Search narrows for football players off Fla. Gulf Coast
Posted March 2, 2009
Updated March 9, 2009
CLEARWATER, Fla. — A missing boater found clinging to an overturned boat was rescued Monday off Florida's Gulf Coast, but the search continued for two NFL players and another man aboard who didn't return from a weekend fishing trip.
Survivor Nick Schuyler, a former University of South Florida player, told rescuers that the 21-foot boat was anchored when it flipped Saturday evening in rough seas and that the others got separated from the boat, Capt. Timothy M. Close said.
Since then, Schuyler, who was wearing a life vest, had been hanging onto the boat found by a Coast Guard cutter 35 miles off Clearwater.
The boat belongs to Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, who along with Corey Smith, a free-agent defensive lineman and former defensive end at N.C. State, and former South Florida player William Bleakley, remained missing.
Television footage showed Schuyler conscious but weak as he was being taken off a helicopter at Tampa General Hospital and placed on a stretcher. The hospital declined immediate comment.
The search area is now "substantially smaller," based on where they found the boat and Schuyler, Close said. Searchers had previously covered 16,000 square miles of ocean, and the Coast Guard said it did not receive a distress signal.
Coast Guard photos showed Schuyler wearing a yellow jacket and orange life vest and sitting on the hull of the capsized boat as a rescue cutter approached. A helicopter lowered a basket to haul him aboard.
Stuart Schuyler said his son was in serious but stable condition and that he "looks OK. ... He's got some cuts and bruises. He's dehydrated."
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 Stuart Schuyler. "We're all praying for them. These guys are all very close friends."
Close said the Coast Guard would search for the men for "quite awhile."
Ray Sanchez, of Tampa, a cousin of Cooper, said he was told the men were together "for a good period of time" after the boat flipped. He said the family was confident the Coast Guard would find them.
"My cousin's a powerful swimmer," he said.
The water temperature in the area was 68 degrees. After 18 hours in 64-degree water, hypothermia will set in, said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class James Harless. How long someone can survive depends on how big the person is, he said. Cooper is 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, and Smith, 6-foot-2, 250 pounds.
Monday, waves were at 6 to 8 feet, enough for a small craft advisory.
The four 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.
Cooper and Smith, who were teammates with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004, have been on fishing trips before, according to Ron Del Duca, Smith's agent.
Cooper, 26, has spent five seasons with five different teams, appearing in 26 games with the Buccaneers in 2004 and 2005, but playing sparingly since. He grew up in Gilbert, Ariz., and his father Bruce is a prominent sportscaster for KPNX-TV in Phoenix.
Smith, 29, of Richmond, Va., played collegiately at N.C. State from 1998 to 2001 and ranks among the school's all-time top performers in sacks and tackles for loss.
But as an undersized defensive end, he wasn't drafted. Instead, he made in the NFL the hard way. And in 12 games for the Detroit Lions last season, Smith, 29 had 30 tackles, including three sacks, and an interception.
"He was a guy who had a tremendous work ethic. He loved playing football, and he came to work everyday with the idea that he was going to get better," said Tony Haynes, an editor and analyst with the Wolfpack Sports Network.
Family and friends said they weren't giving up on the strong and determined Smith.
"We're hoping and praying and thinking about all of the individuals that were on that boat and their families and just hoping that Corey is a survivor," N.C. State's senior associate athletic director, David Horning, said.
"Everybody is just crossing their fingers, and we hope he shows up," Haynes said.