For football fans in the Tampa Bay area, the past few weeks have been easily describable as turbulent. The Buccaneers franchise was turned completely upside down at the end of February, letting go of several key veteran Bucs and invaluable members of the community.
Those who know Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn know that their ties to the community are as strong as their ties to the team. Both played college football at Florida State University. Derrick Brooks was the last of the “Orange Bucs” that met their demise in the 1990s with the institution of new team colors. Nobody has a bad thing to say about the guy.
Warrick Dunn came back to Tampa after several years of playing in Atlanta and picked up right where left off. He put on a Buccaneers uniform once again and continued his work building homes for families in desperate need. His charity spans from Tampa to Atlanta to New Orleans. Losing these men will impact the whole community far beyond the loss felt inside Raymond James Stadium.
During radio call in shows in the past week, caller after caller referred to the releases of Dunn and Brooks as ‘shameful,’ ‘unfounded,’ and ‘tragic.’ This weekend, however, the word ‘tragic’ took on a whole new meaning to football fans and community members.
A day-long fishing excursion for four friends became a search and rescue mission that has now turned into a recovery mission for three of the four. Two of the men were current NFL players, both of whom played for the Buccaneers in 2004. The other two were members of the football team at the University of South Florida in Tampa.
Nick Schuyler and Will Bleakley played together at USF in 2006 and remained close friends. They joined NFL players Corey Smith, a free agent who played in Detroit last year, and Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, on a fishing trip Saturday that ended when the ship capsized during rough waves. The four were not only friends but experienced fishermen who had gone out on deep-sea fishing trips together several times.
Worried family members began calling authorities when the group did not return as usual on Saturday evening. On Monday morning, almost 2 full days after they left for a day-long fishing trip, Nick Schuyler was rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard, clinging to the overturned boat. He suffered from hypothermia, but he is expected to recover.
According to news reports, Schuyler has told family and authorities that he and Bleakley remained together with the boat for several hours but lost Smith and Cooper shortly after the boat capsized. Bleakley eventually drifted away after losing consciousness, according to an interview given by Bleakley’s father, who spoke with Schuyler in the hospital.
Nearly a week later, although loved ones remain hopeful and have gathered volunteers to continue the search, the official Coast Guard rescue mission has been called off. The three remaining men, two NFL football players and a former member of the USF Bulls, are officially considered lost at sea.
NFL teams, like any other sports organizations, are businesses and families. College football teams are no different. For fans, players, coaches, and the families of the missing men and the lone survivor, this tragedy will be remembered for years. For the Tampa Bay community, the lost is felt as deeply as anywhere. The game of football has temporarily taken a backseat, while the meaning of tragedy has been clearly defined.