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Two NFL players missing at sea

Marquis Cooper, an Oakland Raiders linebacker, and Corey Smith, a defensive end who last played for the Detroit Lions, are among four who did not return from boat trip off Florida.

March 02, 2009|Sam Farmer

Two NFL players were in a group of four boaters missing Sunday in the choppy seas off Florida's Gulf Coast.

Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper and defensive end Corey Smith, a free agent who last played for the Detroit Lions, were in a group of friends that left in Cooper's 21-foot boat early Saturday morning for a day of fishing off the coast of Clearwater, Fla., and did not return that evening as expected.

Officials did not receive a distress signal from the missing craft.

Family members alerted the Coast Guard of the situation about 1:30 a.m. Sunday, triggering a massive search by sea and air, involving airplanes, helicopters and rescue boats. High winds and rough waters hampered the search efforts covering a 750-square-mile area west of Clearwater Pass.

"We had a 47-foot vessel searching earlier today, and we had to pull it in because it was too rough," Coast Guard petty officer Sondra-Kay Kneen said.

By nightfall Sunday there was no sign of the men -- Cooper, 26, Smith, 29, and former University of South Florida football players Will Bleakley, 25, and Nick Schuyler, 24. Kneen said the search would continue into the night.

According to the National Weather Service in Tampa, seas were about two to four feet Saturday morning and increased to three to five feet in the afternoon. A small-craft advisory was issued late Saturday night, and Sunday seas reached eight to 12 feet. Winds were gusting up to 30 knots.

In a news release, the Lions said the club will try to gather more information, while maintaining constant communication with Coast Guard and local Florida authorities.

"First and foremost, however, is that our thoughts and prayers are with all the passengers, their families and all those involved in the search efforts," Lions spokesman Bill Keenist said in the release.

The Raiders issued a similar statement.

There was onshore evidence of the men leaving on the trip: Still parked on a Clearwater boat ramp Sunday afternoon was Cooper's Chevy Silverado with an empty boat trailer, the Associated Press reported. There was a one-day parking receipt on the dashboard that expired Sunday morning. Tucked under the windshield wiper was a note that, according to the AP, read, "Please contact the Coast Guard. Someone was worried about your welfare."

Smith has played seven NFL seasons, the last three with the Lions, for whom he started three games at defensive end last season. In 2008, he had 30 tackles, including three sacks, and an interception. He spent his first 2 1/2 seasons with Tampa Bay -- where he and Cooper were teammates -- then played for San Francisco.

Agent Ron Del Duca described Smith as a "level-headed and low-maintenance" person so generous with his time that, at his own expense, he flew from Tampa to Virginia Beach, Va., to speak to the second-grade class of Del Duca's daughter.

"He didn't drink, he didn't smoke," Del Duca said. "I talked to him Friday night, and he told me about this fishing trip he was going on. He said he'd gone on one with Cooper a couple times before. I even joked that I get seasick on those kinds of trips, and he said, 'Nah, it's not that bad.' "

Since 2004, when the Buccaneers made him a third-round pick, Cooper has played sparingly for six teams: Tampa Bay, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Jacksonville and Oakland.

His father, Bruce Cooper, is a television sports reporter for an NBC affiliate in Arizona, where his son was known for being remarkably light for his position, yet astoundingly tough.

"He was the skinniest linebacker I ever coached," high school coach, Mike Reardon, told the Chandler (Ariz.) Republic in 2006. "But what he has done should show you how much heart he has. When he tackles you, you know you've been tackled."

Former Tampa Bay linebacker Ryan Nece, who played with Cooper and Smith in Tampa Bay, and with Smith in Detroit last season, told the St. Petersburg Times: "It's really upsetting when you know both guys really well. I think about a guy like Marquis being a family man [wife and one child]. You have connections with the guys. It's hard."

Nece added Cooper is "very experienced on the water."

According to a local fishing expert, even experienced boaters can encounter problems when the Gulf Coast weather turns. "You can be in bad shape pretty quick out there," said Cory Holmes, manager of Ultimate Fishing Center in St. Petersburg. "It can be dead calm in the morning and blow 30 mph in the afternoon."

--

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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