Lions' Smith, Raiders' Cooper missing

Updated: March 1, 2009, 9:42 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Coast Guard was searching off Florida's Gulf Coast on Sunday for a fishing boat carrying NFL players Corey Smith and Marquis Cooper and two other men missing nearly a day in choppy seas.

Smith and Cooper were on a 21-foot vessel that left Clearwater Pass for a fishing trip Saturday morning and did not return as expected, the Coast Guard said Sunday. Crews used a helicopter and a 47-foot boat to search a 750-square mile area west of Clearwater Pass, but poor weather made the search difficult. Officials did not receive a distress signal from the missing craft.

ESPN's Sal Paolantonio reports that the Coast Guard has added two Air Force helicopters, a C-130 transport plane, and an 87-foot Coast Guard cutter to the search.

"We are in contact with the Coast guard and Corey's family has been informed," Smith's agent Ron Del Duca told ESPN.com's Bill Williamson. "Corey is one of the good guys out there. We're just waiting for more information and hoping for the best."

Cooper
Cooper

Smith
Smith

Troy Asmus, one of Cooper's agents, said he has been in contact with the NFL and that the league is aware of the situation.

"I have been in contact with the Coast Guard and they are continuing to work hard to find everyone," Asmus told Williamson. "We are hoping and praying for the best."

Cooper owns the boat and he and Smith have been on fishing trips before, Del Duca said. The pair had been teammates on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004. Two others were aboard: Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler, both former University of South Florida players.

Bob Bleakley, father of Will Bleakley, spoke with Paolantonio. Bob Bleakley, who owns a car dealership in Crystal River, Fla., and is a former U.S. Navy officer, said, "I'm extremely hopeful they are going to find him."

Bleakley added, "The boat they were in was very seaworthy ... almost unsinkable."

Bleakley also said his son is an experienced fisherman and has been fishing since he was 12.

Coast Guard Capt. Timothy M. Close said the weather early Saturday had been fair, but worsened toward the evening as a front still battering the area moved in. The National Weather Service said seas were about 2 to 4 feet Saturday morning and increased to 3 to 5 feet in the afternoon. Late Saturday night, a small craft advisory was issued, when winds were around 20 knots and seas were up to 7 feet or more. There were no thunderstorms in the area.

Close said the men were traveling in a boat manufactured by Everglades. At least one of the men was an experienced boater, and relatives provided the Coast Guard with GPS coordinates from previous fishing expeditions.

Close said there was no communication with the men even before the weather started to pick up. They were expected home by early evening. No sign of them or the boat had been spotted by late Sunday afternoon.

Poor weather conditions could be dangerous for a boat the size of Cooper's.

"A 21-foot boat is a relatively small vessel to be 50 miles off shore in bad weather conditions, certainly the current weather conditions," Close said.

The Coast Guard search was mainly taking place by air, and was hampered by the poor weather, Close said. He said there were 14-foot seas offshore and wind gusts of up to 30 mph. Water depth in the area where they are searching ranges from 20 to 50 feet.

Close said there was no sign yet that the men sent a distress signal.

"That's not to say they didn't send one out," he said. "We didn't receive anything."

Smith, 29, had 30 tackles, including three sacks, and an interception in 12 games last season for the winless Lions. Smith, who is 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, also played for the San Francisco 49ers and played college ball at North Carolina State. He lives in Richmond, Va.

Del Duca said Smith was planning to start visiting teams as a free agent this week.

"They've assured me that they're deploying all available resources to look for these guys and get them back," he said.

Cooper, 26, has played five seasons with the Buccaneers, Seahawks, Jaguars, Steelers and Raiders. He appeared in 26 games with the Buccaneers in 2004 and 2005, recording 30 tackles. He has played sparingly since as he has bounced between teams, appearing in 13 games and recording 10 tackles. Cooper, who is 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, played college ball at Washington. His hometown is Mesa, Ariz., and his father Bruce is a prominent sportscaster for KPNX-TV in Phoenix.

Cooper told The Seattle Times in 2002 that one reason he chose Washington was the abundant fishing.

"I like fighting the fish," Cooper told the newspaper. "And just relaxing out there and being alone and being outside."

Lions spokesman Bill Keenist and Raiders senior executive John Hererra said the teams are monitoring reports.

"First and foremost, however, is that our thoughts and prayers are with all the passengers, their families and all those involved in the search efforts," the Lions said in a team release.

Information from ESPN's Sal Paolantonio, ESPN.com's Bill Williamson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.