Bathed in the light from the stained glass cross at Crystal River Methodist Church, a white “84” glinted off a dark green jersey.
That number had seen the triumph of the Bulls’ first bowl game victory. It had been pressed against a football as the person who bore that number, former USF football player Will Bleakley, ran across the field in games against UCF, Syracuse and East Carolina.
But this weekend, that number didn’t just represent Bleakley’s role as a tight end for the Bulls. It stood for the man who loved to play sports of any kind, who could beat just about all of his friends at golf but wouldn’t harass them too much about it, and whom friends said they revered as much for his book smarts as his athletic ability.
He was their friend, their teammate, their Will, and on Saturday afternoon, football coach Jim Leavitt, running backs coach Carl Franks and more than 100 people from the USF community gathered for a memorial service in Bleakley’s honor.
So many people attended the service they couldn’t all fit in the church, said former USF quarterback Grant Gregory. To let all the additional guests hear the service, the church set up speakers outside, which is where Gregory and other USF football players including Andrew Ketchel, Armando Sanchez and Carlton Mitchell gathered.
Though they didn’t get to sit inside, Gregory and Ketchel said the most important part of the service occurred afterward, when they had the chance to talk to Bleakley’s parents.
“It gave me some closure, just to hear from them and get a few words in,” Ketchel said.
One week ago, Will Bleakley and three friends — including NFL players Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith and former USF player Nick Schuyler — went fishing in the Gulf of Mexico when their boat overturned. The Coast Guard searched more than 20,000 miles of the Gulf’s waters but found only Schuyler clinging to the overturned 21-foot boat. Though the Bleakleys didn’t want to give up the search for their son, Betty Bleakley, Will’s mother, said that after talking with Schuyler as he recovered from hypothermia at Tampa General Hospital, they knew their son wouldn’t be returning home.
Schuyler, recently released from the hospital, also traveled to the service, limping as he walked — a reminder of the struggle the four men endured and the 40-plus hours Schuyler spent in the water.
“He was as devastated as anyone would be, having gone through that, but he’s doing real well,” Gregory said. “He’s lost some weight, but he should be back to normal soon.”
During a press conference Wednesday, Dr. Mark Rumbak said Schuyler had been experiencing some pain in his legs and left ankle as a result of hypothermia but is expected to make a full recovery soon.
Ketchel said that though he saw Schuyler the day before the service, spending time with him face-to-face made the past week feel all the more real.
“It gave me the realization that it all really did happen,” he said.
Though Bleakley was best known at USF as a football player, if his mom had it her way, he might never have donned the number 84. When he was in kindergarten, Betty Bleakley signed her son up for soccer and baseball, but she said she didn’t feel comfortable with the thought of him playing a sport as aggressive as football.
“I never thought I’d let him play because I was afraid he’d get hurt,” she said.
And then, when Will was in seventh grade, he came home from school with a form in his hand, she said. It was a permission slip to join the Sharks Football League. He had filled it out entirely, she said, and told her all she needed to do was sign it.
“I thought, ‘What am I going to do?'” his mother said. “So I said OK, and I signed it.”
Scott Miller, one of Bleakley’s childhood friends, played football and basketball with him in middle school. They also played baseball, and their passion for sports continued throughout college as the pair joined a men’s league in Clearwater and regularly played golf at the Claw while taking classes at USF.
Though Miller had scrimmaged against Bleakley countless times and played alongside him in a variety of sports, nothing compared to seeing his friend don a gold helmet and green uniform as he walked onto the field at Raymond James Stadium.
“Seeing him out there on the football field the first few times made me feel so good,” Miller said. “I was so happy to be a part of his journey to get to that place.”
On the field, teammates said Bleakley was the player new members turned to for guidance and support. He was a fifth-year senior when Ketchel began his freshman year, and though there are sometimes barriers between older and younger players, Ketchel said Bleakley never acted that way. Instead, he focused on helping others adjust to playing college football.
“He really provided the mentorship I needed,” he said. “It wasn’t just on the field, though — he invited me to go out on weekends and hang out with him, too. I never expected a starting senior to do that, but that was just him. He always reached out to other people.”
As Ketchel approached Bleakley’s parents, he said he worried it’d be difficult to find the right words to say to them. He grew more comfortable as he spoke to them, he said, drawing courage from their quiet strength, and decided to share with them the story he felt displayed their son’s character best: the way Bleakley broke down player age barriers, taking charge and guiding new team members through a world of two-a-day practices, adrenaline-pumping games and major lifestyle
“I wanted them to be able to have personal stories to take away from this and show what an impact he had,” he said. “He was such a good, caring person.”
During the service, football players, coaches, friends and family stood together not just to remember a number emblazoned on a jersey or Bleakley’s successes on the field.
They were there for something bigger: They were there for Will.