Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

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 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]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. During the most expensive mayoral election ever, St. Petersburg City Council wants to limit PAC money


    ST. PETERSBURG — In front of a large group of red-shirted campaign finance reform supporters, the St. Petersburg City Council on Thursday started the ball rolling on an ordinance that would limit individual campaign contributions to $5,000 from political action committees.

    A large crowd gathered Thursday to support passage of a controversial measure to limit campaign spending in city elections
  2. Minority business accelerator launch by Tampa chamber to aid black, Hispanic businesses


    A "minority business accelerator" program was launched Thursday by the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce geared toward helping black and Hispanic business owners identify and overcome barriers to grow their companies. The accelerator, known as MBA, will provide participants with business tools to cultivate opportunities …

    Bemetra Simmons is a senior private banker at Wells Fargo, The Private Bank. She is also chair of the new minority business accelerator program for the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce. [Photo, LinkedIn]
  3. Peter Budaj loves 'vibe' with Lightning


    Two years ago, nobody was willing to give Peter Budaj a shot, the veteran goalie wondering if he'd ever play in the NHL again.

    Peter Budaj signed a two-year extension with the Lightning, worth $1.025 million per year.
  4. A test the Rays haven't passed

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — I have no idea what to think about the Rays. Not a clue.

    Tampa Bay Rays players celebrate their 8-3 win over the Cincinnati Reds Wednesday, June 21, 2017 in St. Petersburg.
  5. Tampa Bay Lightning 2017-18 schedule: Stanley Cup champion Penguins, expansion Golden Knights among the coming attractions

    Lightning Strikes

    The Lightning's season schedule was released Thursday afternoon, and there are plenty of must-see matchups coming to Amalie Arena. Here are the home games with the most intriguing storylines:

    The champs

    (Oct. 12, Oct. 21)

    The two-time defending champion Penguins make two early trips to Tampa. [AP photo]