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Updated: April 10th, 2012 11:28pm
Gophers soldiering on in the wake of teammate Gary Tinsley's death

Gophers soldiering on in the wake of teammate Gary Tinsley's death

by Nate Sandell
1500ESPN.com
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MINNEAPOLIS - The memory of Gary Tinsley hovers prominently over the Gophers football team.

Reminders of their fallen teammate are everywhere. As players exited the locker room to return to the practice field on Tuesday for the first time since Tinsley's death, they passed a sign emblazoned with the words "Gopher Nation... Do GT proud, continue his work."

It's a message the Gophers are trying to embrace wholeheartedly, while dealing with the twisting emotions that come with the sudden loss of a teammate, friend and brother.

"No matter were we go we are going to see or hear something about GT," quarterback MarQueis Gray said. "It's a grieving process. We're just happy GT has so much support."

The Gophers took a needed but difficult step forward in that process Tuesday. Returning to the game Tinsley had passionately adored, after four days spent letting the shock dissipate and reality set in, served as a catharsis and an emotional release for a team attempting to move on.

"I was a little nervous at first, honestly," said senior Mike Rallis, who played alongside Tinsley at linebacker for four years. "It's tough to get back here sometimes, but it also feels good to get back out here and get going. And I know that's what Gary would have wanted."

There was a somber edge to practice, but as the day progressed the mood softened as the players shouldered their grief, at least for a moment, and found a sense of contentment on the field they had shared with Tinsley less than a year ago.

Five months after completing his memorable four-year career at the "U", Tinsley was only weeks away from earning his degree and potentially realizing his pro dreams when roommate and current senior linebacker Keanon Cooper found him dead last Friday in his campus apartment.

A state of shock and grief ripped through the team, but at their lowest point the Gophers were able to rally around each other. After canceling practice Saturday, coach Jerry Kill had the team spend the day together and treated the players to night at Dave and Busters. It was a therapeutic moment of clarity that carried over into the week ahead.

"Gary probably made our team better on Saturday more so than any practice or anything we've done since I've been here," Kill said.

Tinsley's passing has affected members of the team in a multitude of ways, and has brought out unwavering leadership from the Gophers' senior class. At the forefront, is Cooper, who has shown resounding courage in the aftermath of finding Tinsley at a time when nothing could be done to revive him. Described by linebackers coach Bill Miller as the "rock" players have been able to find solace from, Cooper has donned a brave persona amid the pain.

"Throughout this whole situation, I'm probably one of the guys that has been hurt the most, but I've been trying to stay strong for the people around me," Cooper said.

"In my heart, I feel like this is something that will greatly benefit the team in a positive way and also open everyone's eyes to appreciate every day you get and live it to its fullest because that's the way GT did."

The Gophers will give Tinsley a fitting final send-off when they travel to Jacksonville Saturday to attend the funeral of the 22-year-old Florida native. Plans to further honor Tinsley are expected to be put into motion for the upcoming season, though the team has yet to announce any.

In the meantime, the memory of Tinsley is a weight the Gophers will proudly use as driving force in the weeks and months ahead.

"There is no right and wrong way to get over it," Miller said. "You've got to cry. You've got to laugh. You've got to remember. And believe me, Gary's going to be remember."

Nate Sandell is a contributor to 1500ESPN.com.
Email Nate | @nsandell
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