CLEARWATER — Family members were waiting and praying Sunday night for the safe return of four men, including two former Bucs players, missing more than a day on a fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Coast Guard began searching for the men in rough waters at 2 a.m. Sunday after a family member of one of the men alerted officials that they had not returned. The four — former Bucs Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith and two former University of South Florida players, Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler — set out early Saturday from Clearwater.
"We are very, very hopeful. And really trusting the Lord's hand to be on their lives and bring them home safely," said Cooper's father-in-law, Harlan Dunn, from his home in Washington state.
Cooper, who turns 27 next week, is a linebacker with the Oakland Raiders, and Smith, 29, is a free agent defensive end who most recently played for the Detroit Lions. Both own homes in the Tampa Bay area.
Bleakley, 25, who grew up in Citrus County, and Schuyler, 24, both live in Tampa.
The men left about 6:30 a.m. Saturday on Cooper's Everglades 21-foot center console boat from the Seminole Boat Ramp in Clearwater, the Coast Guard said. Their families expected them back by late afternoon or early evening.
"It's a small vessel for the conditions that are out there right now," Capt. Timothy Close, commander of the St. Petersburg Coast Guard, said Sunday.
By Sunday afternoon three aircraft and an 87-foot patrol boat were scouring a 750-square-mile area west of Clearwater Pass. Relatives provided information, including GPS coordinates from previous trips, about where the men might be fishing.
The weather was relatively mild when the men set out. Waves averaged 4 feet and winds ranged from about 11 to 18 miles per hour most of Saturday, according to the Coast Guard. But conditions deteriorated Sunday. By afternoon, seas were at 14 feet offshore and wind gusts were up to 30 mph.The water temperature was 68 degrees.
Danielle Mayes, owner of Jaxson's Bait House near the boat ramp, said Saturday had been deceptively beautiful. The weather was warm, and boaters had packed the small parking lot.
Mayes said many boaters who returned Saturday evening said they were surprised the water had gotten so rough.
Relatives and friends said Cooper was an experienced boater who had life jackets and flares onboard.
"Marquis is an avid fisherman; he goes deep sea fishing any opportunity he gets,'' Cooper's father, Bruce, a sports anchor at KPNX in Phoenix, told the Arizona Republic. "I am praying and hoping for the best.''
Former Bucs linebacker Ryan Nece played with Cooper in Tampa Bay and with Smith in Detroit.
"It's really upsetting when you know both guys really well," Nece said. "I think about a guy like Marquis being a family man (wife and one child). … It's hard."
Bucs linebacker coach Joe Barry coached Smith in both Detroit and Tampa, where he was a member of the 2002 Super Bowl team.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping maybe they're camping out on an island or key,'' he said. "You'd hate that to happen to anybody, especially two guys you know that are unbelievable human beings.''
USF coach Jim Leavitt said he was praying for the men's safe return. "My heart goes out to these two families," Leavitt said.."
Schuyler's father visited the Coast Guard in St. Petersburg on Sunday. He was shown technology used for the search, but said it gave him little solace.
"The only thing comforting right now is if they find them alive," Schuyler said.
Lorri Helfand can be reached at email@example.com at (727) 445-4155. Times staff writers Greg Auman, Rick Stroud and Stephen Holder, researcher Caryn Baird and photographer Douglas R. Clifford contributed to this report. Information from the Associated Press was used.