TAMPA, Fla. — Two NFL players may have died just a few hours after their fishing boat capsized in rough seas and possibly before rescuers were even alerted that they and two others were lost off the west coast of Florida, according to Coast Guard records.
The lone survivor, Nick Schuyler, told the Coast Guard that one by one, the other three men took off their life vests and disappeared during the ordeal that began the evening of Feb. 28, according to a 23-page report provided to The Associated Press Monday under a Freedom of Information Act request.
The Coast Guard report, which redacts the men's names, says the group went roughly 70 miles — or 62 nautical miles — to fish for amberjack. Besides the 24-year-old Schuyler, also aboard the 21-foot Everglades boat were Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, free-agent NFL defensive lineman Corey Smith, who played for the Detroit Lions last season, and former University of South Florida player William Bleakley. The bodies of Cooper, Smith and Bleakley have not been recovered.
Around 5:30 p.m., the report said the group ran into trouble: Their anchor was stuck. Schuyler told investigators that he believed it was caught in a coral reef and they tried to free it, but water filled the boat and it capsized.
Tossed into the frigid water, the men managed to grab their life vests. Schuyler, also a former South Florida player, said they held on to the boat for four hours. But as the night wore on, their will to survive appears to have weakened and the effects of hypothermia were likely setting in.
Schuyler told the Coast Guard that one of the men "freaked out" and took off his life vest and disappeared that night.
Another started getting unruly, throwing punches and later took off his life jacket, dove under the water and was never seen again. The third man thought he saw land nearly two days after the boat capsized and decided to swim for it.
That man said his life jacket was too tight and he took it off, Schuyler told the Coast Guard.
Officials have said they found three life jackets: one on Schuyler, another near the boat and a third underneath.
It's unclear how accurate the account is. Schuyler, who was found clinging to the overturned boat about 35 miles off Clearwater and nearly 48 hours after the accident, was suffering from hypothermia and he has provided different accounts to the men's relatives. For example, Bleakley's family said Schuyler told them that their son held on to the boat with his college teammate until he weakened and died. Schuyler has also said that Bleakley helped him survive by talking to him and encouraging him during their last night together.
Marquis Cooper's father has questioned Schuyler's account that his son removed his life jacket. Schuyler has not responded to interview requests.
As time passed, their relatives grew worried because the group was expected home around sunset. One of the men's relatives contacted the Coast Guard around 1:30 a.m. on March 1 and a search began.
Records document the Coast Guard's repeated attempts — and frustrations — as rescuers tried to find the small white boat in a stormy sea with heavy cloud cover and whitecaps making it tough to spot.
One person who called the Coast Guard reported that one of the men, presumably Cooper, had one week left before he was expected in California for football practice. The caller, whose name was redacted from the report, said the group "could have possibly tried to go farther out to fish."
One of the men's wives was able to find a handheld GPS device that he had left at home and had apparently used in previous trips to record the coordinates of favorite fishing spots. The Coast Guard used that data to refine their search, placing the likely location of the men about 10 nautical miles south of their expected destination.
The Coast Guard contacted the men's cell phone companies for help tracking their whereabouts, without success. They also sent them text messages, stating that, "the CG is looking for you request you to contact us immediately."
"Being that these guys are inexperienced, don't look just at 50 NM offshore, there might be a possibility that they wisened up and stayed close to shore, at least within visual of land," a Coast Guard officer wrote in one e-mail.
The same e-mail added that, "It might be worth considering getting the story out to media earlier than later more people on the lookout both on land and water."
During the search, the Coast Guard reported 14-foot seas offshore and wind gusts up to 30 mph.
More than 24 hours after starting their search, a sign of hope finally emerged.
The Coast Guard cutter Tornado spotted Schuyler, looking small in the vast ocean and clinging to the boat's hull.
At Tampa General Hospital, Schuyler's doctor called it a "miracle" that he survived in the 63-degree Gulf water for nearly two days, and said he probably could have lived only another five to 10 hours.