Search ends for NFL players lost off Fla. coast

CLEARWATER, Fla. – Families of two NFL players and a third man lost for three days in rough, chilly Gulf of Mexico waters held out hope that rescuers would find them alive somewhere off the Florida coast.

After scouring about 24,000 square miles of ocean, the Coast Guard at sundown Tuesday stopped looking for 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.

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 capsized 21-foot boat.

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

Hopes were raised when crews found Bleakley’s former South Florida teammate, 24-year-old Nick Schuyler, who managed to stay with the boat after it overturned Saturday evening.

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 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 and 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.”

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

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.”

Close said some family members asked about continuing the search on their own, which he discouraged but said the Coast Guard wouldn’t prevent.