Search ends for NFL players lost off Florida coast
March 3, 2009
CLEARWATER, Fla. ” The Coast Guard called off the search Tuesday for two NFL players and a third man lost at sea off the Florida coast after their boat capsized during a fishing trip.
Officials said the search would end at sundown, with Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith, who played with the Detroit Lions last season, and former South Florida player William Bleakley still missing in the rough, chilly seas.
“We’re extremely confident that if there are any survivors on the surface of the water that we would have found them,” said Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close, who added that searchers scoured the equivalent of 24,000 square miles over more than 60 hours.
Hopes were raised Monday when crews found a fourth man who was aboard, 24-year-old former South Florida player Nick Schuyler, who managed to stay with the boat after it overturned Saturday evening.
William Bleakley’s father said he felt comfortable with the Coast Guard’s decision and that his expectations lowered after only one survivor was found.
“I think they did everything that they could,” Robert Bleakley said of the Coast Guard. “I think they were not to be found.”
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Close said searchers found a cooler and a life jacket 16 miles southeast of the boat, but no other signs of the men.
Prospects for survival became more grim throughout the day, with Cooper’s father saying the Coast Guard told him privately officials were losing hope because so much time had passed and hypothermia risks were high. Coast Guard officials said publicly that they were still hopeful.
“I think the families understood that we put in a tremendous effort,” Close said. “Any search and rescue case we have to stop is disappointing.”
Family and friends embraced and sobbed outside the Coast Guard station shortly before the announcement. They left without talking with reporters.
“I’m sure that I’ll speak of Will like he’s still with us for a long time,” Robert Bleakley said later of his son. “He’ll be an inspiration for me for a long time. He always has been. I told everybody, I call him my hero.”
Lions running back Kevin Smith called Corey Smith “a good, quiet guy, who always put in an honest day’s work.”
Kevin Smith, a Florida native, said he has been fishing off the coast as far as the men were in boats smaller, the same size and larger than the 21-foot watercraft that capsized.
“The No. 1 thing when you’re out there is, you have to respect the water,” he said. “I know those guys had safety vests. I’m trying not to even think about it. That’s a tough way to go.”
The four friends left Clearwater Pass early Saturday in calm weather, but heavy winds picked up through the day and the seas got heavy, with waves of 7 feet and higher, peaking at 15 feet on Sunday. A relative alerted the Coast Guard early Sunday after the men did not return as expected. The Coast Guard said it did not receive a distress signal.
Close said some family members asked about continuing the search on their own, which he discouraged but said the Coast Guard wouldn’t prevent.
“I can’t emphasize this enough,” Close said. “We do not want any additional search and rescue cases resulting from people who are outside their experience level.”
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission may be heading out Wednesday to recover the boat, which was still on the water.
Schuyler told the Coast Guard the boat was anchored when it capsized. The four friends were able to put on life vests and huddle together, but eventually became separated, he said.
Schuyler was dehydrated and showing symptoms of hypothermia, but his condition was upgraded to fair on Tuesday. Hospital officials said he didn’t want to talk to the media.
The Coast Guard hadn’t had more detailed conversations with Schuyler “due to his physical and medical condition,” Close said.
Cooper, who is 26 and owns the boat, was selected in the third round of the 2004 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of Washington. He played 26 games for the Bucs in his first two pro seasons, then led a nomadic NFL existence.
Cooper and Smith, 29, became friends when they were teammates at Tampa Bay. Smith signed with the Bucs as an undrafted free agent in 2002, and spent last season with Detroit before becoming a free agent. The former North Carolina State standout recorded 42 tackles (28 solo), three sacks and 10 special teams tackles in 2008, his best NFL season.
Bleakley, a 25-year-old former tight end from Crystal River, Fla., was on the USF football team in 2004 and 2005. He had one reception for 13 yards in his career, which also included some time on special teams.