CLEARWATER, Fla. – The Coast Guard received no distress signal from a fishing boat that disappeared off Florida's Gulf Coast while carrying two NFL players and two former college players.
The Coast Guard is searching a wide area for the 21-foot vessel carrying Corey Smith, a Detroit Lions free-agent defensive end, and Marquis Cooper, an Oakland Raiders linebacker. Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler, both former University of South Florida players, were also aboard.
The boat was reported missing Sunday, one day after it left Clearwater Pass and did not return as expected Saturday evening as the weather became increasingly rough, with heavy winds and high seas.
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Coast Guard Capt. Timothy M. Close said there was no communication with the men even before the weather started to pick up and no SOS call was received.
"That's not to say they didn't send one out," he said. "We didn't receive anything."
The Coast Guard used a helicopter and an 87-foot ship to search a 750-square mile area west of Clearwater Pass, but poor weather on Sunday made the search difficult.
There was no sign of the men or the boat by Sunday evening. Relatives told the Coast Guard the men had lifejackets and flares onboard.
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.
Bad weather could be dangerous for a boat the size of Cooper's. The weather early Saturday had been fair, but worsened toward the evening as a front still battering the area 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.
Danielle Mayes, owner of Jaxson's Bait House near the ramp where the men departed, said many of the boaters who returned Saturday evening said they were surprised the water had gotten so rough.
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.