In five weeks, the transformation would have been complete. Gary Tinsley, who arrived at the University of Minnesota as an immature kid with a love of football but not classrooms, was about to depart as a full-grown leader with a gold-leaf diploma.
"I think I became a better person" at Minnesota, the Gophers' middle linebacker said last November. "I think I've come out on top."
The university still plans to award Tinsley the degree that meant so much to him, a B.S. in business and marketing education, at spring commencement next month. But the diploma will be bestowed posthumously. Tinsley died in his Wilkins Hall dorm room on campus Friday morning. Paramedics were unable to revive the 22-year-old NFL hopeful after he was discovered by his roommate.
"He was a great brother, a great teammate, a great friend," said Gophers quarterback MarQueis Gray, who had traded text messages with Tinsley on Thursday night. "I know he was a great son to his parents."
Not a bad football player, either. He played with a controlled ferociousness, and over the past two seasons, no Gopher had more tackles or sacks than the Jacksonville, Fla., native, who started every game his junior and senior seasons at middle linebacker, barking out the defensive signals. He remained in Minneapolis after his eligibility ran out in November to prepare for a possible NFL career -- though he wasn't considered a likely draft prospect, he was confident of being invited to training camps -- and to complete his degree in case that didn't work out.
"He told me that the greatest moment of his life was going to be when his mother, Ronda, watched him in his cap and gown, graduating from the University of Minnesota," said Tim Brewster, the former Gophers coach who convinced Tinsley to come play for a team 1,200 miles from home. "It was so important to him, and it just breaks my heart."
Tinsley watched a movie with some teammates in his dorm room Thursday night, and went to bed shortly before midnight, posting a tweet to a friend on Twitter at 11:22. When his alarm rang Friday morning, fellow linebacker Keanon Cooper went to his room to investigate why Tinsley had not turned it off.
When he realized Tinsley wasn't breathing, Cooper dialed 911 at 7:40 a.m., and paramedics arrived within three minutes, university police chief Greg Hestness said. But after "heroic efforts" to revive Tinsley failed, Hestness said, the football player was declared dead at 8:15 a.m.
There was no evidence in the room that offered any clue about what killed Tinsley or precisely when he died, nor any unusual behavior or activity. He had no known medical conditions. Protocol requires treating the death as suspicious, Hestness said, but "really, we're waiting for the medical examiner to tell us what they've found."
Word spread quickly, and Gophers football coach Jerry Kill called Tinsley's parents in Jacksonville with the devastating news, then held a tear-filled meeting with his team.
"It's a very, very sad day for our football program and our young men. We lost one of ours today in Gary Tinsley, who I know is in a good place," Kill said in an early afternoon news conference. "Gary is a young man that has done everything I asked him to do since the day I walked in this door."
Kill, who later cancelled Saturday morning's football practice, met with the Gophers again shortly before the team's evening dinner. University president Eric Kaler addressed the Gophers as well, and the team split into smaller groups for informal discussions with grief counselors. During the meal, Kill went table to table and spoke quietly with each player.
Tinsley was loved by Gophers teammates, coaches and staff members, many of whom cited the maturity he gained during his four years in Minnesota. His first two seasons were troubled; Tinsley quickly fell behind in school, he admitted last fall, because he had insisted on playing as a freshman on special teams rather than redshirting. He was arrested during his sophomore season for taking part in a brawl, then was charged with two felonies and suspended from the team during spring practices in 2010 for drunk-driving his moped the wrong way on a one-way street and fleeing police on foot.
But the incidents changed his attitude, and ultimately his life, he admitted in November. "I saw my career and my life flashing in front of my eyes," he said. "It seems like I've been driven after that to do better, go the extra yard."
The change amazed those around him. "It was a pleasure to watch him grow up and mature. A lot of our freshmen come in at different levels of maturity, and Gary was certainly in the squirrelly category, but he really developed into a serious student and a leader by the time he graduated," said Garry Bowman, the university's director of athletic communications.
Added a choked-up Joel Maturi, the Gophers' athletic director: "The Gary that I knew always made me feel good. I think he made others feel good as well."
Staff writer Sid Hartman contributed to this article.