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Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Florida Gator Brad Culpepper recalls his lost in the gulf tale

He remembers the numbing cold of the water, and how it engulfed him. He remembers the relentless force of the waves, and how they washed over him. He remembers the darkening of the day, and how desperately he yearned to see a rescue light.

No matter how he tries, there are some things a man cannot forget.

Even after all of this time, Brad Culpepper remembers the awful, surreal feeling of being lost at sea.

During a week when all of Tampa Bay gazed with hope toward the Gulf of Mexico, as people followed the news and aimed their prayers toward four missing fishermen, few could look on with the same mixture of empathy and understanding. Once, after all, the boats looked for him.

"It could have been us,'' Culpepper says softly. "Absolutely, it could have been us.''

It was 19 years ago, long before Culpepper was a prominent attorney, long before he was a popular Buccaneer, when the diving boat he was on sank. Together with his father, Bruce, and Ralph Haben, the former Florida Speaker of the House, he was stranded 15 miles from shore in 60-degree, 60-foot-deep waters with 4- to 5-foot waves. Haben was rescued first, but the Culpeppers spent almost 10 hours in the water before a fisherman's boat found them.

Compared to this week's tragedy, Culpepper had it easy. He makes it a point to tell you that. His obstacles weren't nearly as imposing as those encountered by Corey Smith, Marquis Cooper, Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler, the only man rescued. The waves were not as high, and the weather was not as bad. He was closer to the shore. He was wearing a shorty wet suit, swim fins and a buoyancy compensator.

Most of all, he had the luck to be rescued relatively quickly in a body of water as vast as the gulf.

"What these men went through is horrifying,'' said Culpepper, 39. "It's devastating. I can empathize with them. You're in a position where you've never been before, and it's extremely confusing.

"You're cold, you're in the middle of the ocean, and you can't see anything but the waves coming again and again and again. There is no refuge from it, and no relief.''

Culpepper's ordeal came on Easter weekend in 1990, when he was a sophomore at the University of Florida. His family was at their house on Dog Island, in the Panhandle off the coast of Carrabelle. Someone decided that an afternoon of spearfishing might be fun, and so around noon, they loaded their scuba gear and took off in Haben's 27-foot Rampage.

The three men opened the tuna door to jump into the water, but they left it open. The waves lapped into the boat, and the bilge pump did not work.

Fifteen minutes later, Culpepper surfaced to check his bearings, and he noticed only 2-3 feet of the boat was above the water. He grabbed onto it, and suddenly, it sank like a stone. Bruce was near the anchor line, and had to move out of the way of the plummeting shadow.

"You think, 'This isn't happening,' " Culpepper said. "It has to be a joke. It doesn't feel real.''

Bruce surfaced, too, but there was no sign of Haben, who had another 40 minutes of air in his tank. The Culpeppers saw a boat in the distance, perhaps a mile or so away. They began to swim toward it.

As they were halfway there, however, the boat pulled away. And, bobbing in the water, the Culpeppers now weren't quite sure which direction they had come from.

"We were 15-17 miles away (from land),'' Culpepper said. "The English Channel is about that wide, and people swim it. We had flippers. So we decided to swim to shore.''

They dumped their tanks and regulators. The two men laid on their backs, keeping the setting sun to their right, and began to kick. They didn't have food, water, compasses or flashlights.

"We didn't talk about how hungry we were or how thirsty,'' Culpepper said. "We kept our conversation to what was pertinent. 'How far have we gone? Which way is the current taking us?' That sort of thing.''

It was dusk when the Culpeppers saw a flare go off to the south of them. A passing fisherman, Ray Menard, had rescued Haben, who had taken a yellow swim fin and put it on top of his speargun.

Heartened, the Culpeppers kept swimming toward shore, the North Star as their guide. Now and again, something very large would swim past.

"I asked my father, 'Do you think we look like large appetizers up here?' " Culpepper remembers.

"Don't talk about that,'' his father said.

And so they swam, father and son, trying to keep each other's spirits up. At one point, Brad suggested it would be a fine time to tell him about some crazy things he did in high school. Another time, he joked that if his father died, he would eat him to stay alive.

The hours crept along, and the men got colder. Numbness began to creep into their hands. But there were lights to the south, indicating the rescue boats (10 of them, plus a helicopter) had arrived.

"They were so close, but they couldn't find us,'' Culpepper said. "Essentially, we were invisible out there.''

Despite it all, Culpepper says he never lost hope, and he never thought about dying.

"It just didn't come to that,'' Culpepper said. "We kept having little victories. The flare gun. Finding the North Star. The search lights.''

Around 11, the Culpeppers saw a blinking red light ahead of them from a shoreline tower. And then came another light; this one was getting closer. They heard voices. Even better, they heard people call out that the divers had been found. Amazingly, it was Menard, the same man who rescued Haben. They were rescued — just 7 miles from shore.

Looking back, Culpepper credits two things for their survival. The wet suits. And the luck.

Turns out, there was another happy ending for Culpepper. A week later, Gator teammate Emmitt Smith was undergoing physical therapy and reading a newspaper article about the accident. A coed named Monica Frakes asked what he was reading.

"This is about my buddy Brad,'' Smith said, according to Culpepper. "He's a straight-A student. He's the kind of guy you would want to marry."

Two weeks later, Culpepper was in a bar in Gainesville when Frakes walked up to him. "You're the guy in the boating accident, aren't you? You don't know this, but you and I are supposed to get married.''

Frakes turned to walk away, but Culpepper called her back and asked her to lunch. They have now been married 17 years and have three children.

As it turned out, the boat accident might even have contributed to Culpepper's pro football career. Minnesota defensive line coach John Teerlink once told him that he didn't think he would make the team, but if he could survive 10 hours in the gulf, maybe he could make it through training camp.

Culpepper, by the way, lasted nine seasons, six of them (1994-99) as a pugnacious nose tackle with the Bucs. He did not know Cooper or Smith, who played with the team after he left. Still, he feels for their families.

Perhaps we will learn. When people ask Culpepper, a partner at Culpepper-Kurland law offices in Tampa, about last week's boating accident, he tells them how difficult the situation must have been for the men, about the mental and physical pain involved. And then he hopes other boaters will pay attention.

"Maybe there is a silver lining,'' Culpepper said. "People will understand how dangerous the gulf can be. They will buy EPIRBs and flares and glow sticks, things that save lives.

"If you're a guy like Nick Schuyler, or if you are a relative of the other men, maybe the only way to have solace and live is to know that many, many lives might be saved from this.''

No, it is not enough. But it is something.

Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer and Florida Gator Brad Culpepper recalls his lost in the gulf tale 03/07/09 [Last modified: Sunday, March 8, 2009 7:54am]
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