The first time Gary Tinsley lined up in a college football game, across from a tight end, he got noticed right away.
"He lined up offsides," said Tinsley's roommate, fellow linebacker Keanon Cooper, laughing. "First play! But he's a really smart player now."
Good thing, too, because Tinsley, who has made more stops, more solo tackles, more sacks and more tackles for loss than any other Gopher over the past two seasons, will be counted on heavily Saturday, when Minnesota tries to win the Battle for Paul Bunyan's Axe for the first time in eight years. The senior linebacker will be one of the Gophers' primary run-stoppers against the Big Ten's most powerful rushing attack.
"Gary has put in a tremendous amount of work to get ready for this. Actually, to get better all year," said defensive coordinator Tracy Claeys. "I expect he'll play well. He's got a real challenge with the people we're going up against."
But probably no bigger challenge than the Jacksonville, Fla., native has faced for four years. He left home for the first time to come to Minnesota, where he had to learn a new position after spending his years at First Coast High on the defensive line. He made what he admits now was a big mistake by talking his coaches into playing him on special teams as a freshman, rather than letting him get acclimated to his new surroundings.
"I was just young, thinking it was cool not to redshirt. I wanted to be seen on TV, and I thought it meant you were a good player," the 22-year-old senior said. "I didn't have anybody come to me and say, 'This would be better for you. Academic-wise, you get an extra year, it's a big help. And you can grow up a little.' "
The growing-up part took a while, Tinsley admits. He started getting into trouble, and was arrested during his sophomore season for taking part in a brawl at a party near campus. Six months later, during spring practice, came a much bigger incident: Spotted driving his moped the wrong way on a one-way street, he tried to flee police, even ditching his moped and running away on foot. When he was captured, he was charged with a couple of felonies, including driving while intoxicated, and suspended from the team.
Looking back, it's hard to say that incident was a good thing. But his reaction to it has been.
"I saw my career and my life flashing in front of my eyes. It seems like I've been driven after that to do better, go the extra yard," said Tinsley, who is now on track for a marketing degree. "Some people probably looked at me like [a troublemaker], but I know what kind of person I am, the coaches know. I've got my family behind me. It was just a real eye-opener. It made me a better person."
Those around him witnessed it, too.
"He's had a transformation. The way he handles his business now, he's a man," Cooper said. "He realized the opportunity he had, and he's taken full advantage. I see things maybe he would have done in the past that he doesn't now. Those things that happened, that wasn't him. He's a positive person. Now if he's in a negative environment, he doesn't want anything to do with negative people, so he leaves."
The most positive environment for him is on the football field, where Tinsley has become a ferocious tackler. It took him two years to win the spot, but former coach Tim Brewster frequently cited the linebacker as one of his smartest defenders, a player with all-Big Ten ability. Tinsley has 60 tackles this season, after a team-high 90-stop season a year ago, and along with senior safety Kim Royston has become the up-the-middle backbone of the Gophers defense.
He's even drawing double-teams, and has been told by opposing players that offenses are focusing on his whereabouts when calling plays. Still, he said: "I think I'm doing OK, I was expecting to be way better this year. I expected to have more tackles this year."
Tinsley said the arrival of Jerry Kill as coach has made him even better. "I wish I could have played under him more, he's a great coach. I like the way he works, his intensity, the way he's hard on the players," Tinsley said. "It makes you go a lot harder."
Not that he'll need any motivation to go any harder on Saturday. This is last chance to beat Wisconsin, to win the axe, and one of his final three collegiate games.
"It seems like it came really fast," Tinsley said. "I'm really happy I came here. I like the experience, I think I became a better person. I think I've come out on top."
Now if only he can help the Gophers do the same Saturday.