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Fond du Lac teammates honor former Gophers player

First Coast (Fla.) High School product Curtis Ford runs through a drill during a recent practice with the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College football team. (Clint Austin / / 2
Tinsley died in April. (Photo courtesy of University of Minnesota athletics)2 / 2

When Curtis Ford first heard the news on Twitter, he couldn't believe it, so he desperately searched the Internet to confirm what he already was dreading to be true.

Gary Tinsley was dead.

Ford couldn't breathe. He couldn't cry. He couldn't do anything.

"I was in shock," Ford said.

Tinsley, a star middle linebacker for the Minnesota Gophers, was found dead in his dorm room in April. The medical examiner concluded that Tinsley died from an enlarged heart. The 22-year-old was just weeks away from graduation and hoped to get an NFL tryout after leading the Gophers in tackles as a junior and senior.

Closer to home, a group of Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College football players, including Ford, are carrying on Tinsley's memory by wearing T-shirts in his honor. Seven Thunder football players and two basketball players hail from Tinsley's alma mater, First Coast High School in Jacksonville, Fla., where Tinsley was a gridiron legend and an all-around good guy.

"Everybody looked up to Gary," Ford said. "He was a football star, but he wasn't cocky and always had time for the younger guys. He was always just a real cool dude. He clowned around a lot and was a real fun person. People loved being around him. I still can't believe he's gone."

Ford is a sophomore offensive and defensive lineman who is redshirting this season with the Thunder (5-3), who captured their first Minnesota College Athletic Conference North Division title this fall and will play in their first playoff game at 4 p.m. Friday against Vermilion at Public Schools Stadium.

Ford wore Tinsley's No. 9 in high school and wears his No. 51 in college. He remains close to Tinsley's mother.

"When I first heard about Fond du Lac, being in Minnesota, I thought of Gary," Ford said. "That's why I came here. And after one year here, I went home and told everyone to come up, and a lot of them did. Fond du Lac has become a home away from home."

Tinsley was well aware of the large contingent of former First Coast products going to school and playing football in the great north woods. They would talk and text, as well as communicate via Twitter. Tinsley even tried to get Thunder football players tickets to a Gophers game last fall, but it conflicted with their own season and they weren't able to attend.

Fond du Lac freshman lineman Danzel "Meatball" Blackmon knew Tinsley through his older brother, David.

Blackmon described Tinsley as a football monster. In high school Tinsley played defensive end and had 25 quarterback sacks as a senior, helping First Coast go 11-3. He was named MVP of the 2007 Florida Athletic Coaches Association North-South Football Classic after collecting five sacks in leading the North to a 25-7 victory.

"Nobody could believe it," Blackmon said of hearing of Tinsley's death. "Him and my older brother, they'd tough you up, but they always wanted what was best for you. I'll always remember him dancing. He was a good dancer and great guy."

Life as a community college football player isn't always glamorous. The Thunder don't have their own locker room, so the adjoining campus dorms housing Ford, Blackmon and company serve as a makeshift one. They practice on the open fields across from the woodsy Fond du Lac campus. But they get to play football, and that's something a lot of four-year colleges wouldn't allow some of them because of entrance requirements.

Fond du Lac sophomore defensive end Andy Youngren of Barnum said the influx of Florida players has been a great learning experience.

"It's been fun," Youngren said. "We're always joking about how guys have different ways of talking, and about the different climates. A lot of these guys had never seen snow before, and they see us out there on a cold day running around with shorts and a T-shirt on and can't believe it.

"You become close, and what happened to Gary Tinsley was a terrible thing, so you feel for the rest of the guys. I know Curt was pretty shaken up about it."

Fond du Lac coach Keith Turner is a 20-year veteran of community college football. He developed recruiting ties in Florida over 16 years as a coach at Vermilion, hence the connection that eventually developed with First Coast. Turner also serves as Fond du Lac's athletic director and dean of students, and has a tough-love approach to running his team.

"We try to weed out any bad behavior right away, but you also have to understand, these kids are being kids for the most part. That's part of dealing with 18- and 19-year-olds," Turner said. "Everyone needs to be held accountable, but at same time, if you make a mistake, you shouldn't be cut off at the knees. You should be given a chance to learn from it. Younger people need role models to look up to, and what better example than Gary Tinsley, not just because he was a great football player, but because he also made a point to say how proud he was of earning his degree."

Turner's assistant, Terry Fawcett, works in corrections as a probation supervisor.

"So if anything bad is going on, chances are, between the two of us, we're going to hear about it," Fawcett said. "We've got some great kids, and all some of them needed was a chance. We're here to provide them with that opportunity."

Fawcett said Ford has developed into a leader and is being a role model to the younger Thunder players in much the same way Tinsley was to him.

Ford wrote an essay for his college writing class in September titled "My Role Model." It was about Tinsley.

"Gary Tinsley meant so much to me," Ford wrote. "I never looked up to anyone before I met him, and he filled that spot in my life. He was truly a blessing to me. When I think of Gary, I think of a role model, a big brother, and a motivator. That's what I needed to make me who I am today."