Search continues for NFL players after survivor found

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) – A missing boater found clinging to an overturned boat was rescued Monday off Florida’s Gulf Coast, but the search continued for two National Football League (NFL) players and another man aboard who didn’t return from a weekend fishing trip.

Survivor Nick Schuyler, a former University of South Florida player, told rescuers that the 21-foot boat was anchored when it flipped Saturday evening in rough seas and that the others got separated from the boat, Capt. Timothy M. Close said. Schuyler, who was wearing a life vest, had been clinging to the boat since then.

The boat belongs to Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, who along with free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith and former South Florida player William Bleakley, remain missing as of press time.

Television footage showed Schuyler conscious but weak as he was being taken off a helicopter at Tampa General Hospital and placed on a stretcher. The hospital declined immediate comment.

Close said the Coast Guard would search for the three missing men for “quite awhile.”

Smith, a free-agent defensive end who played for the Detroit Lions last season, and Cooper, an Oakland Raiders linebacker, as well as former University of South Florida players Bleakley and Schuyler left on a fishing trip early Saturday. Weather conditions worsened through the day and the men did not return as expected in the evening.

One of the men’s relatives reported them missing, and the Coast Guard searched a wide area west of Clearwater Pass but were hampered by rough seas and weather.

By Monday, the harsh conditions were starting to subside. Waves were six to eight feet, still enough for a small craft advisory, but considerably smaller than the 15-foot waves Sunday, National Weather Service meteorologist Todd Barron said.

The Coast Guard had searched about 16,000 square miles of ocean for the Everglades-manufactured boat by Monday morning. Everglades boats are built with compressed foam encased in Fiberglas, which makes them difficult or impossible to sink.

Cooper and Smith, who were teammates with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004, have been on fishing trips before, according to Ron Del Duca, Smith’s agent.

The 29-year-old Smith of Richmond, Va., is 6-foot-2, 250 pounds and had 30 tackles, including three sacks, and an interception in 12 games last season for the Detroit Lions.

Cooper, 26, who is 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, has spent five seasons with five different teams, appearing in 26 games with the Buccaneers in 2004 and 2005, but playing sparingly since. He grew up in Gilbert, Ariz., and his father Bruce is a prominent sportscaster for KPNX-TV in Phoenix.

Bruce Cooper said his son goes deep-sea fishing “any opportunity he gets.” He joined his son in an excursion two years again and “swore I’d never do so again,” Cooper said in a statement.

“Needless to say I am very concerned,” he said. “I am praying and hoping for the best.”

The Lions and Raiders issued statements saying their thoughts and prayers are with the families of all the missing men and those involved in the search.