Search for missing NFL players continues
By Christine Armario and Mitch Stacy
CLEARWATER, Fla. ó The Coast Guard on Monday narrowed the search area for two NFL players and a third man missing since a weekend fishing trip off the Florida Gulf Coast after crews rescued a fourth man clinging to their capsized boat.
Survivor Nick Schuyler, a former University of South Florida player, told rescuers that the boat the four good friends were aboard was anchored when it flipped Saturday evening in rough seas, said Coast Guard Capt. Timothy M. Close. Schuyler, who was wearing a life vest, had been hanging onto the hull that a Coast Guard cutter discovered 35 miles off Clearwater.
The 21-foot boat belongs to Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, who, along with free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith (N.C. State) and former South Florida player William Bleakley, were missing.
The Coast Guard wouldn’t speculate on the men’s chances of survival, but Petty Officer Robert Simpson said their size and good health were advantaged. Cooper, 26, is 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, and the 29-year-old Smith is 6-foot-2, 250 pounds. The 25-year-old Bleakley had played tight end.
“With all of these men being past, present football players, they do have a much larger physique than a lot of people,” he said. “So their odds are going to be definitely in their favor.”
Their families have said they had life vests and flares aboard.
Schuyler was conscious but appeared weak as he was being taken off a helicopter at Tampa General Hospital and placed on a stretcher. His father said his son was in serious but stable condition and that he “looks OK.”
“He’s got some cuts and bruises. He’s dehydrated,” said Stuart Schuyler.
Schuyler’s mother, Marsha Schuyler, said her son told her that he survived by thinking about how he didn’t want her to go to his funeral.
The family’s joy at him being found alive was tempered by the search for his friends.
“We still have three men missing, and we’re not going to talk too much until we find these guys,” said his father, Stuart Schuyler. “We’re all praying for them. These guys are all very close friends.”
Searchers had previously covered 16,000 square miles of ocean, but the area being searched was much smaller since they found Schuyler, Close said.
Smith’s family planned to drive to Florida from Richmond, Va., today after the snowy weather in the East made getting a flight impossible, said Yolanda Newbill, one of Smith’s sisters. She said they have been in contact with the Coast Guard every few hours since the search began.
“We have never lost hope,” Newbill said. “We have total faith that (he) will be coming home.”
Ray Sanchez of Tampa, a cousin of Cooper, said the family was confident the Coast Guard would find them.
“My cousin’s a powerful swimmer,” he said.
James Allen, a marine safety consultant who once worked search and rescue operations with the Coast Guard, said the chances of finding survivors diminish after people have been in the water three days.
Survivors have been found who were floating for days, but he added “you just can’t swim forever.”
After 18 hours in 64-degree water, hypothermia will set in, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class James Harless said.
The four men 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.
The men were aboard an Everglades-manufactured boat, which is built with compressed foam encased in Fiberglas, making it difficult to sink. The weather had improved, with waves subsiding to 6 to 8 feet, National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Barron said.
However, Bob Zales, president of National Association of Charter Boat Operators, said waves that high can capsize a boat the size of Cooper’s.
“A boat that size, personally, I wouldn’t get out any farther than 20 or 30 miles offshore,” Zales said. “But I see people all the time 40, 50 miles offshore.”
Smith had 30 tackles, including three sacks, and an interception in 12 games last season for the Detroit Lions. He also played for the San Francisco 49ers and was a standout at N.C. State.
Cooper, 26, played college ball at Washington and has spent five seasons with five NFL different teams, appearing in 26 games with the Buccaneers in 2004 and 2005. He’s played sparingly since. He grew up in Gilbert, Ariz., and his father Bruce is a prominent sportscaster for KPNX-TV in Phoenix.
The Raiders and Lions said in separate statements that the teams hope the men will be rescued and that their thoughts and prayers go out to their families.