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2 Former Bucs, 2 Ex-USF Players Missing In Gulf

njohnson@tampatrib.com
Published:   |   Updated: March 24, 2013 at 03:29 AM
ST. PETERSBURG -

Two former Tampa Bay Buccaneers and two former University of South Florida football players are presumed missing in the Gulf of Mexico after failing to return home from a Saturday fishing trip.

The Coast Guard identified the missing boaters as former Bucs Victor "Marquis" Cooper and Corey Smith and former Bulls Nick Schuyler and Will Bleakley.

Nick Schuyler's dad and stepmother, Stuart and Jackie Schuyler, visited the Seminole boat launch Sunday afternoon and were overcome with emotion.

Later, Stuart Schuyler said he appreciates the conditions the Coast Guard are encountering.

"We know what the circumstances are out there," he said. "Whether or not they're hanging on to the boat, if they all separated, if they had time to get their life jackets on, nobody knows."

The Coast Guard said in a news conference Sunday afternoon that it intends to search overnight for the missing boaters. There was no determination how long they will continue looking.

The search includes an 87-foot cutter, two helicopters and two planes. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission is expected to join the search of inshore waters Monday.

Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close said weather conditions were hampering search efforts. They were encountering 14-foot seas and 30-mph gusts with whitecaps, making it difficult to spot a white boat, he said.

The weather is expected to stay bad at least through Monday.

About 10 a.m. Sunday, the Coast Guard withdrew a 47-foot rescue boat that had been searching since 2 a.m. because the rough seas made it difficult to search effectively.

The search started 50 miles offshore because a family member provided GPS coordinates of a place the men have fished in the past.

"My son went out last weekend with them, and they were gone 12 hours ... [and] decided to do it again today," Stuart Schuyler said.

The men left Clearwater Pass about 6:30 a.m. Saturday in a 21-foot, center-console boat with a single engine. They were expected back Saturday afternoon or early evening. There was no contact between the boaters and their families during the day Saturday, and the Coast Guard received no distress call.

That does not mean one was not issued, just none was received, Close said.

The Coast Guard was alerted about 1:30 a.m. Sunday when the boat did not return as expected. The search started about 2 a.m., centered about 50 miles from Clearwater Pass. The search area covers about 750 square miles.

Multiple, overlapping searches have covered he area, Close said.

Searchers are using a computer program that calculates wind, wave and current data to predict where a disabled boat might drift. The program showed a disabled boat would drift to the northeast.

Cooper, 26, is a former University of Washington standout and was a third-round draft pick by Tampa Bay in 2004. Cooper, who is 6 foot, 3 inches tall and weighs 213 pounds, appeared in 26 games for Tampa Bay between 2004 and 2005 and finished with 27 tackles. He bounced around from Minnesota, Pittsburgh and Seattle in 2006 and played for Jacksonville and Pittsburgh in 2007.

Last season, Cooper appeared in eight games for Oakland and made one tackle in the Raiders' upset victory against Tampa Bay.

Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry worked with Cooper and Smith.

"They absolutely loved to fish. I'm just keeping my fingers crossed and praying that they're just off on a key somewhere camping and that it's not what we all fear it is."

Smith, who is 6 feet 2 inches tall and weights 250 pounds, joined Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent in 2002. He appeared in six games as a rookie and was a member of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl team that season.

He spent the following two seasons in Tampa before playing for San Francisco in 2004 and 2005.

The 29-year-old, who owns a two-story home along Hartwell Loop in Land O' Lakes, spent the last three seasons in Detroit, appearing in 36 games with six starts.

One of Smith's neighbors, Nanette McLain, said, "He's friendly; kept to himself. When he'd check his mail, he'd wave."

Dan Grossi, a member of NFL security, was at the Coast Guard news conference Sunday but didn't make a statement. Grossi said he was there to assist law enforcement.

The Detroit Lions are closely watching progress of the search, the team said in a statement issued Sunday.

"We will continue to gather more information while maintaining constant communication with the Coast Guard and local Florida authorities. First and foremost, however, is that our thoughts and prayers are with all the passengers, their families and all those involved in the search efforts'" the statement said.

Bleakley was with USF's program from 2002 to 2006. He came to USF from Crystal River High School as a walk-on in 2002 but eventually earned a scholarship. He was USF's starting tight end as senior in 2006 and had nine catches for 100 yards on USF's Papajohn's.com Bowl team.

At Crystal River, Bleakley also was a standout baseball player, earning all-county honors and leading his team to the state tournament.

Schulyer was a walk-on defensive lineman at USF in 2006 but never played in a game for the Bulls.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the family and friends of Will and Nick, as well as the Florida Coast Guard as they continue their search," said Doug Woolard, USF's athletic director.

Former Tampa Bay linebacker Ryan Nece knows Cooper and Smith extremely well.

Nece played with both while as a member of the Bucs from 2002 to 08. As a player for the Detroit Lions last season, Nece spent that season playing alongside Smith again.

"As soon as I heard the news, I felt it like they were people in my own family," Nece said. "Those are two guys I really respect and two guys who are just blue-collar good guys. They work hard. They are family guys.

"They are simple guys who just like to go out on a boat and just hang out and relax. They are not flashy. They are the opposite of what a football player's image is portrayed to society. They are really good guys.

"I'm just praying for them and everybody is praying that it turns out a different way."

The boaters left while weather conditions were forecast to grow worse by Saturday night.

However, conditions were fairly benign during the day, Close said.

At 4:30 a.m. Saturday, the National Weather Service marine forecast said a small craft advisory, meaning winds were expected to top 20 mph, would likely be issued Saturday night.

The front that brought the winds and high seas did not begin moving into the area until Saturday night.


Information from Ray Reyes, Natalie Shepherd, Brett McMurphy and The Associated Press was used in this report.

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