Playing With A Purpose

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Go Gophers! Keanon Cooper
Go Gophers!
Keanon Cooper wore No. 51 at UNLV to remember the late Gary Tinsley.
Go Gophers!
Story by Justine Buerkle

Laughter was one of the things that brought Keanon Cooper and Gary Tinsley together. They would pull pranks, make goofy videos and crack jokes constantly. Anyone who stopped to visit their university apartment would likely leave with a smile. Roommates since 2010, the pair of Golden Gopher linebackers had an ability to turn any ordinary situation into a funny and memorable moment.

But on April 6, 2012, tears took the place of laughter. Cooper felt that something was wrong when he heard Tinsley's alarm clock going off for longer than usual. He found his roommate unresponsive in the apartment, called 911, and watched as paramedics arrived minutes later.

"It definitely felt surreal," Cooper said. "I kept asking myself, 'Is this really happening?'"

The paramedics could not revive Tinsley. He was pronounced dead that morning, at age 22, just weeks away from graduating. His death--later determined to be caused by an enlarged heart--sent shock waves through the Gopher football family. Tinsley had inspired teammates, coaches, and others in the community through the turnaround he made during his time at Minnesota. After some off-field troubles early in his career, Tinsley learned from his experiences, applied himself in the classroom, and matured into a leader and a beloved teammate.

"In my opinion, it's a success story, because Gary stood for everything that you do when you come to school as a young person," Minnesota head coach Jerry Kill said. "You're going to have trials and errors in everything you do in life, but Gary just continued to get better and better and better."

The Gophers took some time off from spring practice to spend time bonding and remembering their former teammate. The next weekend, they flew to Florida to attend his funeral. Cooper was one of the speakers addressing about 1,800 mourners who were there say goodbye to Tinsley.  With Kill at his side, Cooper told anecdotes that brought back some of the laughter that characterized Tinsley's relationship with those who knew him.

Weeks later came another ceremony that celebrated Tinsley's accomplishments. Cooper and Tinsley were supposed to graduate together, and in a way, they still did despite Tinsley's passing. The University of Minnesota's College of Education and Human Development awarded Tinsley his business and marketing degree posthumously on May 10, the same day that Cooper received his degree in sport management.

"He definitely had the option not to graduate, but he knew what was important," Cooper said of Tinsley. "GT was definitely a man on a mission. His mission was to leave Jacksonville, come up here, play football, get an opportunity at the NFL and get his degree. He did all of that. He came up here, he played his butt off, and in the process he had a couple hardships along the way. He learned from it. He became a better person, not only on the field but off the field as well."

Tinsley's parents, Ronda Evans and Gary Tinsley Sr., traveled to Minneapolis to accept their son's degree. Cooper, a Dallas native, understood how difficult it must have been for Tinsley and his family to be apart while he attended school so far away from home. He said that he thought of the family immediately that April day in his dorm, and he keeps in contact now. He often sends text messages to Tinsley's mother to let her know he is thinking of her.

"They're some strong people," Cooper said. "But I know day in and day out, they think about their baby boy and how much they miss him."

The past several months have not always been easy on Cooper, either. But through it all, he said he has never found it difficult to talk about Tinsley and about what happened. From the eulogy in Florida to numerous media interviews to everyday conversations, Cooper has been willing to share his friend's story.

Tinsley's death had come during the Gophers' spring practice period. When the Gophers returned to the field afterward, they had to play through grief. Cooper's closeness to Tinsley and role in the traumatic situation gave him reason to feel this grief even more acutely than others. But Cooper turned out to be one of the emotionally strongest Gophers in the aftermath, impressing teammates and coaches alike.

"I think he's handled it tremendously," Kill said. "I know inside it's got to be very difficult, but he's a very mentally tough kid. I couldn't imagine what he goes through from day to day, but he's handled it about as maturely as you can. He's been kind of the rock of our team in that situation."

A redshirt senior, Cooper is important to the Gophers' on-field success as well as their emotional well-being and togetherness. An injury kept him on the sidelines for a bit during spring practice, but he used that time as an opportunity to help coach his younger teammates. Cooper has fully recovered and is ready to contribute on the field as one of the veterans of the linebacking corps.

He and the rest of the Gophers are playing this season with Tinsley's memory on their minds and on their uniforms. Each jersey bears a circular patch with Tinsley's initials and the number 51, which he wore during his playing career. The patch is just one of many visual reminders of the Gophers' beloved teammate. Images of Tinsley adorn various places in Gopher football facilities, including a large mural in the entry way to the team locker room at Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex.

"It's going to definitely be an emotional season, but in a good way," Cooper said, who wore No. 51 last Thursday in Minnesota's triple-overtime win at UNLV to honor Tinsley. "It's been great to see how close our team has become, how much the players have gotten to know other players, even know our coaches. ...Even though he's not here, he still is bringing people together. A lot of guys will be playing with a lot of emotion. I think it's going to definitely raise a lot of players' games. They have that extra motivation to succeed, with playing for GT."

The team has created a new annual award named after Tinsley. It will go to the Gopher, who took on Tinsley's "underdog" attitude the most, to the player who worked hard every day and gave everything to the team.  A scholarship fund has also been established in Tinsley's memory.

Cooper will also have a constant reminder of his friend with him at all times this season.  In April, Cooper was packing some of Tinsley's things to send to his family when he came across Tinsley's backpack tag. Each of the Gophers has one of these personalized tags with his name and number on it. Immediately after finding Tinsley's No. 51 tag, Cooper attached it to his bag to go with his own No. 4.

"It's only fair that I have that constant reminder of GT put on my backpack to represent him everywhere I go," he said.

The conscious effort to remember Tinsley rather than to push tragedy out of their minds has been beneficial to the Gophers. They have been inspired and taught by his life and death.

"I've seen a lot of guys grow up so much since that situation happened," Cooper said. "It's definitely made me a stronger person. Just to talk about him is great. I know GT as a person. For people that don't know him, I'm more than willing to share with people stories about GT. I'm honored to have known him as long as I did."

Sometimes the memories bring sadness, but usually now the Gophers are able to smile and laugh again while thinking about Tinsley. They have returned to the gridiron a little older, literally and emotionally, and boosted by their teammate's memory.

Tinsley's name and image live on in patches, murals and awards. But most importantly, his legacy lives on through the people who knew him.

"A youngster like that, you always want him to be a part of you," Kill said. "Sometimes it goes away. This won't go away."

Certainly Cooper will never forget, even when he is long gone from the University of Minnesota. Meanwhile, he still lives in the same dorm during his final season in the Maroon and Gold, and he will honor his former roommate the best way he knows how--continuing to tell his story, and playing every practice and every down for Tinsley.

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