Family Gather to Remember Bleakley

By: AP Email
By: AP Email

A week after two NFL players and two of their friends sailed into the Gulf of Mexico on a fishing trip that turned disastrous, family, friends and the lone survivor paid tribute to one of the missing men.

Several hundred people gathered at a Methodist church in Crystal
River, a rural community north of Tampa, on Saturday afternoon to
remember William Bleakley, a former University of South Florida
player aboard the boat.

Relatives and his pastors recalled the young man's dedication to
his family, and his hard work and positive attitude on and off the
football field.

"His time here was far too short," Blake Bleakley, his older
brother, told the mourners, "but very well spent."

Bleakley was aboard a boat owned by Oakland Raiders linebacker
Marquis Cooper the evening of Feb. 28 when it overturned in choppy
waters off Florida's west coast. Corey Smith, a free-agent
defensive lineman and 24-year-old Nick Schuyler, a former USF
player, were also aboard.

Relatives reported the men missing early Sunday when they didn't
return from their outing, sparking a massive Coast Guard search.

The Coast Guard found Schuyler clinging to the hull of the
21-foot Everglades boat Monday afternoon. The search for the three
others was called off Tuesday evening.

Cooper's family has decided not to hold a memorial service.
Smith's family, which did not attend the memorial Saturday, could
not be reached for comment on their plans.

Schuyler, making his first public appearance since the rescue,
could be seen limping slightly across a field outside the church
toward a reception. He did not want to speak with reporters, his
relatives said.

During the service, which was open to the public, Rev. David
Lane, a USF sports chaplain, recalled how Bleakley swam underneath
the boat when it overturned to find life vests and a cooler for the
group.

"That sounds like Will, doesn't it?" Lane said.

Bleakley was a walk-on to the USF team, but later earned a
scholarship and became captain. Coach Jim Leavitt said he was a
skilled player, but that his biggest contribution was his positive
spirit. He was always encouraging other players and keeping an
upbeat attitude, Leavitt said.

"The guys really picked him, that's what makes it really
powerful," Leavitt said of Bleakley's role as captain. "You'll
never find anybody that would ever say a bad word about him."

A family slideshow pictured Bleakley in various football
uniforms through the years, alongside his proud parents, in a
graduation gown, fishing, and hanging out with friends on the beach
- always with a smile.

Blake Bleakley recalled that when he introduced his tall,
younger sibling to friends, their immediate reaction was always,
"Your little brother? I always had to explain he was my big little
brother."

He closed the tribute by saying, "You will always be in my
heart, my brother."

Cooper's family discontinued a private search for the men on
Friday. In a statement, Bruce Cooper said the family had decided to
forego a memorial service, but asked people to remember his son in
their thoughts and hearts instead.

"We are just beginning the process of healing," Bruce Cooper
said. "We are staying prayerful. One day the pain will be a little
less burdensome. Right now, we just need time to be together and
remember Marquis."


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