Nick Schuyler, lone survivor of NFL players' doomed fishing trip, tells all in book

TAMPA — There was a moment after their boat flipped, after they were tossed into a frigid, stormy Gulf of Mexico, after they had exhausted all options to rescue themselves, when four football players clung to each other on an overturned boat to stay alive.

A year later, the only man who survived last February's doomed fishing trip offers details of that and many other moments in his book, Not Without Hope. These are the words of Nick Schuyler:

We began to huddle together, cuddling almost, trying to stay warm as the night went on. I thought for a moment that it was weird, four grown men clustered together like puppies or kittens, but it was necessary if we were going to maintain any body heat. I could feel everybody shivering and hear their teeth chattering.

Once, when it was quiet, knowing how desperate our situation was, I said, "I love you guys."

Schuyler, 25, remained silent for months despite the international media attention that came with his March 2 rescue. Before this book, he shared his story with the public only once, in an August episode of HBO's Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel. That story touched on all major points of the accident involving former University of South Florida football players Schuyler, then 24, and Will Bleakley, 25, and NFL players Marquis Cooper, 26, and Corey Smith, 29.

After a day of fishing 70 miles off the coast of Clearwater in Cooper's 21-foot Everglades boat, the men tried to raise the anchor, but it had become stuck. Instead of cutting the anchor's line, they gunned the engine, causing the boat to fill with water and overturn. As waves thrashed them, the men prayed and talked about their families. The sun set.

In the early morning hours, Cooper's mind began to succumb to hypothermia, and soon after, Smith's did, too. Schuyler says they slurred their words and said things that didn't make sense. Schuyler held Cooper as he died but eventually had to let go of Cooper's body when Smith started getting out of control. Eventually, Smith died, too.

Schuyler was left with his best friend, Bleakley, who drowned during a second rough night at sea. He watched him float away, then felt his own mind and body slipping, before a Coast Guard boat found him 18 hours later.

The book, written with New York Times sportswriter Jere Longman, tells the tale in 246 pages of rich detail, mostly from Schuyler's perspective, supplemented with memories from his family, rescuers and doctor, reports from the Coast Guard and Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and news accounts, including some from the St. Petersburg Times.

The Times received an advance copy of the book, which goes on sale Tuesday, the one-year anniversary of both the day Schuyler was rescued and the date on Bleakley's death certificate.

It chronicles the last hours of the men in a way the public has not yet seen, including Schuyler's many frustrating attempts to call for help, seeing only the cell phone message "connecting . . . connecting … connecting …"

He talks of something like a squid lurking near the boat, two sharks that circled and excruciating pain from the beating, cold waves. He tells of false hopes as helicopters approach and then leave, unable to see them amid raging whitecaps.

And he speaks of Bleakley's guilt over having come up with the idea to gun the engine.

"I'm so stupid," he would say. "I can't believe I did that."

"It's not your fault," I told him. "No one had a better idea."

But about Bleakley, he mostly talks about the lifesaving things his best friend did for him. He stripped off warm clothing and swam under the boat to get life jackets, and went down again for pretzels and a bottle of Gatorade that the two shared.

Schuyler discloses Bleakley's last words, "I love you, too." And those uttered by a delusional Smith, "I'm a kill you."

Bob Bleakley had not received an advanced copy of the book Tuesday, and though he has spoken with Schuyler about the accident, he said he learned some of the details of his son's last hours from reports of the book. He said he wasn't surprised.

"I'm proud of his bravery," Bleakley said. "But it was not an unexpected bravery."

But Rebekah Cooper, wife of Marquis Cooper and mother to his 4-year-old daughter, Delaney, is not happy about the way she feels her husband has been depicted so far in Schuyler's accounts. She doesn't want people to think he was an inexperienced boater or a careless friend.

In a written statement, she said Schuyler has "greatly exaggerated'' his ties to Marquis and his family, and went public with what she called "an evolving re-creation of events'' at a time when they needed privacy and a chance to heal.

"I have heard conflicting reports stemming from Mr. Schuyler of what happened,'' she wrote, "but never once heard or been told of my husband's last words, whether he spoke of Delaney and I. How is it that Mr. Schuyler has enough recollection and material to write a book?"

Schuyler's representatives say he cannot comment on the book or anything else until after it is released. People magazine gets the first print interview. Oprah gets the next television appearance. Contracts are in place to keep Schuyler silent until then.

But in the book, he talks of Rebekah Cooper, how after he spoke to HBO, she distanced herself, and how he wants to regain her friendship. "Maybe the story was too graphic for her. Maybe she thought I was capitalizing on tragedy. I hope not. I just thought it was time for me to tell my story, to set the record straight."

Schuyler says initial news reports had inaccurate information — that Bleakley swam toward a light, that Cooper gave up and died. He wants people to know the men fought to live.

"For the other families, I wanted the story to be told the right way," Schuyler writes, "not so much for me but for them."

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

Excerpts from
'Not Without Hope'

Why did I make it when they did not? It haunts me.

I think about that day, those horrible hours, all the time. The littlest thing puts me back out there: a stray thought, a glimpse of open water, a look from a stranger that says, "Aren't you that guy?" The accident trails me like the wake of Marquis's boat, churning, foaming, pushing toward the horizon of every day. Why me? Why did I make it when they did not?

• • •

I am no hero. Maybe if I had brought my friends back with me. At least one of them . . . or all of them. But I didn't. I tried; I gave it everything I had, but I couldn't. I'm only a survivor.

• • •

I just kept picturing each family, huddling up together and hugging and crying . . .

I knew I needed to get through this to explain to them what happened. I needed to live long enough to tell the story, even if I was found alive and died later. If I didn't make it, people would tell their own stories, based on rumors. At least I could tell them the facts.

• • •

I kept wondering if there was a way I could leave some kind of message, something like "Love you, Mom," or "Love you, guys" or "Be happy" or "Be strong." I thought about my parents, my sister, and Paula. If only I had a pen in my bag.

• • •

My heart rate was so slow. I felt like my body was done, I couldn't go any longer.

Then I saw a boat.

Nick Schuyler, lone survivor of NFL players' doomed fishing trip, tells all in book 02/23/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 24, 2010 7:04pm]

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