Gophers set aside the X's and O's to mourn

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 7, 2012 - 11:29 PM

The shock and sorrow following Gary Tinsley's death is similar to what Glen Mason and the team endured 10 years ago.

It was around 4 in the morning when Glen Mason made one of the most difficult phone calls of his life. He woke up Dorothy Hall at her home in Detroit on that September night in 2002 to deliver devastating news: Her son and a Gophers defensive end, Brandon, was dead.

"She was overwhelmed. There's just nothing you can say at that point," said Mason, Minnesota's football coach then. "But just before we hung up, I told her we were praying for her, and she said, 'Coach, I'm praying for you, too.'"

Mason understood. The sudden, shocking death of a young person affects more than just the immediate family, as the current Gophers are learning in the wake of linebacker Gary Tinsley's mysterious passing Friday. And coach Jerry Kill, who made a similarly wrenching call to Tinsley's mother, now faces a challenge more important than beating Ohio State: helping his players process their grief, while dealing with his own.

"Anybody can lead in good times. When things get tough, that's what you get paid to do," Mason said. "I think he'll handle it just fine. Coaching isn't about the 3-4 defense or the spread offense; it's about handling people. And Jerry's all about the people."

That was evident to his team during a pair of emotional meetings about Tinsley's death Friday, and to the public during a brief news conference in between. A numb-looking coach expressed his condolences over the loss of the popular linebacker, and his emphasis on helping his players, finishing his three-minute statement with "and I love them all."

Kill canceled Saturday's practice but allowed players to gather on their own at the football complex to lean on each other. In the afternoon, the players bused to a Dave & Buster's restaurant for some time together.

"Coach wanted them all to be together," Gophers spokesman Andy Seeley said, "and wanted something fun for them instead of practice."

That's because going on as though nothing happened just doesn't feel right to anybody.

"All of a sudden to say, 'OK, fellows, let's go over this play, you're not doing this right,' you just can't do it right away," Mason said. "People need time to work it through, even if they sometimes don't realize it."

Kill summoned several counselors to a team meeting Friday night and had the players break up into small groups to talk to them. Mason did something similar a decade ago, and said he developed a great appreciation for the value of that impromptu therapy.

"One thing I found is a lot of players didn't want the help, didn't think they needed it. But they did," Mason said. "Football players like to be tough, not be emotional, but this affects everyone differently. And the counselors give people who are grieving a chance to express their emotions.

''A good old-fashioned sobbing is not bad. You try to keep a stiff upper lip, but especially for those who were there, who found [Tinsley], you need to let that out."

Quarterback MarQueis Gray did right away, standing up after Kill broke the news to the team Friday morning to offer his own benediction.

"I told them that as soon as they put their name on that dotted line to come to the University of Minnesota, they enter a whole new brotherhood. You enter a brotherhood and you'll always be a brother at the U of M, in the maroon and gold," Gray said.

"We're very sad that this had to happen, and we just have to use it as motivation and continue to stick together."

A memorial service will help. Plans are pending, Seeley said, but Mason recalls how cathartic Hall's funeral -- the entire team flew, at an anonymous donor's expense, to Detroit -- proved to be to the Gophers. The circumstances are far different, since Hall was shot to death while sticking up for a teammate in downtown Minneapolis, just hours after his first collegiate game. But the ceremony provided much-needed healing.

"Maybe 'healthy' is the wrong word, but the service was good for the players. It started to put some closure on it, so they could realize that this is real, that he's not coming back, but that time does heal," Mason said.

Mason, who kept Hall's locker empty and his No. 71 unworn until after his class graduated three years later, even had laminated cards made for each player that memorialized Hall and included the pastor's main points "that it's not about being a man, it's about being wise." Mason still carries the card in his wallet.

And he still thinks about how difficult that experience was, and what a task Kill and his staff have ahead.

"It's been 10 years and seems like yesterday. I remember being terrified of saying or doing the wrong thing," he said. "They don't teach you this when you become a coach."

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