but we can still keep him alive.”

Cooper got a chance to wear the number again Nov. 3 against Michigan.

Miller, who coaches Cooper every practice, said Cooper has handled the entire situation as well as anyone.

“Something like that will affect the rest of your life,” Miller said. “We like to look at it that it’s affected our life in a very, very positive way, and that’s the way Keanon looks at it.”

Cooper said the day of Tinsley’s death — the day that also changed his own life — started like any typical day.

Cooper woke up and went into the kitchen to start his oatmeal, and as it cooked, he went into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

He said Tinsley’s alarm started to go off, but he “didn’t think anything of it at the time.”

“I finished brushing my teeth and went back to check on my oatmeal, and his alarm was still going off,” Cooper said, “and it kind of hit me that he’s not answering it.”

Cooper waited a couple more minutes before knocking on Tinsley’s door, but he didn’t get a response. He said he knocked a couple more times and then opened the door and entered.

“He was just lying on the floor, and it looked like he was asleep,” Cooper said, “I didn’t think [anything] of it, so I went over to wake him up.”

Cooper said he shook Tinsley a couple of times, but he didn’t respond. He checked his best friend’s body temperature and said Tinsley felt cold.

Cooper then called Adam Clark, director of player personnel for the Gophers, who told the team’s medical staff to go to Cooper’s dorm. Then Cooper called the police.

He said the 911 operator told him to check for a pulse and see if Tinsley had a heartbeat.

“I flipped him over, put my right ear on his chest, and I listened for a heartbeat,” Cooper said. “I couldn’t hear his heart, and that’s when things started to hit me.”

Cooper said the team trainers arrived and performed CPR, and then the paramedics arrived and administered adrenaline shots and more CPR in an attempt to revive Tinsley.

“I was just standing in the kitchen looking at him and just praying that everything was going to be alright … and after 30 or 40 minutes, that was it,” Cooper said. “They said they had done everything they could do.

“Selfishly, I thought to myself there had to be something else the paramedics could do to save him.”

He said it took a while to sink in. But it finally did.

“I just kind of realized GT’s not here anymore,” he said, “and from that moment on, I kept replaying the whole morning in my head.”

Miller, the linebackers coach, said Tinsley’s death has forced Cooper, as well as the rest of the team, to mature.

Cooper said Tinsley’s death put his own life in perspective and taught him to take full advantage of his chances “because nothing in life is promised.”

“It’s kind of a cliche thing to say, but with GT’s situation he wasn’t unhealthy, he never had health issues … and all of a sudden he’s not here anymore,” Cooper said.

Cooper said Tinsley’s death has motivated the team, and it has embodied Tinsley’s personality.

Cooper said the word “underdog” was Tinsley’s motto, and the Gophers have played with a back-to-the-wall mentality all season. That mentality was evident within the squad all year, and it helped the team earn its first bowl berth in three years.

Minnesota qualified for a bowl with a win at Illinois on Nov. 10 and will play Texas Tech on Dec. 28 in the Meineke Car Care Bowl.

“It always feels good to get to a bowl, but to do it for him makes it even more special,” Cooper said.

Cooper still lives in the same dorm as last year, and fellow linebacker Aaron Hill lives in Tinsley’s old room. Cooper said he never thought about moving out. He said it “was just GT’s time to go,” and he’s OK with that.

“It’s still kind of hard to fathom,” Cooper said, “but I know he’s up there watching us.”