LAS VEGAS — There was no name on the back of it, but seeing the No. 51 Gophers jersey on the field Thursday was enough to give University of Minnesota football fans goosebumps as their team took on UNLV.
Last season, the No. 51 belonged Gary Tinsley, the former Gophers linebacker who suddenly and tragically passed away in early April due to a heart condition. Wearing Tinsley’s No. 51 proudly vs. UNLV was one of Tinsley’s closest friends and his former roommate, senior linebacker Keanon Cooper.
While the entire Gophers team endured plenty of sorrow following Tinsley’s death, Cooper perhaps felt the loss the most. It was Cooper who found Tinsley unresponsive in their campus apartment and later delivered a eulogy at Tinsley’s funeral.
Despite all of the emotions, Cooper has stayed strong as he and his Minnesota teammates have kept Tinsley in their thoughts. On Thursday, they honored his legacy on the field during a season-opening 30-27 victory in triple overtime..
“It was an honor,” Cooper said of wearing Tinsley’s No. 51. “I thought about him every step of the way. He was looking upon us on this game.”
Cooper finished Thursday’s game with four tackles and helped Minnesota’s defense limit UNLV to just 13 points in regulation.
“I think inside, those kids are playing very hard for Gary,” Gophers coach Jerry Kill said. “Coop’s been a strong, strong leader inside. … He’s a very strong leader. I think it’s fitting he wore that jersey. He played well tonight.”
Wearing Tinsley’s number was a one-time thing for Cooper. The senior said other players on the team will trade off wearing No. 51 for the rest of the season.
“As far as I know, a couple different guys are going to wear it, not just me. I was just the first one to wear it,” Cooper said. “He was close to a lot of players on this team, so a lot of guys are going to have the honor to wear it.”
New Minnesota athletic director Norwood Teague never got the chance to meet Tinsley. — Teague’s first visit to campus in Minneapolis was the same day Tinsley passed away.
But, as Teague watched his first Gophers game since taking over as AD, he couldn’t help but be touched by the tribute Cooper and the rest of the team paid to Tinsley’s memory.
“I know that Coop, to say that affected him directly is an understatement,” Teague said. “It’s very, very meaningful.”
Minnesota also remembered Tinsley by wearing black “GT51” patches on each jersey. The Gophers will wear those throughout the 2012 season.
Thursday marked the first time Cooper and the rest of the Gophers had taken the field for a game since Tinsley’s death. Before, during and after the game, it was evident Tinsley was with Minnesota every step of the way.
“Actually, on the way over here, it was kind of tough. I was letting go a little bit emotionally, tearing up and crying and stuff,” Cooper said. “As soon as I walked in that locker room, my locker was straight to the back. I saw the 51 and I just teared up. Just thinking about the journey, not just myself but the whole team, what we went through this offseason. Now we’re at the point where we’ve honored him off the field and now we honor him on the field.”