Boating accident survivor Nick Schuyler shares awful details with HBO's Real Sports
Six months after the boating accident that killed three of his friends in the Gulf of Mexico west of Clearwater, former football player Nick Schuyler still lies awake at night wondering why he was the lone survivor.
That's one of the heart-rending details revealed in Schuyler's exclusive interview with HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, scheduled to air at 10 p.m. Tuesday. For the first time, Schuyler tells correspondent Bernard Goldberg the awful details how his companions -- Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, NFL free agent Corey Smith and former University of South Florida football player Will Bleakley -- died when Cooper's boat capsized during a fishing trip in February.
"People come out and (say) you're a celebrity . . . no, I'm not a damn celebrity," Schuyler told Goldberg during the interview, provided to critics on Saturday to preview Real Sports' return to new episodes. "If I had another person here with me, I'd be a hero. If I was able to keep them alive, maybe. I don't feel guilty . . . but it's impossible not to. Why am I here and three are gone?"
Schuyler's media advisor, North Carolina-based spokesman Rick French, said his client decided to do one major media interview "to set the record straight about some of the facts that had transpired and been inaccurately reported by a variety of media outlets."
French declined to name specific details which were incorrectly reported, beyond disputing some chatter that the men who did not survive somehow gave up during their struggle to stay afloat. "These guys fought to the end," French said, citing Schuyler's account of the accident in HBO's story. "Nobody quit -- there were no quitters in this group. The four of them showed...Nick doesn't like this word, but it was nothing short of heroic, for all four of them."
French also said Schuyler was not compensated in any way for the interview and did not set ground rules, beyond noting "Nick wanted to make sure whomever did the story would be able to tell the story of his friends and pay tribute to them."
The publicist said they eventually concluded Real Sports could handle the hard news and sports reporting angles of the story best without "using Nick as fodder for driving their ratings." (photo at left is a tattoo Schuyler got to pay tribute to his friends, which reads "in the hour of adversity, be not without hope.")
French also noted that Schuyler was offered money by other journalism outlets, declining to offer specifics. He said, to his knowledge, Schuyler doesn't have plans to tell his story himself in a book or other project, and would only consider doing a second interview "if there's a way to truly honor Will and Corey and Marquis...some kind of charitable angle that made sense."
Does that mean an outlet could establish a charitable foundation or trust fund for the men's families? "I don't even want to speculate on what that might be," French said.
Because two of the men were pro football players, their disappearance sparked national headlines. A flood of reporters descended on Tampa General Hospital after Schuyler was found, clinging to the boat's motor, the only one of the quartet to survive several days in the water.
News outlets from across the globe pursued Schuyler's story, even after he made it plain that he wasn't interested in doing a typical post-tragedy interview.
"Nick's not a celebrity; he's somebody who has never been through this before," said French. "He's had to deal with reporters camped outside of the place he lives and works for six months -- finding ways to get his private cellphone number, going to his friends and his friends' friends. What he wants to do, is move past this the best he can."
In HBO's story, Schuyler gave a detailed account of the accident, starting with the four men's mood after attempts to dislodge a stuck anchor flipped the boat over and landed all of them in cold water during an approaching storm.
"You immediately start thinking, 'There's no way I'm going out like this,' " he said. "After we realized we might not make it, we starting thinking about things we would change in our lives."
Schuyler, who had been seasick, was the only one who was fully clothed when the boat capsized; his friends were clad in shorts and T-shirts with no shoes. Over time, hypothermia set in, causing hallucinations; Cooper was the first to lose his senses and attempt to leave the boat, forcing Schuyler to hold on to him.
"After some time, Marquis went from being vocal and aggressive to being unconscious," said Schuyler, noting that Smith was the next to begin irrationally trying to leave the boat. "I kept saying, 'Will, I can't hold both of them.' We decided we're going to lose Corey if I don't let go of Marquis. We're gonna lose another guy. And that (chokes up), that was, uh . . . probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
Despite his efforts, Smith broke free and swam away, never to be seen again. Schuyler said Bleakley's lifejacket ripped and came off -- he drowned shortly after. "For whatever reason, he floated for a while," he said. "There was a good 10-minute span where I just sat on that boat and watched my best friend floating."
About 18 hours later, Schuyler was discovered by an alert Coast Guard crew and had to tell them he was the only survivor -- saved by a fluke that left him fully clothed when the boat turned over, delaying the deadly effects of hypothermia enough for a rescue.
Asked by Goldberg how he's coping with it all, Schuyler is painfully honest. "Not that good . . . I think about it all the time . . . 20 times a day," said Schuyler, who also said he sometimes babysits Cooper's young daughter. "I'll be honest, I gotta pretend that I'm okay."