Search for missing players suspended

After scouring the Gulf of Mexico for three days, the Coast Guard suspended its search for three missing boaters — including former USF football player William Bleakley — at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday.  But family members have not yet given up hope.

NFL players Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith, along with Bleakley and former Bull Nick Schuyler, had gone fishing on Saturday morning. The Coast Guard began its search early Sunday morning after a relative reported them missing.

Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close said in a press conference Tuesday that the Coast Guard had conducted 50 missions and covered more than 24,000 square miles searching for the men.

“We’re extremely confident that if there were any survivors on the surface of the water, we would have found them,” he said.

Close warned against amateur search and rescue groups, he said that the Coast Guard was more experienced than average boaters and did not want any search and rescue missions to come out of the volunteers’ efforts.

The family of NFL player Marquis Cooper told the Tampa Tribune Tuesday they are asking for volunteer pilots to help them continue the search.

“We will not give up hope that Marquis is out there, fighting and trying to return,” said Cooper’s father, Bruce in a press conference Tuesday.

During their search, officials found a cooler and life vest 16 miles from where Schuyler was found, but they do not know if it came from the boat.

Schuyler, who is being treated for dehydration and hypothermia at Tampa General Hospital, told the Coast Guard the boat capsized when the men tried to lift the anchor Saturday evening. The group members were not wearing life vests at the time, but they swam underneath the boat and retrieved them.

Cooper’s cousin, Ray Sanchez, said the four were together “12-16 hours after the boat flipped on Saturday night.”

Bleakley, Cooper and Smith drifted away from the boat after that.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission — who joined the search effort on Monday morning — will recover the ship, Close said.

Former student body president Garin Flowers knew of Bleakley because he frequently saw him around campus as a freshman.

“Hearing something so close to home happening is so tragic,” he said. “I’m sad about it because it’s a fellow Bull.”

Doug Woolard, USF Director of Athletics, said the University’s sympathy goes out to the families.

“The entire USF community is saddened by the sobering news from the Florida Coast Guard today,” he said.