The US Coast Guard's three-day search for two NFL players and a third man has ended in futility, dashing hopes they might be found after rescuers plucked one survivor from the Gulf of Mexico.
|Missing player Corey Smith pictured in 2007 playing for the Detroit Lions [EPA]
Crews combed more than 24,000 miles of ocean before calling off their search on Tuesday for Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith and former South Florida player William Bleakley.
They had been missing since Saturday when their boat capsized during a fishing trip.
On Monday, crews did rescue Bleakley's former South Florida teammate, 24-year-old Nick Schuyler, who managed to stay with the 21-foot boat.
But Coast Guard Captain Timothy Close said if there were any other survivors, they would have been found.
"The families understood that we put in a tremendous effort,'' Close said.
"Any search and rescue case we have to stop is disappointing.''
Searchers spotted no signs of the men except for a cooler and a life jacket 16 miles southeast of the boat.
Still, family members of Cooper maintained hope at a Tuesday night prayer vigil that he might turn up.
"Even if he goes on, he's with the Lord,'' said Cooper's grandmother, Zelma Davis.
"But we have hope we're going to keep him.''
Bleakley's father said he thought Coast Guard rescuers did everything they could, adding he had lower expectations after only one survivor was found Monday.
"They were not to be found,'' Robert Bleakley said.
Scott Miller, a friend of the college teammates, said Schuyler told him that a helicopter shone a light directly above them the first night. Schuyler also told him he even saw lights beaming from ashore.
It was Bleakley who swam underneath to retrieve three life jackets he could find, along with a cushion, a groggy Schuyler told Miller from a Tampa hospital. Bleakley used the cushion and the other men wore the jackets, Miller said.
But the waves were powerful, and after Cooper and Smith were separated from the boat, the college teammates tried to hang on.
"He said basically that Will helped him keep going,'' Schuyler told Miller, who said he had known Bleakley since the sixth grade.
"The waves were just so much. They never got a break.''
Family and friends embraced and sobbed outside the Coast 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 of his son.
"He'll be an inspiration for me for a long time. He always has been. I told everybody, I call him my hero.''
Lions running back Kevin Smith called Corey Smith "a good, quiet guy, who always put in an honest day's work.''
Quarterback Jon Kitna, a former teammate with the Lions the past three seasons, said you never expect something like this to happen to a guy you know.
"It's a reminder of how life is fragile,'' he said. "Corey was a great dude.''
|Nick Schuyler is rescued by the US Coast Guard [GALLO/GETTY]
The four men left Clearwater Pass early Saturday in calm weather, but heavy winds picked up through the day and the seas strengthened, with waves of 7 feet and higher, peaking at 15 feet on Sunday.
The Coast Guard said it did not receive a distress signal.
Close said some family members asked about continuing the search on their own, which he discouraged but said the Coast Guard wouldn't prevent.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission may be heading out on Wednesday to recover the boat.
Schuyler told the Coast Guard the boat was anchored when it capsized.
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 pro seasons, then led a nomadic NFL
Cooper and Smith, 29, became friends when they were teammates at Tampa Bay.
Smith signed with the Bucs as an undrafted free agent in 2002, and spent last season with Detroit before becoming a free agent.
The former North Carolina State standout recorded 42 tackles (28 solo), three sacks and 10 special teams’ tackles in 2008, his best NFL season.
Bleakley, a 25-year-old former tight end, was on the USF football team in 2004 and 2005. He had one reception for 13 yards in his career, which also included some time on special teams.