Missing NFL Players May Have Died Just Hours After Boat Capsized

(AP Photo/U.S. Coast Guard, HO)
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Two NFL players may have died just a few hours after their fishing boat capsized in rough seas and possibly before rescuers were even alerted that they and two others were lost off the west coast of Florida, according to Coast Guard records.

The lone survivor, Nick Schuyler, told the Coast Guard that one
by one, the other three men took off their life vests and
disappeared during the ordeal that began the evening of Feb. 28,
according to a 23-page report provided to The Associated Press
Monday under a Freedom of Information Act request.

The Coast Guard report, which redacts the men's names, says the
group went roughly 70 miles - or 62 nautical miles - to fish for
amberjack. Besides the 24-year-old Schuyler, also aboard the
21-foot Everglades boat were Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis
Cooper, free-agent NFL defensive lineman Corey Smith, who played
for the Detroit Lions last season, and former University of South
Florida player William Bleakley. The bodies of Cooper, Smith and
Bleakley have not been recovered.

Around 5:30 p.m., the report said the group ran into trouble: Their anchor was stuck. Schuyler told investigators that he believed it was caught in a coral reef and they tried to free it, but water filled the boat and it capsized.

Tossed into the frigid water, the men managed to grab their life
vests. Schuyler, also a former South Florida player, said they held
on to the boat for four hours. But as the night wore on, their will
to survive appears to have weakened and the effects of hypothermia
were likely setting in.

Schuyler told the Coast Guard that one of the men "freaked out" and took off his life vest and disappeared that night.

Another started getting unruly, throwing punches and later took
off his life jacket, dove under the water and was never seen again.
The third man thought he saw land nearly two days after the boat
capsized and decided to swim for it.

That man said his life jacket was too tight and he took it off, Schuyler told the Coast Guard.

Officials have said they found three life jackets: one on Schuyler, another near the boat and a third underneath.

It's unclear how accurate the account is. Schuyler, who was
found clinging to the overturned boat about 35 miles off Clearwater
and nearly 48 hours after the accident, was suffering from
hypothermia and he has provided different accounts to the men's
relatives. For example, Bleakley's family said Schuyler told them
that their son held on to the boat with his college teammate until
he weakened and died. Schuyler has also said that Bleakley helped
him survive by talking to him and encouraging him during their last
night together.

Marquis Cooper's father has questioned Schuyler's account that
his son removed his life jacket. Schuyler has not responded to
interview requests.

As time passed, their relatives grew worried because the group
was expected home around sunset. One of the men's relatives
contacted the Coast Guard around 1:30 a.m. on March 1 and a search

Records document the Coast Guard's repeated attempts - and
frustrations - as rescuers tried to find the small white boat in a
stormy sea with heavy cloud cover and whitecaps making it tough to

One person who called the Coast Guard reported that one of the
men, presumably Cooper, had one week left before he was expected
in California for football practice. The caller, whose name was
redacted from the report, said the group "could have possibly
tried to go farther out to fish."

One of the men's wives was able to find a handheld GPS device
that he had left at home and had apparently used in previous trips
to record the coordinates of favorite fishing spots. The Coast
Guard used that data to refine their search, placing the likely
location of the men about 10 nautical miles south of their expected

The Coast Guard contacted the men's cell phone companies for
help tracking their whereabouts, without success. They also sent
them text messages, stating that, "the CG is looking for you
request you to contact us immediately."

"Being that these guys are inexperienced, don't look just at 50
NM offshore, there might be a possibility that they wisened up and
stayed close to shore, at least within visual of land," a Coast
Guard officer wrote in one e-mail.

The same e-mail added that, "It might be worth considering getting the story out to media earlier than later more people on the lookout both
on land and water."

During the search, the Coast Guard reported 14-foot seas offshore and wind gusts up to 30 mph.

More than 24 hours after starting their search, a sign of hope finally emerged.

The Coast Guard cutter Tornado spotted Schuyler, looking small in the vast ocean and clinging to the boat's hull.

At Tampa General Hospital, Schuyler's doctor called it a "miracle" that he survived in the 63-degree Gulf water for nearly two days, and said he probably could have lived only another five to 10 hours.