TAMPA — A Bucs season rife with subpar moments produced its most surreal and ironic one Friday afternoon.
Standing before a bank of cameras inside a plush studio, the quarterback, who hasn’t taken a meaningful snap in nearly a year found himself recounting how fate forced him into the most critical hurry-up drill of his life.
Blaine Gabbert, a portrait of anonymity the last three seasons as Tom Brady’s backup, suddenly was commanding the national stage and being dubbed a “citizen hero.”
“I just thought I was doing the right thing at the right time,” Gabbert told reporters.
Roughly 20 hours earlier, Gabbert, 33, and his two younger brothers were Jet Skiing off Davis Islands, checking out the sailboats at the nearby yacht club, when he gazed westward and spotted what “almost looked like a crew boat in the water that had broken up in about four pieces.”
“And I vaguely recall seeing like, two yellow life jackets,” Gabbert said. “So I was like, ‘All right, we’ve got to go check this out.’ It looked like they were in duress.”
What the brothers discovered was a submerged helicopter — being used Thursday for a sightseeing tour — that had contained four passengers.
All of them — 28-year-old Hunter Hupp, his 62-year-old father, 59-year-old mother and the 33-year-old pilot — had evacuated the craft by the time the Gabberts (occupying two Jet Skis) arrived.
Slathered in engine oil, shivering, and clutching life jackets not yet fully inflated, the family of three was pulled onto the Jet Skis by the brothers and taken ashore. Gabbert returned to retrieve the pilot and called 911.
“I have the four people on my Jet Skis right now,” Gabbert is heard saying of himself and his brothers in a recording of the 911 call released by the Tampa Police Department Friday afternoon.
“You have them safe?” the 911 dispatcher asked. Gabbert said he and his brothers had them all.
“Is anybody hurt?” Gabbert could be heard asking those with him a few moments later. Someone in the background of the call replies, “No.”
Gabbert provided additional details during Friday’s news conference at AdventHealth Training Center.
“I got two on my Jet Ski, my brothers got one. The pilot was still in the water, and that’s when you guys pulled up,” he said, nodding at two members of the Tampa Police Department’s marine unit who also were in attendance.
“And I dragged (the pilot) a little bit towards the boat and he got on. Luckily enough, we were probably 250 meters from the beach, so we got him to the beach.”
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Police released audio of four other 911 calls regarding the incident. In those calls — made by people on the shore — some said they could see life vests a few hundred yards offshore.
“Nobody has come up yet,” another person told the dispatchers, as others noted they could see boats “speeding” over toward the crash scene.
After the rescue, Hupp said the helicopter tour — a Christmas gift — was wrapping up and they were planning to land at the airport when he heard a popping sound in the rotor above his head. Tampa Police Department Lt. Daniel College said the helicopter had an engine failure.
“I am pretty astonished that I am standing here to talk to you,” Hupp said in an interview at the airport Thursday.
As the helicopter hit the water and began to sink, Hupp said he was caught under seatbelts and cords. He said he struggled to get out as his parents and the pilot escaped and made their way to the surface.
Finally, Hupp freed himself and got back to the surface, where he met his rescuers.
The effort prompted Maj. David Arthur of the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office to deem Gabbert a “citizen hero.” Tampa Police Department interim chief Lee Bercaw named him an honorary member of the marine patrol unit.
Coach Todd Bowles lauded Gabbert’s selflessness. And naturally, teammates — namely center Ryan Jensen and tight end Cameron Brate — ribbed him mercilessly over his newfound fame.
“Oh, you can’t even imagine,” Gabbert said.
A married father of an infant daughter, Gabbert was raised in Missouri and is a lifelong fly-fishing enthusiast, but acknowledged Friday he has no formal water safety training.
“I like to say I’m a pretty good swimmer, but that’s the extent of it,” he said.
After encountering the stranded passengers, his initial instincts were to instruct them how to pull the rip cord to inflate the life jackets, then get them out of the frigid waters of Hillsborough Bay.
Upon loading his two passengers — including Hupp’s mother — aboard his Jet Ski, he said he accelerated quickly so the craft wouldn’t capsize.
“And I was like, ‘Ma’am, you have to hold on or you’re going to get flown off again,’” he said.
“Any time you can find a guy to drop everything and go help somebody else that he doesn’t even know without even thinking about it, and take their life into their own hands and helping somebody else save their lives, that says a lot about the guy,” Bowles said. “And Blaine did that.”
Still, Gabbert tried downplaying his role in the rescue, telling reporters that “you guys would do the exact same thing that I did. I just happened to be in that situation.”
On this surreal week, any hope of obscurity must wait until Sunday, when that other Bucs quarterback again assumes the national spotlight.
“Great job, sir,” Arthur told Gabbert.
“I honestly wanted to stay anonymous,” Gabbert said. “I just thought I was doing the right thing at the right time. I’m not much of a guy to be in the limelight. I just kind of want to stay under the radar.”