Nearly six months after the boating accident that killed three of his friends in the Gulf of Mexico, former football player Nick Schuyler still lies awake at night wondering why he was the lone survivor.
That's one of the details revealed in Schuyler's exclusive interview with HBO's Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel, scheduled to air at 10 tonight. For the first time, Schuyler describes publicly how his companions — Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, NFL free agent Corey Smith and former University of South Florida football player Will Bleakley — died when Cooper's boat capsized during a fishing trip Feb. 28.
"People come out and (say) you're a celebrity. … No, I'm not a damn celebrity," Schuyler told correspondent Bernard Goldberg during the interview, which was provided to media critics to preview Real Sports' new episodes. "If I was able to keep them alive, maybe. I don't feel guilty … but it's impossible not to. Why am I here and three are gone?"
Schuyler's media adviser, North Carolina-based spokesman Rick French, said his client decided to do one major media interview "to set the record straight about some of the facts that had transpired and been inaccurately reported by a variety of media outlets."
French declined to give specifics beyond disputing talk that those who did not survive somehow gave up their struggle to stay alive.
"These guys fought to the end," French said, citing Schuyler's account of the accident. "The four of them showed — Nick doesn't like this word — but it was nothing short of heroic, for all four of them."
Some details Schuyler described about the three men's final moments may be new to viewers, including the victims' families.
Bleakley's father said that when he learned of Schuyler's interview several weeks ago he contacted HBO and asked for an advance copy.
"They said, 'We'll think about it,' " but never sent a copy, Bob Bleakley said. "We're kind of disappointed when our name and son is mentioned in an interview, they'll let the rest of world see it before us."
Bleakley said he read previews of the show that contained details with which he and his wife were unfamiliar. He was not specific. Bleakley has spoken with Schuyler several times over the past five months, he said, but they have never discussed the accident or Will's death in depth.
Corey Smith's mother, Barbara, said she and her husband will not watch the episode, though other relatives planned to watch. She had "mixed feelings" about Schuyler doing the interview, she said.
French said Schuyler, a former USF football player, was not compensated in any way for the interview and did not set ground rules, beyond noting "Nick wanted to make sure whomever did the story would be able to tell the story of his friends and pay tribute to them."
French also noted that Schuyler was offered money by other journalism outlets, but he declined to provide specifics. He said, to his knowledge, Schuyler doesn't have plans to tell his story himself in a book or other project and would only consider doing a second interview "if there's a way to truly honor Will and Corey and Marquis … some kind of charitable angle that made sense."
Because two of the men were pro football players, their disappearance sparked national headlines. A flood of reporters descended on Tampa General Hospital after Schuyler was found on March 2, clinging to the boat's motor.
In HBO's story, Schuyler gave a detailed account of the accident, starting with the four men's mood after attempts to dislodge a stuck anchor flipped the boat over and landed all of them in cold water during an approaching storm.
"You immediately start thinking, 'There's no way I'm going out like this,' " he said. "After we realized we might not make it, we starting thinking about things we would change in our lives."
Schuyler, who had been seasick, was the only one who was fully clothed when the boat capsized; his friends were clad in shorts and T-shirts with no shoes. It's unclear how or why Schuyler was wearing more clothes, but it may have contributed to saving his life.
"He was wet when he was rescued, but any clothes are better than no clothes in that environment," Coast Guard spokesman Robert Simpson said Monday.
Over time, hypothermia set in with all four men, causing hallucinations; Cooper was the first to lose his senses and attempt to leave the boat, forcing Schuyler to hold on to him.
"After some time, Marquis went from being vocal and aggressive to being unconscious," said Schuyler, noting that Smith was the next to begin irrationally trying to leave the boat. "I kept saying, 'Will, I can't hold both of them.' We decided we're going to lose Corey if I don't let go of Marquis. We're gonna lose another guy. And that (chokes up), that was, uh … probably the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
Smith broke free and swam away, never to be seen again. Schuyler said Bleakley's lifejacket ripped and came off, and he drowned shortly after. "There was a good 10-minute span where I just sat on that boat and watched my best friend floating," he said.
Hours later, Schuyler was discovered by a Coast Guard crew and had to tell them he was the only survivor.
Asked by Goldberg how he's coping with it all, Schuyler went from somber to gloomy.
"Not that good. … I think about it all the time … 20 times a day," Schuyler said. "I'll be honest, I gotta pretend that I'm okay."
Eric Deggans can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8521.