Father recalls Bleakley's love of sports, fishing
My first job when I came to the Times in 1999 was covering Hernando County high school sports, and that meant the occasional Crystal River football game when the Pirates came down to Brooksville or Spring Hill.
To that end, Will Bleakley was one of the few Bulls I had covered before when I came on the USF beat in 2004, not a player you mentioned often, but one you knew. There are some families you get to know better than others, and I would see his parents, Bob and Betty, at several team functions and games.
I went through the Times archives the other night, looking for early references to Bleakley, and I found one from even before his high school days at Crystal River. It was Dec. 1994, and as part of our weekly "Top of the Class" educational page, one of our writers had visited Rock Crusher Elementary School, asking kids "Whom would you like to invite to lunch?"
This was 1994, so the answers are both dated and amusing: Mickey Mantle (still alive then) and Nolan Ryan (retired a few years), and "either Boyz II Men or Emmitt Smith." When we asked fifth-grader Will Bleakley, 11, his answer was simple: "My mom and dad."
So Tuesday night, USF's men's basketball team was seconds away from tipping off against Cincinnati when my cellphone vibrated on press row. I saw a "352" area code and recognized the Bleakleys' home phone. For a split-second, I wondered if the family had somehow gotten the same amazing news that Nick Schuyler's family had found the day before, that somehow their son had been found after three days lost at sea.
That wasn't the case, of course, but I hurried up through the stands and outside the Sun Dome -- how can you not allow a grieving father a chance to speak as much as he wants? -- and spoke with Bob Bleakley about his son. We'd talked briefly Sunday afternoon, when news was just breaking about four friends who had returned from a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Bleakleys last saw their son Friday evening at about 7:30 -- he was headed home to Tampa, then to his friend Schuyler's house so they could get an early start for their fishing trip.
Bleakley had been up to Crystal River often lately. After graduating from USF with a degree in finance, he'd worked with a firm in Tampa, but when the economy took its turn, the firm closed its Tampa office and he was out of a job, his father said. So he started working at the tire and auto repair shop the Bleakleys have operated for 32 years. He'd help his mother with the books, and the family business was even more a family business. "It was such fun," his father said.
Crystal River is a small community, and Bleakley said his son was an icon, adored first as a multi-sport star for the Pirates, then as the rare athlete who could earn a college scholarship with his hard work. He was a soccer goalie there, a baseball standout, and in football at Crystal River, Bleakley not only played offense and defense, but also handled the kicking duties. Bob said his son had a great leg, but hit just four field goals his senior year, because the Pirates' offense was so good it rarely was stopped short of touchdowns. People remembered that, and remembered Bleakley, who caught six touchdowns as a high school senior. "It was unbelievable how people would remember him when he came back home," his father said.
Will loved to fish, and it wasn't unusual in high school to see him go out on all-night shark fishing trips off the coast of Citrus County. The family has pictures of him and five buddies posing on the dock with a 10-foot shark, bigger than all of them.
"He was confident on the water, but he was safe," his father said. "He was a smart boater."
When Bleakley went to USF, he had little time for fishing, between football and school, but still found time to fish with teammates like Anthony Severino and Justin Teachey, also former walk-ons who later earned scholarships.
Another one of Bleakley's best friends was Schuyler, whose recounting of his time lost at sea atop an overturned boat told the Bleakleys that it was Will who dove underwater to get life vests for his friends, back again to get bottles of water and other supplies.
Bob Bleakley said he felt "embarrassed" that for a moment, sitting in a debriefing room when a Coast Guard officer told family members that the boat had been found with a single survivor on top of it, he thought to himself, "Gosh, I hope it's Will."
"Any parent would be wanting, hoping it to be their son," Bleakley said. "We were disheartened when he said it wasn't Will, but only for a second."
Bleakley said he cannot second-guess his son's decision to go out on the water Saturday morning, because Will was never one to second-guess anything. In the mornings, when Bob would be getting dressed for the day, he'd hold up two shirts and ask his wife "Brown or blue?" and neither would make a decision.
"Blue, dad," Will would say with authority, walking by, and his father laughs for a moment, thinking of how his son spoke as if he simply had the correct answer. "He made a decision, and that was it," Bob said. "It was 'Blue,' period."
Bleakley took to football with the same confidence, with no doubt. His father remembers in elementary school, when Will brought home an application to play football -- the team was the Sharks -- and completed the paperwork and gave it to his mother. "Please sign this," he said. "I'm going to play football."
I've talked to more coaches, teammates and friends in the last few days and will post more about Bleakley in the next day or two. Here's a link to a great story in Will's hometown paper, the Citrus County Chronicle. A memorial service will be held at 3 p.m. Saturday at Crystal River United Methodist Church.
-- One more Schuyler link -- this blog is one of the few places that referenced Nick during his days at USF, and if you check out the first reference in March 2006, you'll see a few comments from his father, Stu. "Please watch for him," his dad writes. "I think he will become a household name." I think we'll be reading a lot about Schuyler in the coming days and weeks, but neat to think you'd covered him back when he was just a hopeful walk-on.