The Coast Guard searched off Florida's Gulf Coast on Sunday for a fishing boat carrying NFL players Corey Smith and Marquis Cooper and two other men missing more than a day in choppy seas.
Smith, a defensive end for the Detroit Lions, and Cooper, an Oakland Raiders linebacker, were on a 21-foot vessel that left Clearwater Pass for a fishing trip Saturday morning and did not return as expected, the Coast Guard said Sunday. Crews used a helicopter and an 87-foot ship to search a 750-square mile area west of Clearwater Pass, but poor weather made the search difficult. Officials did not receive a distress signal from the missing craft.
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Cooper owns the boat and he and Smith have been on fishing trips before, said Ron Del Duca, Smith's agent. The pair had been teammates on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004. Two others were aboard: Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler, both former University of South Florida players.
Coast Guard Capt. Timothy M. Close said the weather early Saturday had been fair, but worsened toward the evening as a front moved in. The National Weather Service said seas were about 2 to 4 feet Saturday morning and increased to 3 to 5 feet in the afternoon. Late Saturday night, a small craft advisory was issued, when winds were around 20 knots and seas were up to 7 feet or more. There were no thunderstorms in the area.
Close said the men were traveling in a boat manufactured by Everglades. At least one of the men was an experienced boater, and relatives provided the Coast Guard with GPS coordinates from previous fishing expeditions.
Close said there was no communication with the men even before the weather started to pick up. They were expected home by early evening. No sign of them or the boat had been spotted by Sunday evening. Relatives told the Coast Guard the men had lifejackets and flares onboard.
Poor weather conditions could be dangerous for a boat the size of Cooper's.
"A 21-foot boat is a relatively small vessel to be 50 miles off shore in bad weather conditions, certainly the current weather conditions," Close said.
Close said there was no sign yet that the men sent a distress signal.
"That's not to say they didn't send one out," he said. "We didn't receive anything."
Danielle Mayes, owner of Jaxson's Bait House near the ramp where the men departed, said Saturday had been deceptively beautiful. The weather was warm, and boaters had packed the small parking lot overlooking seaside condominiums and light blue waters.
Mayes said many of the boaters who returned Saturday evening said they were surprised that the water had gotten so rough.
The Coast Guard search was mainly by air, and was hampered by the poor weather, Close said. He said there were 14-foot seas offshore and wind gusts of up to 30 mph. Water depth in the search area ranges from 20 to 50 feet. The Coast Guard originally sent a 47-foot ship to search for the men around 2 a.m Sunday. It returned to dock about eight hours later and was replaced by a larger ship, in part because of the weather.
Smith, 29, had 30 tackles, including three sacks, and an interception in 12 games last season for the winless Lions. Smith, who is 6-foot-2, 250 pounds, also played for the San Francisco 49ers and played college ball at North Carolina State. He lives in Richmond, Va.
Del Duca said Smith is one of the "good guys" of the league and was planning to start visiting teams as a free agent this week. He said he has spoken with Smith's family and is also in touch with Coast Guard officials.
"They've assured me that they're deploying all available resources to look for these guys and get them back," he said.
Cooper, 26, has played five seasons with the Buccaneers, Seahawks, Jaguars, Steelers and Raiders. He appeared in 26 games with the Buccaneers in 2004 and 2005, recording 30 tackles. He has played sparingly since as he has bounced between teams, appearing in 13 games and recording 10 tackles. Cooper, who is 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, played college ball at Washington. He grew up in Gilbert, Ariz., and his father Bruce is a prominent sportscaster for KPNX-TV in Phoenix.
Cooper told The Seattle Times in 2002 that one reason he chose Washington was the abundant fishing.
"I like fighting the fish," Cooper told the newspaper. "And just relaxing out there and being alone and being outside."
Bruce Cooper described his son as an avid fisherman who goes deep sea fishing "any opportunity he gets." The two went deep sea fishing together two years ago.
"I swore I would never do so again," Cooper said in a statement. "I didn't like the fact that I couldn't see land. Needless to say I am very concerned. I am praying and hoping for the best."
Stu Schuyler, Nick's father, said his son had gone fishing with the same group of friends last weekend, apparently en route to a shipwreck about 50 miles offshore where fish are abundant. He said he left his son a message on his cell phone Saturday morning, asking him not to stay out too late because of the approaching storm.
"I'm optimistic," Schuyler said. "But I'm also realistic."
Lions spokesman Bill Keenist and Raiders senior executive John Hererra said the teams are monitoring reports. Both teams issued statements saying their thoughts and prayers are with the families of all the missing men and those involved in the search.
While the search continued, Cooper's pickup truck and boat trailer remained in the parking lot near the boat launch. On the dashboard was a one-day parking receipt that expired Sunday morning.
"Please contact the Coast Guard," a note left tucked underneath a windshield wiper read. "Someone was worried about your welfare."