Bleakley memorialized seven days after getting lost at sea
A week after two NFL players and two of their friends sailed into the Gulf of Mexico on a fishing trip that turned disastrous, family, friends and the lone survivor paid tribute to one of the missing men.
Several hundred people gathered at a Methodist church in Crystal River, a rural community north of Tampa, on Saturday afternoon to remember William Bleakley, a former University of South Florida player aboard the boat.
Relatives and his pastors recalled the young man's dedication to his family, and his hard work and positive attitude on and off the football field.
"His time here was far too short," Blake Bleakley, his older brother, told the mourners, "but very well spent."
Bleakley was aboard a boat owned by Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper the evening of Feb. 28 when it overturned in choppy waters off Florida's west coast. Corey Smith, a free-agent defensive lineman and 24-year-old Nick Schuyler, a former USF player, were also aboard.
Relatives reported the men missing early Sunday when they didn't return from their outing, sparking a massive Coast Guard search.
The Coast Guard found Schuyler clinging to the hull of the 21-foot Everglades boat Monday afternoon. The search for the three others was called off Tuesday evening.
After the service, Schuyler -- visibly limping and making his first public appearance since the rescue -- confirmed reports that he and Bleakley were the last two survivors. Schuyler told the Citrus County Chronicle that Bleakley encouraged him to stay upbeat as they hung onto the overturned boat and said they talked each other through the last night before Bleakley died.
"It's the longest thing possible you can imagine. We just kept saying that we weren't going to go out like this," Schuyler said in the article published Saturday evening on the newspaper's Web site.
"He saved my life. I'll never, ever forget Will. I'm only here today because of what Will did."
Cooper's family has decided not to hold a memorial service. Smith's family, which did not attend the memorial Saturday, could not be reached for comment on their plans.
During the service, which was open to the public, Rev. David Lane, a USF sports chaplain, recalled how Bleakley swam underneath the boat when it overturned to find life vests and a cooler for the group.
"That sounds like Will, doesn't it?" Lane said.
Bleakley was a walk-on to the USF team, but later earned a scholarship and became captain. Coach Jim Leavitt said he was a skilled player, but that his biggest contribution was his positive spirit. He was always encouraging other players and keeping an upbeat attitude, Leavitt said.
"The guys really picked him, that's what makes it really powerful," Leavitt said of Bleakley's role as captain. "You'll never find anybody that would ever say a bad word about him."
A family slideshow pictured Bleakley in various football uniforms through the years, alongside his proud parents, in a graduation gown, fishing, and hanging out with friends on the beach - always with a smile.
Blake Bleakley recalled that when he introduced his tall, younger sibling to friends, their immediate reaction was always, "Your little brother? I always had to explain he was my big little brother."
He closed the tribute by saying, "You will always be in my heart, my brother."
Cooper's family discontinued a private search for the men on Friday. In a statement, Bruce Cooper said the family had decided to forgo a memorial service, but asked people to remember his son in their thoughts and hearts instead.
"We are just beginning the process of healing," Bruce Cooper said. "We are staying prayerful. One day the pain will be a little less burdensome. Right now, we just need time to be together and remember Marquis."