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Originally published March 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 2, 2009 at 12:44 AM

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Ex-UW football player among four missing off Florida coast

The Coast Guard was searching off Florida's Gulf Coast on Sunday for a fishing boat carrying two NFL players, including former University of Washington and Seahawks linebacker Victor "Marquis" Cooper, and two other men missing nearly a day in choppy seas.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — The Coast Guard was searching off Florida's Gulf Coast on Sunday for a fishing boat carrying two NFL players, including former University of Washington and Seahawks linebacker Victor "Marquis" Cooper, and two other men missing nearly a day in choppy seas.

Corey Smith, a defensive end for the Detroit Lions, and Cooper, an Oakland Raiders linebacker, were on Cooper's 21-foot vessel that left Clearwater Pass for a fishing trip Saturday morning and did not return as expected, the Coast Guard said Sunday. Crews used a helicopter and an 87-foot ship to search a 750-square-mile area west of Clearwater Pass, but poor weather made the search difficult.

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

Cooper, 26, and Smith have been on fishing trips before, said Ron Del Duca, Smith's agent, and The Tampa Tribune reported online Sunday that Cooper had been on a 12-hour fishing trip the previous weekend. The pair had been teammates on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004.

The two others aboard were Will Bleakley and Nick Schuyler, both former University of South Florida players.

Coast Guard Capt. Timothy M. Close said the weather early Saturday had been fair but worsened. Late Saturday night, a small-craft advisory was issued, when winds were about 20 knots and seas were up to 7 feet or more.

Cooper played on the Huskies team that won the 2001 Rose Bowl and was drafted in the third round by Tampa Bay in 2004. He has played five seasons with the Buccaneers, Seahawks, Jaguars, Steelers and Raiders.

Cooper, who is 6 feet 3, 230 pounds, is from Mesa, Ariz., and his father, Bruce, is a prominent sportscaster for KPNX-TV in Phoenix.

Marques Tuiasosopo was a senior at the UW when Cooper enrolled and the two were teammates for the Rose Bowl season and again last year when the Oakland Raiders signed Cooper.

"You always hold out hope until they say no or tell you it's over with," Tuiasosopo told The Seattle Times by telephone Sunday. "We're just praying for him, his family members and the other guys, hoping it will come out OK.

"He's a good kid. He's a great teammate. He's a hard worker."

Cooper told The Times in 2002 that one reason he chose Washington was the abundant fishing.

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"I like fighting the fish," Cooper said. "And just relaxing out there and being alone and being outside."

Smith, 29, had 30 tackles, including three sacks, and an interception in 12 games last season for the Lions. Smith, who is 6-2, 250 pounds, also played for the San Francisco 49ers and at North Carolina State. He lives in Richmond, Va.

Relatives provided the Coast Guard with GPS coordinates from previous fishing expeditions and said the boat had life jackets and flares onboard. The men were expected home by early Saturday evening.

Poor weather conditions could be dangerous for a boat the size of Cooper's.

"A 21-foot boat is a relatively small vessel to be 50 miles off shore in bad weather conditions, certainly the current weather conditions," Close said.

The Coast Guard search was mainly by air and was hampered by the poor weather that included 14-foot seas and 30-mph wind gusts, Close said. A 47-foot ship was originally sent to search around 2 a.m. Sunday. It returned about eight hours later and was replaced by a larger ship, in part because of the weather.

Bruce Cooper described his son as an avid fisherman who goes deep-sea fishing "any opportunity he gets." The two went deep-sea fishing together two years ago.

"I swore I would never do so again," Cooper said in a statement. "I didn't like the fact that I couldn't see land. Needless to say I am very concerned. I am praying and hoping for the best."

Stuart Schuyler, Nick's father, said his son had gone fishing with the same group of friends last weekend, apparently en route to a shipwreck about 50 miles offshore where fish are abundant. He said he left his son a message on his cellphone Saturday morning, asking him not to stay out too late because of the approaching storm.

"I'm optimistic," Schuyler said. "But I'm also realistic."

Schuyler visited the boat launch and was overcome by emotion, The Tampa Tribune reported.

"We know what the circumstances are out there," he said. "Whether or not they're hanging on to the boat, if they all separated, if they had time to get their life jackets on, nobody knows."

While the search continued, Cooper's pickup truck and boat trailer remained in the parking lot near the boat launch. On the dashboard was a one-day parking receipt that expired Sunday morning.

"Please contact the Coast Guard," a note left tucked underneath a windshield wiper read. "Someone was worried about your welfare."

Seattle Times staff reporters Bob Condotta and Danny O'Neil and The Tampa Tribune contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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