March , 2009

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Lions, Raiders mourn

Posted by Administrator On March - 4 - 2009

The search for former Detroit Lions player Corey Smith and two of his fishing buddies ended at sundown Tuesday after three days of scouring the Gulf of Mexico.

Rescuers and family members had held out hope that Monday’s discovery of fellow boater Nick Schuyler — he was clinging to the capsized fishing boat 35 miles off the coast of Clearwater, Fla. — could lead them to Smith, fellow NFL player Marquis Cooper and former University of South Florida football player Will Bleakley.

But by Tuesday evening, more than 80 hours after the 21-foot Everglades boat set out into what were then relatively calm waters, the Coast Guard decided nothing more could be done.

“We’re extremely confident that if there are any survivors on the surface of the water that we would have found them,” said Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close, who added that searchers scoured the equivalent of 24,000 square miles over the past three days.

Even if the men are found, Coast Guard officials privately told family members that the risk of hypothermia was high in mid-60-degree water.

“I think they did everything that they could,” said Robert Bleakley, the father of Will Bleakley. “I think they were not to be found.”

More details of Saturday’s events emerged Tuesday.

Scott Miller, a friend of Schuyler and Bleakley, gave this account of what a groggy Schuyler told him from a Tampa hospital:

The men initially hung together after the boat capsized, trying to come up with a plan. It was Bleakley who swam underneath the boat to retrieve three life jackets, along with a cushion. Bleakley used the cushion and the other men wore the life jackets.

On the first night, a chopper shone a light right above them and later on, as they continued to drift, Schuyler could even see lights from the shore.

But the waves were powerful, and after Cooper and Smith got separated from the boat, Schuyler and Bleakley tried to hang on.

The St. Petersburg Times reported Schuyler told investigators one of the NFL players gave up hope, took off his life jacket and let himself be swept away two to four hours after entering the water, according to family members of two of the missing men.

A few hours later, the second NFL player did the same. Schuyler and Bleakley remained clinging to the boat.

Then, Monday morning, Bleakley decided to take off his life jacket and swim to a light he saw in the distance, hoping to get help.

Ray Sanchez, Cooper’s cousin, said the Coast Guard told him the same story, but questioned the authenticity.

“We’re not 100% sure where his head was at,” Sanchez said. “He’d been through a lot.”

Searchers came across a cooler and a life jacket 16 miles southeast of the boat, but saw no other signs of the men.

Lions running back Kevin Smith, a Florida native, said he has also been out that far to fish and doesn’t want to think about what the experience was like for Smith, 29, Cooper, 26, and Bleakley, 25.

“That’s a tough way to go,” he said.

Rod Marinelli, who coached Corey Smith for three seasons with the Lions, released a statement through his new team, the Chicago Bears: “Corey Smith is a very special guy to me. He is a cornerstone of what this league is about: toughness, effort and team. … My thoughts and prayers have been with all three missing men and their families.”

The Lions also released a statement Tuesday: “Today’s news is a sobering reminder about how truly precious and fragile life can be. We will continue to pray for a miracle, though we fully understand and respect the decision of the Coast Guard.”

Lions defensive end Dewayne White said he hopes someone else will find them.

“I’m going to hold onto that. You never know, they might be washed up on the beach,” he said. “I prayed for him when I first got up this morning, and I’m going to keep praying for him.”

Smith was used to making the kind of impression Marinelli described. His coaches saw that attitude all the way back in high school.

Kevin Adams, athletic director at John Marshall High in Richmond, Va., was Smith’s linebackers coach his sophomore and junior years and head coach for Smith’s senior year in 1996.

“Corey was a good kid — just a great kid, worked hard,” Adams said. “Everybody loves Corey, which is one of the reasons I followed him, watched him play when he was at N.C. State. Yeah, he’s kind of a quiet guy — a gentle giant, but a great sense of humor.”

Adams said that Smith was a C-plus student and had to bring up his grades when he was recruited by colleges. He remembers Smith working with a tutor to get his test scores up.

“He worked hard for that,” Adams said. “He saw the dream.”

Smith took that ethic to North Carolina State University, where he played defensive end. He was a leader, said David Horning, the school’s senior associate athletic director.

“He showed that through his play on the field and was a very appreciative young man,” he said. “You just remember those kids.”

“This is so sad,” Lions defensive end Cliff Avril said. He didn’t know Cooper “like I did Corey, but it’s just like he’s one of our own. The NFL is a brotherhood. We all stand together.”

Detroit Free Press

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