Memories of Gary Tinsley run strongly through Gophers' season opener
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LAS VEGAS -- The white, nameless jersey, embroidered with a large maroon No. 51, sat draped in front of a locker in the cramped visiting locker room at Sam Boyd Stadium.
When the jersey came into Keanon Cooper's view, the sweeping range of emotions he had endured since that dreary day on April 6 all billowed up into one moment.
"As soon as I saw it, I just teared up," Cooper said. "I was thinking about the journey that not just me, but our whole team went through this whole offseason."
Nearly five months after Cooper found his former teammate Gary Tinsley lying unconscious on the floor of the apartment they shared, the Gophers senior linebacker paid a poignant tribute to his departed friend, while playing the game that had forged their close friendship.
Cooper donned Tinsley's former number on Thursday and wore it throughout the Gophers' long-winded triple overtime victory in their season opener against UNLV on a toasty 90-plus degree night in the Las Vegas Valley.
It was a moment of catharsis for Cooper, who along with his teammates, has soldiered through the trying difficulties of dealing with a sudden, all-too-soon death.
"Cooper has been a very, very strong leader inside," coach Jerry Kill said. "He's not boisterous (in front of the media), but he's a very strong leader. I think its fitting he's wearing that jersey and he played pretty hard tonight."
The Gophers had been quietly discussing the possibility of having Cooper wear the symbolic No. 51 jersey almost since the month Tinsley passed away. However, Cooper didn't realize it would become reality until team equipment manager Kyle Gergely approached him only a few day before the Gophers left for Las Vegas.
"Kyle came up to me and said, 'How'd you feel about wearing No. 51?' I told him, 'Put me in it,'" Cooper said. "We're at the point where we've honored him off the field. Now we have to honor him on it."
Memories of Tinsley, who died at age 22 as the result of an enlarged heart, coursed through the Gophers football program in the offseason.
Pictures of Tinsley are scattered throughout the team's practice facility, from a small poster on the team's locker room to a large portrait in the meeting room the linebackers often hold court in. During fall camp, the Gophers' practice helmets carried a "GT 51" sticker -- the same logo that also adorns their game jerseys.
With game time finally upon them, the Gophers saw Thursday as the start of a season they are dedicating to Tinsley. Though it wasn't a pretty game -- one wrought with mistakes and almost costly misses -- the Gophers managed to hold on for the first road victory of the Kill era, which Kill credited in large part to Tinsley's lingering spirit.
"Our kids played hard. We didn't play well, but we played hard. Gary probably has a lot to do with that," Kill said. "I think inside those kids are playing very hard for Gary."
Tinsley's number will be a mainstay on the field for the remainder of the year. Cooper said the jersey would likely be bestowed upon a different player, as appointed by a team leadership council, in each game.
"He was close to a lot of players on this team, so a lot of guys are going to have the honor and opportunity to wear it," Cooper said.