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A search ends, a community reflects

As each minute passed, media reports told the Bleakleys that the chances of finding their son, Will, were worsening.

The water in the Gulf of Mexico was about 60 degrees. The wind whipped over the swelling waves at speeds up to 30 miles per hour. Hypothermia was likely setting in, they said.

As the hours stretched into days, family and friends had to weigh these reports against  the fervent hope that they would see the former USF player, son and friend again.

Though the Coast Guard ended its search for Will and his two friends Tuesday evening, Will’s mom, Betty Bleakley, said she and her husband considered continuing on their own, just as the family of another of the missing boaters — Oakland Raider and former Buccaneer Marquis Cooper — did by hiring three private pilots.

Those plans changed Wednesday morning, however, when she spoke to Will’s former teammate — the lone person rescued during the Coast Guard’s three-day, 20,000-mile sweep of the gulf.

It was then, she said, that she realized her son wasn’t coming home.

As former USF player Nick Schuyler sat in a hospital bed, being treated for the moderate hypothermia he got from spending almost two full days clinging to the overturned boat, he told Bleakley about what happened during the last 24 hours before he was rescued.

“It was very painful to hear,” she said. “I knew at that point that we did not need to keep searching.”

Bleakley said she didn’t want to discuss their conversation, but said earlier reports that some of the players had given up hope and let themselves be taken away by the thrashing waves were untrue.

“They fought like crazy to stay alive,” she said. “These men did not give up the will to live. Their bodies succumbed to the elements.”

Schuyler, Bleakley, Cooper and Detriot Lions player — and former Buccanneer — Corey Smith had gone fishing at about 6:30 Saturday morning. When they did not return that night, a relative called authorities. The Coast Guard began its search around 1 a.m. Sunday.

Dr. Mark Rumbak, USF professor and pulmonary critical care physician, said in a press conference Wednesday that one of the major reasons the four men stayed alive for as long as they did was because of their rigorous training as athletes. He treated Schuyler — who has progressed from fair to good condition and is expected to be released from Tampa General Hospital within the next few days — shortly after he was hospitalized.

“This guy is in very, very, very, very good physical condition,” Rumbak said of Schuyler, adding that the same could have been said for his three friends. “It’s what got (Schuyler) through this.”

USF tight end Andrew Ketchel, who played football with Schuyler and Bleakley, said he believes all of the training the sport requires goes beyond making a person physically tough.

“Mental toughness is something you learn through football that you’re able to adapt to the rest of your life,” he said. “(The four players’) ability to last so long under such horrible conditions is a testament to that.”

Despite the players’ strength, Ketchel said that when the Coast Guard found Schuyler clinging to the boat Monday afternoon, he worried it meant the others wouldn’t be found.

“I’m an angler — I’ve been out there. I know what kind of conditions they’re facing,” he said. “I tried to stay optimistic and have hope, but I had a gut feeling, down in my soul, that they didn’t make it.”

Over the past four days, the Coast Guard searched and the media reported every announcement it made. But for many family members and friends, it was hard to avoid a feeling of helplessness as they waited for news.

“It was a really crazy situation because it’s always in the back of your mind,” said Grant Gregory, friend of Bleakley and former USF quarterback. “There’s nothing we could do aside from call the people who are friends with him and care about him.” 

Throughout the week, many turned to local media outlets to find out the latest information about the search for the four friends.

Even when some of the information turned out to be false, Betty Bleakley felt some degree of gratitude — like when reports emerged that a person had been found in gulf, but later determined it to be a giant fish.

“That was a real boo-boo,” she said. “It raised our hopes so much, but we needed that at the time.”

Though the Bleakley family has ended its search, for many, returning to life as usual without Will will be a challenge.

“It’s hard to cope with this when they haven’t found the bodies,” Gregory said. “You don’t have closure.”