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Originally published March 3, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 3, 2009 at 5:24 PM

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Gulf search continues for Cooper, 2 others

He had been clinging to the capsized boat for nearly two days when rescuers found him Monday. He was dehydrated, bruised and cut.

CLEARWATER, Fla. — He had been clinging to the capsized boat for nearly two days when rescuers found him Monday. He was dehydrated, bruised and cut.

But Nick Schuyler was alive.

He had survived by wrapping his arms around the stem of the 21-foot fishing boat's outboard motor 35 miles west of Clearwater and telling himself that his mother was not about to attend his funeral.

But, as the sun set late Monday, there still was no sign of his three friends — former University of Washington and Seahawk linebacker Victor "Marquis" Cooper, free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith and former University of South Florida player William Bleakley.

Schuyler, also a former University of South Florida player, told the Coast Guard that the boat — owned by Cooper — flipped Saturday afternoon and that the four men huddled together for a time before drifting apart — they were all wearing life jackets, he said.

News of the men's disappearance has reverberated around the NFL.

Cooper, 26, was a UW standout who was a freshman on the Huskies team that won the Rose Bowl after the 2000 season. He has spent five NFL seasons with five teams, including the Seahawks in 2006, and played sparingly for the Oakland Raiders last year. Cooper grew up in Gilbert, Ariz., and his father, Bruce, is a prominent TV sportscaster in Phoenix.

Bruce Cooper said his son goes deep-sea fishing "any opportunity he gets." Bruce Cooper joined in an excursion two years ago and "swore I'd never do so again," he said in a statement. "Needless to say I am very concerned," he said. "I am praying and hoping for the best."

Smith, 29, a former standout at North Carolina State, played last season for the Detroit Lions. He and Cooper were teammates with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2004.

The Coast Guard on Monday narrowed the search area for the men to 2,000 square miles — down from 16,000 square miles before Schuyler was found. The search parties included four fixed-wing aircraft, two helicopters, the 179-foot cutter Tornado, a 110-foot cutter and a 47-foot rescue boat.

The Coast Guard wouldn't speculate on their chances of survival, but said the men's size and good health were advantages. Cooper is 6-foot-3, 230 pounds; Smith is 6-2, 250 pounds; Bleakley, 25, played tight end in college.

"With all of these men being past, present football players," Coast Guard Capt. Timothy Close said, "they do have a much larger physique than a lot of people. So their odds are going to be definitely in their favor."

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Their families have said the men had life vests and flares aboard.

Schuyler was conscious but appeared weak as he was being taken off a helicopter at Tampa General Hospital and placed on a stretcher. His father said his son was in serious but stable condition and he "looks OK."

"He's got some cuts and bruises. He's dehydrated," Stuart Schuyler said.

The Schuyler family's joy was tempered by the search for his friends.

"We still have three men missing, and we're not going to talk too much until we find these guys," Stuart Schuyler said. "We're all praying for them. These guys are all very close friends."

Ray Sanchez, a cousin of Cooper, said the family was confident the Coast Guard would find them.

"My cousin's a powerful swimmer," said Sanchez, of Tampa.

James Allen, a marine safety consultant, said the chances of finding survivors diminish after people have been in the water three days. Survivors have been found after floating for days, but "you just can't swim forever," he said.

After 18 hours in 64-degree water, hypothermia will set in, Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class James Harless said.

The four men left Clearwater Pass early Saturday in calm weather, but heavy winds picked up and the seas got heavy, with waves of 7 feet and higher, peaking at 15 feet Sunday. A relative alerted the Coast Guard early Sunday after the men did not return.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Bob Condotta contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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