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Search narrows for NFL players off Florida Gulf Coast

Monday, March 2, 2009

By CHRISTINE ARMARIO and MITCH STACY

Associated Press Writers

CLEARWATER, Fla. -- The Coast Guard on Monday narrowed the search area for two NFL players and a third man missing since a weekend fishing trip off the Florida Gulf Coast after crews rescued a fourth man clinging to their capsized boat.

Survivor Nick Schuyler, a former University of South Florida player, told rescuers that the boat the four friends were aboard was anchored when it flipped Saturday evening in rough seas, said Coast Guard Capt. Timothy M. Close. 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.

Schuyler said the other three men got separated from the boat. The 21-footer belongs to Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, who, along with free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith and former South Florida player William Bleakley, remained missing.

Schuyler was conscious but appeared weak as he was being taken off a helicopter at Tampa General Hospital and placed on a stretcher. His father said his son was in serious but stable condition and that he "looks OK."

"He's got some cuts and bruises. He's dehydrated," said Stuart Schuyler.

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 his father, Stuart Schuyler. "We're all praying for them. These guys are all very close friends."

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. 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.

Smith's family planned to drive to Florida from Richmond, Va., Tuesday, after the snowy weather in the East made getting a flight impossible, said Yolanda Newbill, one of Smith's sisters. She said they have been in contact with the Coast Guard every few hours since the search began.

"We have never lost hope," Newbill said. "We have total faith that (he) will be coming home."

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.

The four friends 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. The Coast Guard said it did not receive a distress signal.

The men were aboard an Everglades-manufactured boat, which is built with compressed foam encased in Fiberglas, making it difficult to sink. The weather had improved, with waves subsiding to 6 to 8 feet, National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Barron said.

However, Bob Zales, president of National Association of Charter Boat Operators, said waves that high can capsize a boat the size of Cooper's.

"A boat that size, personally, I wouldn't get out any farther than 20 or 30 miles offshore," Zales said. "But I see people all the time 40, 50 miles offshore."

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.

The 29-year-old Smith of Richmond, had 30 tackles, including three sacks, and an interception in 12 games last season for the Detroit Lions. He also played for the San Francisco 49ers and was a standout at North Carolina State.

Cooper, 26, played college ball at Washington, and has spent five seasons with five different teams, appearing in 26 games with the Buccaneers in 2004 and 2005. He's played sparingly since. He grew up in Gilbert, Ariz., and his father Bruce is a prominent sportscaster for KPNX-TV in Phoenix.


Associated Press Writer Ileana Morales in Miami contributed to this report.



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