U's Cooper pays ultimate tribute to Tinsley

  • Article by: PHIL MILLER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 4, 2012 - 1:17 AM

Keanon Cooper said the best way he can honor Gary Tinsley this fall is by matching his intensity on the field.

The Gophers have a lot of plans to honor Gary Tinsley this fall. They will wear a black "GT 51" patch on the front of their football uniforms, in memory of the linebacker who died in his sleep on April 6. They will walk past a large mural of him as they get ready to practice each day. The linebackers will meet daily in a room where his portrait hangs. They are creating an annual award in his name to be given to the team's most inspirational player, and they are raising money to fund an annual scholarship. And the Gophers have one more tribute to Tinsley in the works: They'll play Keanon Cooper.

"I feel like every minute I'm on the field, I'm there for Gary," said Cooper, also a linebacker. "He was ferocious on the field, and that's how I'm going to play. I've always tried to work hard, but Gary attacked every day. That's the greatest thing he taught me -- take advantage of every day, every minute."

Cooper and Tinsley were close throughout their careers, and roomed together the past two years. It was Cooper, now a senior, who discovered Tinsley unconscious in bed, betrayed, doctors determined later, by an enlarged heart. Cooper still lives in the same dorm room.

It was Cooper who helped hold the team together as the players mourned. "Coop handled it so well. It was so impressive," said offensive lineman Ed Olson. "All he was going through, but he was the one who kept wanting us to keep going in practice, keep pushing. I'll never forget how he handled it."

Neither will Cooper, who volunteered to give a eulogy at his roommate's funeral, then asked coach Jerry Kill to join him in the pulpit in case he couldn't get the words out. That turned out to be unnecessary, because Cooper discovered how good it felt to talk about his friend.

"He was just telling GT stories, like how GT always wrote 'underdog' on the back of his notebook, funny stuff, and he got rolling," said quarterback MarQueis Gray. "Coop had a lot of passion and intensity at the funeral."

He had the hundreds of mourners in that Jacksonville, Fla., church laughing and giggling as he recounted his best memories of Tinsley -- like the time a football coach asked at the end of a position meeting if anyone had a problem he could help with. "GT raised his hand and said, 'Hey, Coach, I got a problem,'" Cooper recounted. "'One of my teammates was talking to this girl, and now that he talked to her, she thinks she's all that.' We all cracked up. That was GT -- no matter the situation, he could make you laugh."

Still does, Cooper said, partly because he stays in touch with so many of Tinsley's friends and relatives. He speaks to Tinsley's family in Florida regularly -- "They're struggling with it a little, not being able to see their baby son," he said -- and is constantly reminded of his former roommate, who was awarded a degree in business and marketing education at May's commencement. Even the police officers who responded to Cooper's 911 call have stopped by to check up on him.

"I feel fortunate and blessed to have the support I have," the 22-year-old Dallas native said. "The hard part is knowing I won't see him again until I leave this realm myself. But I'm doing fine."

In addition to inheriting Tinsley's intensity on the field, Cooper, whose broken bone in his thumb has completely healed, hopes to inherit his pass-rushing responsibilities, too. He handled plenty of pass coverage last year, picking up a tailback or tight end, while Tinsley frequently charged into the offensive backfield. The presence of Lamonte Edwards and James Manuel in the linebacking corps, Cooper said, "means that hopefully I can take over the pass-rushing more often. I'm up to 220 [pounds], but I feel faster than ever. I know I can handle it."

Why not? He's handled more difficult adversity already this year.

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