Minnesota linebacker shows strength in teammate’s death

Colin Becht, Assistant Gameday Editor

Keanon Cooper has recounted the events of April 6 many times. His memory of each stage is full of specific details, from his thoughts in a given moment to which ear he used to check if Gary Tinsley still had a heartbeat.

Tinsley, a former football player at Minnesota and Cooper’s then-roommate, died that day from cardiomegaly, more commonly known as an enlarged heart. It was Cooper who discovered Tinsley’s body and called for help.

Cooper woke up April 6 and began his normal morning routine. Tinsley’s alarm sounded, and he didn’t turn it off.

“He was usually the guy to answer it on the first or second ring,” Cooper said at Big Ten Media Days in July. “So I found that real weird.”

Cooper knocked on Tinsley’s door and, when he got no response, went into Tinsley’s room to wake him up.

“When I went in, he was laying on the floor, nothing alarming, just like he just took his covers off the bed, made a little padding on the floor that was probably more comfortable for him,” Cooper said. “Our apartment at the time was real hot, so he probably just chose to get some fresh air.”

Cooper then shook Tinsley and called his name. That was when he started to worry. He noticed one of Tinsley’s eyes was slightly open and abnormally red with a greyish-blue ring around the iris.

“I started feeling his body, seeing if there was any temperature change,” Cooper said. “That’s when I kind of knew something was up.”

Cooper then called Adam Clark, the Golden Gophers’ director of player personnel, who notified the team’s trainers. While they were en route, Cooper dialed 911.

“They had me check and see if he had a heartbeat,” Cooper said. “I flipped him on his back, put my right ear on his chest, checked to see if he had a heartbeat and didn’t hear a heartbeat. That’s when things really, really got weird for me.”

The trainers arrived then and the paramedics soon after, but despite CPR and adrenaline shots, it was, as Cooper said, “just GT’s time to go.”

Cooper, a senior linebacker for the Golden Gophers, tells the story with amazing calmness and tranquility, traits that he said have come from his own peace with Tinsley’s passing.

“Psychologically it’s had no effect on me because I’m comfortable with how everything played out,” Cooper said. “He passed away in his sleep. In my mind, it was just the time that the good man upstairs chose to bring him home.”

Cooper said the support he received from everyone around him, especially his coaches, teammates and family, helped him achieve that acceptance.

“I probably would have had some psychological effects it weren’t for those groups of people,” Cooper said.

And according to his teammates, Cooper has been a source of strength for them, as well.

“He’s the one that’s been building guys up around him, even though he’s the one that found Gary,” Minnesota quarterback MarQueis Gray said in July. “He’s just been that leader in that circle that we need for guys to overcome the passing of GT.”

Cooper’s steadiness has earned him the respect of those around him, most notably his coach, Jerry Kill.

“I don’t think our team would be as far along as it is in handling the situation if it wasn’t for Keanon,” Kill said in July. “For what he did for our football team through that tragedy and how he handled himself, there’s no question that he’s the type of guy you want out front.”

Cooper’s strength in the face of tragedy became immediately evident. He spent two to three days cleaning out Tinsley’s room so that his family wouldn’t have to fly from their home in Florida to do it.

“That would have been pretty emotional for the family,” Cooper said. “I had a good idea of what was important to him. That’s what they wanted.”

In his own grieving process, football has served as an escape, a sanctuary where he can block out whatever pain he may be feeling.

“Once I’m on the football field, my mind is clear,” Cooper said. “It’s been very therapeutic.”

When he does think about Tinsley while on the field, the memory serves as a source of motivation for Cooper and his teammates, reminding them of how precious their opportunity is and how suddenly it can be taken away.

“When things get hard, when your mind gets weak, think about GT, think about the opportunity that we have now that GT doesn’t have anymore,” Cooper said. “Think about the blessing that it is to wake up another day and be able to be out here playing football.

It was football, Cooper said, that helped him take the necessary, though sadly insufficient, steps to aid Tinsley on that morning in April, preparing him to keep calm in chaotic situations.

“Everything we do with football, our workouts and our intense schedules, that’s all about being responsible and having composure in stressful situations,” he said. “That’s basically what it was that helped me stay calm.”

Cooper still lives in the same apartment, living alone for four months until fellow linebacker Aaron Hill moved in before Minnesota began its fall practices.

“It actually doesn’t affect me,” Cooper said of living in the same place where his friend passed away. “It felt like he had just gone home to Florida, took a vacation to be with his family. That’s really what it is. He’s laying peacefully in Florida right now with his family, where he’s going to be for a long time. We’re just waiting for him to come back.”