Published Wednesday, November 14, 2012 at 10:41 pm / Updated at 7:23 pm
FOOTBALL
Gopher pushes on for former teammate
Minnesota at Nebraska
When: 2:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium, Lincoln
TV: BTN
Radio: 1110 AM KFAB

The morning Keanon Cooper found his teammate dead on the bedroom floor, he was making oatmeal for breakfast.

He woke up, walked to the kitchen and poured his oats in a pot. While they boiled, the Minnesota linebacker walked to the bathroom.

This was his routine inside the campus apartment. This was when Gary Tinsley usually woke up.

Cooper was brushing his teeth that Friday when he heard Tinsley's alarm. He returned to the kitchen and heard it again. He walked to Tinsley's door and knocked.

Four years earlier, they had met on a recruiting visit. Cooper was from Dallas, Tinsley from Jacksonville, Fla. Tinsley wore loud colors — bright reds and greens and blues. It seemed flashy to a kid from Texas.

“He went his own way,” Cooper said.

When the 2008 freshman class arrived on campus, Minnesota support staff met with them. It was all business. Until the end, when the speaker asked if anybody had questions. Tinsley raised his hand and sought advice about a girl.

“The room just busted out laughing,” Cooper said. “It was just typical GT.”

Tinsley played as a true freshman, Cooper redshirted. But they were roommates for three years. They teased each other constantly. Cooper would sing lyrics to a favorite song, turn around and find Tinsley recording him.

On the morning of April 6, Tinsley was five weeks from a college diploma — a first in his family. He was three weeks from a shot at the NFL.

Cooper knocked on his door. No response. He walked in and found Tinsley lying on the floor in a clump of blankets. No response. He checked for a heartbeat. No response.

Tinsley, a 230-pound linebacker in premium condition, died of an enlarged heart. He never noticed symptoms. He never failed a physical. He just didn't wake up.

How would Cooper respond?

He faced a choice: Spend his senior season hiding from that April morning or share the details at every opportunity. Let it nourish him like breakfast oatmeal.

When Tinsley's parents considered traveling to Minnesota to pack up his bedroom, Cooper said no — he didn't want them to go through it. He spent two or three days shuffling through closets and drawers. He found a box full of Tinsley's cards, letters and pictures from home.

He transported the box back to Jacksonville for the funeral. He prepared a eulogy for 1,800 friends and family. As he walked to the pulpit, he grabbed head coach Jerry Kill's arm: Can you stand up here with me?

“He ended up doing a better job than I did,” Kill said.

Cooper didn't move out of the apartment. He lived there alone until August, when another linebacker moved into Tinsley's room. Cooper became a vocal leader for the Gophers, leading workouts, pushing teammates.

Cooper, an academic all-Big Ten honoree who owns a degree in sports management, is a social media fanatic — he has produced more than 39,000 tweets. Since April, many of those messages have focused on Tinsley.

“I try to spread his story, because he's not here to do it himself,” Cooper said.

Take Wednesday afternoon, when he tweeted this: “Sitting in my room just looking at GT's obituary ... Still unbelievable.”

En route to practice, Minnesota football players walk past a mural of Tinsley. They break the huddle with “GT on 3.” On gameday, they take a moment of silence after emerging from the tunnel. They wear black “GT 51” patches on their jerseys.

Every game, a Minnesota linebacker wears Tinsley's No. 51. Cooper wore for it for the season opener at UNLV, a triple-overtime win. The Gophers speak of Tinsley as their 12th man.

“When things get hard, we think about GT,” Cooper said. “Think about the opportunity we have now that GT doesn't have any more. Think about the blessing that it is to wake up another day and be out here on this field. ...

“One thing a lot of guys learned from this is to play every day like it's your last.”

Cooper hasn't produced Tinsley-like numbers in 2012. Minnesota has rotated linebackers and Cooper, a three-year starter, has accepted a smaller role. He's fifth on the team in tackles.

Last week, Cooper had eight against Illinois. The 17-3 win made the Gophers bowl-eligible for the first time since 2009.

They could land in Phoenix or Houston or Dallas. Cooper would prefer the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville. One last game. GT's homecoming.

Contact the writer:

402-649-1461, dirk.chatelain@owh.com; twitter.com/dirkchatelain

* * *

>> Video: See this week's edition of "The Big Ten Preview Show":

Contact the writer: Dirk Chatelain

dirk.chatelain@owh.com    |   402-649-1461    |  

Dirk Chatelain is a staff writer for The Omaha World-Herald and covers Nebraska football and general assignments.

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