Search for missing boaters suspended

Updated: March 4, 2009, 10:33 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- After three days of combing 24,000 miles of ocean, the Coast Guard on Tuesday stopped searching for two NFL players and a third man lost in rough, chilly Gulf of Mexico waters off the Florida coast.

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, had been missing since Saturday when their boat capsized during a fishing trip.

Bleakley
Bleakley
Cooper
Cooper
Smith
Smith

Bleakley's father said he thought the Coast Guard did everything it could and that his expectations lowered after only one survivor was found Monday, nearly two days after the four friends were knocked out of their 21-foot boat.

"I think they were not to be found," Robert Bleakley said.

Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close said officials were sure that if there were any more survivors, they would have been found.

Crews did rescue Bleakley's former South Florida teammate, 24-year-old Nick Schuyler, who managed to stay with the boat.

Scott Miller, a friend of the college teammates, said Schuyler told him that on the first night, a chopper shone a light right above them and that later on, as they continued to drift, he could even see lights from the shore.

It was Bleakley who swam underneath to retrieve three life jackets he could find, along with a cushion, a groggy Schuyler told Miller from a Tampa hospital. Bleakley used the cushion and the other men wore the jackets, Miller said.

But the waves were powerful, and after Cooper and Smith got separated from the boat, the college teammates tried to hang on.

"He said basically that Will helped him keep going," Schuyler told Miller, who said he had known Bleakley since the sixth grade. "The waves were just so much. They never got a break."

Close said searchers came across a cooler and a life jacket 16 miles southeast of the boat, but saw no other signs of the men.

"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 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."

Quarterback Jon Kitna, a former teammate with the Lions the past three seasons, said you never expect something like this to happen to a guy you know.

"It's a reminder of how life is fragile," he said. "Corey was a great dude."

The Lions released a statement Tuesday, saying, "We will continue to pray for a miracle, though we fully understand and respect the decision of the Coast Guard.

"We were thrilled yesterday with the news of Nick's rescue, and it gave all of us hope that Corey, Will and Marquis would also be found alive. While we still have that hope, we have begun to cope with the grim reality of this sad and tragic situation."

The four men left Clearwater Pass early Saturday in calm weather, but heavy winds picked up through the day and the seas got stronger, with waves of 7 feet and higher, peaking at 15 feet on Sunday. 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. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission may be heading out Wednesday to recover the boat.

Schuyler told the Coast Guard the boat was anchored when it capsized.

The Coast Guard hadn't had more detailed conversations with Schuyler "due to his physical and medical condition," Close said. Schuyler was in fair condition and told hospital officials he didn't want to speak to the media.

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.

"We continue to hold out hope that Marquis Cooper, William Bleakley and Corey Smith will be located and rescued," the Raiders said Tuesday in a statement posted on their Web site. "However, with the Coast Guard's decision to cease search and rescue efforts, we are faced with the reality that this mission may not turn out the way that we all desire ... "

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.

Stuart Schuyler said his son is an instructor at L.A. Fitness and had helped train Smith and Cooper.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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