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Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Updated: March 4, 8:39 AM ET
Missing at sea, players shared bond

By Jemele Hill
ESPN.com

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Bruce Cooper arrived in Tampa at 5 a.m. on Tuesday. Somehow, he managed to sleep for two hours on his flight from Phoenix, bringing his grand total to five since being told early Sunday that his son, Marquis, was missing.

Bruce Cooper
Bruce Cooper, father of Marquis Cooper, left, hugs his nephew Ray Sanchez after talking to reporters Tuesday at the U.S. Coast Guard station in St. Petersburg, Fla. The Coast Guard suspended the search for Cooper, Corey Smith and Will Bleakley.

"I'm clinging to hope," Cooper said, standing in front of his son's home in Odessa, Fla., north of St. Petersburg. "Marquis was an undersized [linebacker] at [the University of Washington] and in the NFL. The kid does not back down. I know he's out on the water fighting."

Cooper thought of their deep-sea fishing trip a couple of years ago in Clearwater, a memory that only made it more difficult to accept that 26-year-old Marquis was one of the two missing NFL players lost at sea after Marquis' boat capsized 38 miles from shore.

Marquis Cooper was an avid fisherman. When he played at Washington, he considered majoring in marine biology -- until he looked at the math requirements. Still, Marquis was a guppy at heart. His father believed if you plucked a fish out of the water, Marquis could tell you what it was.

In fact, when Bruce and Marquis ventured out on their father-and-son trip, Bruce admitted he was a bit on edge because they had gone so far from the shore -- at least 50 miles, Bruce said. His son, though, was at ease.

Bruce Cooper
Cooper said his son was an avid fisherman.

"I looked in all four directions and saw nothing but water," said Cooper, a sportscaster for Phoenix's KPNX-TV, "but he knew the sun sets in the west and we came in the east."

The Coast Guard said Tuesday afternoon that it was suspending the search for Marquis, free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith and former University of South Florida football player Will Bleakley. Until then, all these families had to go on the past few days were their hopes.

They were given enormous encouragement when Nick Schuyler, Bleakley's teammate at USF, was rescued Monday afternoon. Authorities found Nick clinging to the propellers of Marquis' 21-foot boat. Somehow, he overcame choppy waters, wind gusts of more than 20 mph and waves experts say likely climbed as high as 10 feet.

After hours of fear and anticipation, Nick's rescue was the first real sign that something miraculous could happen.

The relief was short-lived.

Shortly after the Coast Guard rushed Nick to Tampa General Hospital, a report surfaced that Marquis had been found alive, too.

"I thought it would just be a matter of minutes before they found the rest of the guys," said Troy Asmus, one of Marquis' agents.

Nick Schuyler
Nick Schuyler clings to the engine of the overturned boat. The former South Florida football player told rescuers that the boat was anchored when it flipped Saturday evening in rough seas and that the others got separated from the boat.

A Tampa television station reported Marquis survived, but it was inaccurate. Bruce, however, remained hopeful.

"Marquis is not going to quit out there," he said. "That's what's comforting me."

Other family members struggled to find comfort. A snowstorm in the Northeast hampered the Smiths' attempt to reach Florida by plane. They drove 12 hours, only to find out discomforting news.

Bob Bleakley, Will's father, spent five years in the Navy and, by late Tuesday morning, he and his family already had accepted the worst. He told a local funeral director to get the paperwork to declare Will legally deceased.

"We haven't totally given up," Bob Bleakley said, "but we've consoled ourselves that Will is gone."

Trying to put the pieces together was frustrating for all the families, but especially for the Bleakleys. Will, 25, told his father on Friday that he was going on a fishing trip with three of his buddies, and his father was immediately concerned. The forecast called for cool, windy weather, which might make the sea particularly difficult to navigate. But Will had made up his mind.

"Will's not a second-guesser," his dad said. "We would go into the toy stores when he was little, and some kids will pick stuff up and say, 'I want this,' or, 'No, I want this.' Will wasn't that way. He'd say, 'Yep, I want this.' And that was it. That was Will."

Corey Smith
Corey Smith, an undrafted free agent out of North Carolina State, spent the past three seasons with the Detroit Lions.

The men left shortly after 6 a.m. from the Seminole Boat Ramp in Clearwater Pass. The weather was mild early on, but as the day progressed, the winds and waves became increasingly worse.

At some point that afternoon, the men anchored the boat to begin fishing. What isn't so clear is why they were unable to detach the anchor cleanly and escape the blustery conditions.

The troublesome anchor and cranky seas are the authorities' best guess as to what might have caused the boat to flip over, but they might not know for sure until the boat is brought to the Coast Guard for investigation.

What happened once the boat capsized is chilling. According to a report in The Seattle Times, Will was the one who retrieved the three life jackets and a cushion from underwater.

The Coast Guard believes that strong waves eventually broke up the foursome, with Corey and Marquis drifting away first. Will and Nick clung to the boat. Nick told investigators Will thought he saw rescue lights and decided to swim for help.

Because of Nick's physical condition -- the 24-year-old was dehydrated and showed signs of hypothermia, but he was upgraded from serious to fair condition Tuesday -- the Coast Guard was unable to give a full account of what happened.

"It's all theory," said Wyman Smith, Corey's older brother, referring to what happened with Corey and Marquis.

Marquis Cooper
Tampa Bay drafted Cooper in the third round in 2004. He spent his first two seasons there, then changed teams six times in three seasons.

The Coast Guard started searching for the men about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. It was rough in the early phases. They used a cutter crew and a 47-foot lifeboat, all while contending with 14-foot seas and unrelenting winds.

The families were confident in the Coast Guard's efforts, but Bob Bleakley couldn't shake the words of Capt. Timothy Close, the commander of Sector St. Petersburg.

"He told me, 'When we've determined there's no survivors, we don't look for bodies,'" Bleakely said.

In an exhaustive three-day search, the Coast Guard used 10 vessels and received assistance from the Pinellas County Sheriff and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. At the search's conclusion, the Coast Guard had covered 24,000 square miles.

"It's just surprising that he would be lost in such a scenario," Will's father said. "He would know not to leave the boat."

The circumstances that brought these men together went beyond just a Saturday fishing trip. They were all underdogs. They worked out together and were guys who ground their way into football because they weren't blessed with extraordinary talent.

Marquis was drafted by the Buccaneers in the third round in 2004 and, since his first two seasons with the Bucs, he changed teams six times in three seasons. At 6-foot-3, 213 pounds, he was hardly the size for an ideal NFL linebacker. But somehow he always found a place on an NFL roster.

"If you describe Marquis, it's honest, ethical and loyal," said Jack Scharf, Marquis' primary agent.

Corey was another overachiever. An undrafted free agent out of North Carolina State, the 29-year-old was with the Detroit Lions the past three seasons. He knew football wouldn't last forever, so he attended a two-week, NFL small business seminar at Harvard in the summer of 2008 because he wanted to open an electronics repair shop someday.

Anyone you talk to will tell you the same three things about Corey: He didn't smoke, didn't drink and took excellent care of his body.

"He's almost too perfect for words," one member of the Lions organization said. "He is not the classic athlete. He's a guy that really had to make a way for himself. If we could have put his heart in these other guys, no way we would have gone 0-16."

Will's heart was equally big. He played baseball, soccer and football at Crystal River High, which is about two hours from where the men began their fishing trip. Despite being Mr. Athlete in high school, Will didn't get a single scholarship offer. Well, he got one offer, but it wasn't to play sports. The Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., offered Will an appointment.

Will Bleakley
Will Bleakley, seen dousing South Florida coach Jim Leavitt after a win at the PapaJohn's.com Bowl in 2006, walked on at USF.

Will came to USF because of one phone call. The school was in the process of upgrading from Division I-AA, and Will said he'd go there only if the head coach called him personally. Two days later, coach Jim Leavitt, who was friends with Will's high school coach, called. Leavitt told him he could walk on. Will earned a full scholarship after two seasons.

"We looked up to him for what he accomplished," his father said.

Like Will, Nick was a walk-on at USF. He was a fitness trainer at LA Fitness, where he, Corey, Will and Marquis often worked out together. Nick was known for his excellent conditioning, and that's probably what saved his life in the treacherous gulf.

Nick believed in getting the most out of people he trained. Case in point was a couple of Sundays ago. Geno Perez, Nick's supervisor in Lutz, Fla., overheard Nick chastising Corey, who wanted to blow off a workout because he had been splashed so much on their previous fishing trip and was feeling sick.

"No excuses," Nick said to Corey. "You're working out!"

It is tragically ironic that the one thing that bonded these four men together -- their ability to overcome and overachieve -- wasn't enough to keep them together out in the gulf.

Late Tuesday, the Smiths and Coopers began formulating a new plan that would perhaps include their own rescue mission in Clearwater Pass. The Bleakleys might have resigned themselves early in the day, but the nagging questions and frustrations will likely always persist.

Bob Bleakley wondered aloud many times: "How do you have a funeral with no body?"

Jemele Hill can be reached at jemeleespn@gmail.com.