CLEARWATER, Fla. - The Coast Guard called off the search Tuesday for two NFL players and a third man lost at sea off the Florida coast after their boat capsized during a fishing trip.
Officials said the search would end at sundown, with Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper,free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith, who played with the Detroit Lions last season, andformer South Florida player William Bleakley still missing in the rough, chilly seas.
"We're extremely confident that if there are any survivors on the surface of the water t hat we would have found them," said Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close, who added that searchers scoured the equivalent of 24,000 square miles over more than 60 hours.
Hopes were raised Monday when crews found a fourth man who was aboard, 24-year-old formerSouth Florida player Nick Schuyler, who managed to stay with the boat after it overturned Saturdayevening.
William Bleakley's father said he felt comfortable with the Coast Guard's decision and that hisexpectations lowered after only one survivor was found.
"I think they did everything that they could," Robert Bleakley said of the Coast Guard. "I thinkthey were not to be found." Close said searchers found a cooler and a life jacket 16 miles southeast ofthe boat, but no other signs of the men.
Prospects for survival became more grim throughout the day, with Cooper's father saying the CoastGuard told him privately officials were losing hope because so much time had passed andhypothermia risks were high. Coast Guard officials said publicly that they were still hopeful.
"I think the families understood that we put in a tremendous effort," Close said. "Any search andrescue case we have to stop is disappointing." Family and friends embraced and sobbed outside theCoast Guard station shortly before the announcement. They left without talking with reporters.
"I'm sure that I'll speak of Will like he's still with us for a long time," Robert Bleakley said later ofhis son. "He'll be an inspiration for me for a long time. He always has been. I told everybody, I callhim my hero." Lions running back Kevin Smith called Corey Smith "a good, quiet guy, who alwaysput in an honest day's work." Kevin Smith, a Florida native, said he has been fishing off the coast asfar as the men were in boats smaller, the same size and larger than the 21-foot watercraft thatcapsized.
"The No. 1 thing when you're out there is, you have to respect the water," he said. "I know thoseguys had safety vests. I'm trying not to even think about it. That's a tough way to go." The fourfriends left Clearwater Pass early Saturday in calm weather, but heavy winds picked up through theday and the seas got heavy, with waves of 7 feet and higher, peaking at 15 feet on Sunday. A relativealerted the Coast Guard early Sunday after the men did not return as expected. The Coast Guardsaid it did not receive a distress signal.
Close said some family members asked about continuing the search on their own, which hediscouraged but said the Coast Guard wouldn't prevent.
"I can't emphasize this enough," Close said. "We do not want any additional search and rescue casesresulting from people who are outside their experience level." The Florida Fish and WildlifeConservation Commission may be heading out Wednesday to recover the boat, which was still on thewater.
Schuyler told the Coast Guard the boat was anchored when it capsized. The four friends were ableto put on life vests and huddle together, but eventually became separated, he said.
Schuyler was dehydrated and showing symptoms of hypothermia, but his condition was upgradedto fair on Tuesday. Hospital officials said he didn't want to talk to the media.
The Coast Guard hadn't had more detailed conversations with Schuyler "due to his physical andmedical condition," Close said.
Cooper, who is 26 and owns the boat, was selected in the third round of the 2004 NFL draft by the
Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of Washington. He played 26 games for the Bucs in his first two proseasons, then led a nomadic NFL existence.
Cooper and Smith, 29, became friends when they were teammates at Tampa Bay. Smith signed withthe Bucs as an undrafted free agent in 2002, and spent last season with Detroit before becoming afree agent. The former North Carolina State standout recorded 42 tackles (28 solo), three sacks and10 special teams tackles in 2008, his best NFL season.
Bleakley, a 25-year-old former tight end from Crystal River, Fla., was on the USF football team in2004 and 2005. He had one reception for 13 yards in his career, which also included some time onspecial teams.