As three friends slipped away, Nick Schuyler clung to an overturned boat in the Gulf of Mexico

CLEARWATER

They were anchored about 38 miles offshore Saturday afternoon when high waves flipped their small boat.

The four football players, who had been fishing for amberjack, were thrown into the frothy Gulf of Mexico. Frigid, 6-foot seas crashed over their heads.

Struggling in their life jackets, they somehow managed to make it back to the boat. But the 21-foot Everglades fishing craft was upside-down. And though the men were in their 20s and strong — two played for the NFL and the others had played for USF — they couldn't right the boat.

So the four friends clung to the slick, white hull.

Hours passed. Gusts of 10, then 20 mph slapped their faces. Darkness descended.

By then, experts say, the men must have begun to lose feeling in their limbs. Their faces probably felt frozen. They likely became disoriented.

For more than 12 hours, they gripped the boat as the temperature dropped to 60 degrees and the waves climbed over 10 feet.

By Monday, only one man was left holding on.

• • •

They met playing football, and working out at a gym. Marquis Cooper, 26, was a linebacker and special teams member for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004-2005, where he played with defensive end Corey Smith, 29.

Will Bleakley, 25, was a tight end at USF from 2002 to 2006. There, he met Nick Schuyler, 24, who walked on for the Bulls in spring 2006. Schuyler is a fitness trainer at L.A. Fitness in Lutz, where the other men often worked out.

On Saturday, the friends gathered before dawn for an all-day fishing trip. Cooper told his wife, Rebekah, and 3-year-old daughter, Delaney, that he would be back by dark. He drove to the Seminole boat ramp in Clearwater, parked his platinum GMC truck and boat trailer. The one-day pass on his truck dashboard was stamped 6:21 a.m.

As Cooper steered his craft toward Tampa Bay, the day dawned clear and sunny.

Jason Adams of Palm Harbor said he followed a boat he thought must have been Cooper's as it left the dock. He was in a 19-foot Cape Horn, just slightly smaller than the Everglades craft. "Only three boats were going out that early," Adams said. He and his buddy followed the one "with four big guys in it" for a couple of hours.

But by 11 a.m., he said, the wind picked up and the water was spitting whitecaps. "We started getting nervous," Adams said.

"Within 20 minutes, the seas were at 6 feet. We decided we had to get out of there. It took us 2 1/2 hours to get back."

The boat they had been following, he said, kept going.

"The Gulf of Mexico can go from flat to rough very quickly," said Ed Chambers, an officer with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. "You have to watch the cold fronts. You can be running along in 2-foot seas and within 15 minutes, be battling 8-footers."

No one knows why Cooper dropped anchor so far off Egmont Key on Saturday afternoon. He had asked another angler for coordinates for good amberjack fishing and might have been headed to a deep-water spring 50 miles offshore.

Maybe he and his friends were battling big fish when their boat capsized. Maybe their single engine had stalled. Maybe they were just trying to wait out the waves.

• • •

Cooper's wife wasn't too worried when he didn't come back by dark. The weekend before he and his pals were on the water from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m.

But by 9 p.m. Saturday, Rebekah Cooper thought she would have heard from her husband, at least a call back when he was in cell phone range, saying he was heading home.

She called his friend Brian Miller, whom he often fished with. Miller knew the coordinates where Cooper had been headed. About 1:30 a.m. Sunday, he called the Coast Guard and gave them those numbers.

Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close, who commands Sector St. Petersburg, said rescue efforts began by typing the boat's size and route into a computer program — along with wind direction and speed, currents and drift data.

The computer spit out a 750-square-mile search range.

About 2 a.m., crews of a Coast Guard cutter and a 47-foot Coast Guard lifeboat began carving out rectangles in the dark, churning sea, watching heat-seeking infrared screens. Overhead, pilots of a Jayhawk helicopter and a C-130 search plane strapped on night vision goggles and flew similar patterns.

By sunrise, they still hadn't seen a sign.

Family members of the missing men gathered at the boat ramp all day Sunday, where Cooper's truck and trailer were still parked. They held each other and hoped as the Air Force, Florida Game and Freshwater Fish Commission and the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office joined the search. Six planes and another six cutters from as far as Alabama and Georgia criss-crossed the search area.

By Monday morning — 48 hours after the men had set out — the search had expanded to 16,000 square miles, from Citrus County to Charlotte County.

The Coast Guard had never received a distress signal from the missing men.

• • •

Just after noon, the crew of the cutter Tornado, from Pascagoula, Miss, spotted a tiny orange dot bobbing in the turquoise gulf. They pulled closer, and saw a man sitting upright on an overturned boat. He was wearing his life vest and had pulled a hood over his head.

He seemed to be clinging to the exposed propeller.

The cutter crew sent a smaller boat to rescue the man, who turned out to be Nick Schuyler. They gave him a dry blue Coast Guard uniform. A helicopter lowered a metal litter.

Schuyler was flown to Tampa General Hospital where he was in serious condition: dehydrated, cut and bruised — but able to tell his dad, "Hi, Pops!"

His mom, Marcia, passed out when she heard her son was still alive.

From his hospital bed, he told her that he survived by telling himself that she was not going to go to his funeral.

"That's what kept him hanging on," she said.

Schuyler grew up in the tiny city of Chardon, Ohio. In high school, he played football for the first two years, but lettered in basketball for three. He spent two years at Kent State, then moved to Tampa in 2006.

He wanted to play football so badly he gained 50 pounds and, in spring 2006, walked on as a fullback and defensive tackle. He had the uniform, suited up and practiced. But because he was a transfer student, he wasn't able to play right away and left the team that fall. It was a disappointment, said his dad, Stu.

In December, Schuyler graduated with a degree in communications, but his first job out of college was spotting for sweaty guys in weight rooms and counting their repetitions.

"So, you went to college for four years and you can count to 10," his dad teased him.

He had no idea then that his son's lifelong commitment to fitness would help save his life.

• • •

Once Schuyler was found alive, relatives of the other three fishermen kept praying.

"That keeps our spirits up, that keeps us real positive," Ray Sanchez, Cooper's cousin, said Monday afternoon. "We have three more to go."

Sanchez talked about how strong his cousin is, how tough football players have to be, how that will help them all.

"He's got to have a strong mind," Sanchez said. "It's just a big practice. This is not to stay on the team. This is to live."

Dark fell Monday night without a sign of the other three men. Coast Guard crews promised to continue searching. But after two days in frigid waves, the situation was seeming bleak.

Sanchez said the Coast Guard told him that the other three football players clung to that overturned boat for 12 to 16 hours. Schuyler must have seen them all slip away.

Times staff writers Alexandra Zayas, Emily Nipps, Brant James, Greg Auman and Leonora LaPeter Anton contributed to this report.

As three friends slipped away, Nick Schuyler clung to an overturned boat in the Gulf of Mexico 03/02/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 4, 2009 9:43am]

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