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Families, friends of football players who drowned try to cope with loss

Bob and Betty Bleakley continued to go to USF football games after their son Will, left, died.

Family photo

Bob and Betty Bleakley continued to go to USF football games after their son Will, left, died.

Bob Bleakley still holds his breath every time he sees a Coast Guard helicopter hover above the little airport near his Crystal River home. For a split second, the realities of canceled searches and death certificates and memorial tournaments give way to a fleeting twinge of hope for his son.

Today, it's been a year. Before sunrise last Feb. 28, four football players sailed into the Gulf of Mexico expecting to come home before dark, not knowing that the anchor would stick, the boat would flip and they would be tossed into a stormy winter sea. Or that three days later, rescuers would find only Nick Schuyler alive.

The three others — former University of South Florida tight end Will Bleakley, 25, and NFL players Marquis Cooper, 26, and Corey Smith, 29 — also fought to hold onto the slippery boat. But each disappeared into the waves.

The men were remembered at crowded funerals and with tournaments and foundations bearing their names.

There were other, more intimate memorials.

On the day Will Bleakley would have turned 26, Schuyler and his girlfriend held a dinner at their home. They hung a Happy Birthday banner, got a cake and cooked one of Bleakley's favorite meals, his mother's pasta casserole. Kristen Schuyler heard her brother's toast: He would never have survived without the help of his best friend.

Rebekah Cooper gets a lump in her throat when someone introduces her as a widow. Betty Bleakley now loathes cold winters. Her husband thinks of Will when typing the word "will."

Bob Bleakley inherited the Jack Russell terrier his son raised with his roommate. The dog's name is Bait, short for Chick Bait, Will would joke. Two weeks ago, the father wore the son's jacket to walk the dog.

Driving in the car recently, 4-year-old Delaney Cooper asked her mother if they were going to heaven soon. Probably not for a long time, Rebekah remembers telling her, but some day, they'd see Daddy again.

"I can't wait too much longer," Delaney said.

The Detroit Lions retired Smith's number this year. No one touched Cooper's fishing poles.

His father, Bruce Cooper, went months without being able to remember the distinct sound of his son's laughter. He could picture the smile, and think back on things they did together. But he had to play old home videos to hear the laugh.

It was missing on Christmas, as the Coopers unwrapped gifts around the tree. "You almost had to force yourself to go through some of the motions," the father said. Then, unexpectedly, something bubbled up out of the sadness in his mind. The laugh.

It was Marquis.

And the man who lost his son to the gulf, got a little bit of him back.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at azayas@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3354.

Families, friends of football players who drowned try to cope with loss 02/27/10 [Last modified: Saturday, February 27, 2010 9:42pm]
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