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The University of Minnesota football team held their first practice since the death of teammate Gary Tinsley last week. They practiced outdoors Tuesday afternoon, April 10, 2012 at the Gibson-Nagurski Football Complex on the Minneapolis, Minn. campus. Linebacker Keanon Cooper, who was Gary Tinsley's roommate, waited off to the side while his teammate, Mike Rallis, talked with reporters about Tinsley after practice Tuesday afternoon.

Jeff Wheeler, Dml - Star Tribune

Gophers reach second stage of mourning for Tinsley

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • April 11, 2012 - 12:05 PM

He'll have his whole life to remember his friend. On Tuesday, Keanon Cooper just wanted to forget.

He wanted to forget the shock of being unable to shake Gary Tinsley awake last Friday morning. To forget the distress of dialing 911. To forget the frenzy of paramedics trying to revive his roommate, and the horror of realizing they could not.

Cooper left his memories in the locker room Tuesday and joined his teammates back on the practice field, going on with football even as they mourn.

"For me, football is therapeutic," the 22-year-old senior said after the Gophers held their first spring practice in the wake of Tinsley's mysterious death. "When I get out there, I'm with my teammates and concentrating on what I have to get done. In football, I forget everything."

He and his teammates will never forget these past four days, though, and Cooper's role in them. All 100-plus Gophers, coaches and staff are trying to cope with the loss of a young man they grew close to over the past four years. But none of them must process the shock of discovering Tinsley's body the way Cooper does.

"I was probably one of the guys who was hurting the most," Cooper said Tuesday, "but I've been trying to stay strong for the people around me. For my teammates and the coaching staff, people close to GT, his family."

Cooper, who played weakside linebacker alongside Tinsley in the middle for the past two seasons, is accomplishing that -- and amazing those around him.

"Coop has been the strongest one out of all of us," quarterback MarQueis Gray said. "He's his roommate, he was the one who found him. That had to be very hard on him emotionally and physically. To wake up and see death, that's not something you want to see every day."

But Cooper, who had shared a dorm suite with Tinsley since 2010, remained calm during the crisis Friday, and composed as he described it four days later. He heard Tinsley's alarm clock ringing, and wondered why the linebacker had not turned it off.

"When I went in, I tried to wake him up," but got no response, Cooper said. "I just looked for signs [of life]. Checked to see if the body was cold. As soon as I felt in my heart it didn't look right, I called the people I needed to call, 911. I tried to stay calm throughout the call to make sure all the information they needed, I could get to them."

Paramedics arrived within three minutes, but couldn't revive Tinsley, who seemed to have died in his sleep.

"I was just happy to know that the way he went was the way he deserved to go," Cooper said. "He was a special kid, a great student, a great person. It was a blessing to have met a guy like him. It was even more of a blessing to have been a teammate and his roommate."

That poise has rubbed off on the Gophers, and will help get them through the tragedy, said the pair's position coach.

"I'm so proud of [Cooper]. He's been such a rock," linebackers coach Bill Miller said. "I'm so proud of him, just how he's handled everything. ... Most of these guys are tough people, most of these guys understand what he'd want. I know Gary would want us to quit hanging our heads and get back out and go practice, and celebrate his life."

Those two priorities are how the Gophers will fill the rest of the week. They will practice again Thursday afternoon and Friday night, then take a chartered flight as a team Saturday to Jacksonville, Fla., to attend funeral services in Tinsley's hometown.

"There's no right or wrong way to get over it," Miller said. "You've got to cry, you've got to laugh, you've got to remember. And Gary will definitely be remembered."

The loss of a teammate already has brought the Gophers closer. Some prominent players urged coach Jerry Kill to hold practice as usual on Saturday to help the Gophers cope, but instead, he bused the players to a Dave & Buster's restaurant and arcade in Maple Grove -- "the best practice we've [had] since we've been here," Kill said. "Gary probably made our team better on Saturday," through the fellowship the team experienced that afternoon.

It seemed strange to talk football again, Kill said, too soon to correct a player for messing up. But the Gophers got back at it anyway, running through two hours of individual drills and a brief 11-on-11 session.

"I thought we were going to be a little bit sluggish, [that] Coach was going to be doing a lot of screaming," Gray said. "But overall, we had a lot of energy today, people were flying around. We were happy to know that GT's in a better place."

Added fellow linebacker Mike Rallis: "I was a little nervous at first, honestly. I didn't know exactly how I'd feel. I wanted to play well for him. I realized the way he played the game, he had so much fun playing it -- talking, [being] excited, celebrating, making plays. I realized that's the best thing I could do to honor him."

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