CLEARWATER, Fla. (AP) - As the four fishing buddies huddled together in the dark, clinging to their capsized boat miles off the Florida coast, a helicopter's light shone down upon them.
For a while, as the boat drifted in the rough seas, Nick Schuyler could even see the city lights from shore. But the men drifted away as the hours passed, Schuyler told a friend after he was rescued, with the two NFL players aboard disappearing first, leaving him and his college football teammate hanging onto the hull.
"The waves were just so much. They never got a break," said Schuyler's friend, Scott Miller.
The Coast Guard called off the search Tuesday for the other three: Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, free-agent defensive lineman Corey Smith and former University of South Florida player William Bleakley, three days after their boat capsized Saturday.
Miller said Schuyler told him from his Tampa hospital room that the men initially hung together, trying to come up with plan. Bleakley swam underneath the boat and retrieved three life jackets and a cushion.
Easygoing and an avid fisherman, Bleakley gave the others the vests, Schuyler told Miller, and at least intially was the one clinging to the cushion.
"Will was there as long as he remembered," Miller said. "I want everyone to know Will's a hero in this whole thing."
Bleakley and Schuyler were former South Florida teammates, and the 24-year-old survivor had helped Cooper and Smith train at a gym.
After scouring about 24,000 square miles of ocean, the Coast Guard said it had done all it could to locate the men. Capt. Timothy Close said officials were sure that if there were any more survivors, they would have been found.
"I think the families understood that we put in a tremendous effort," Close said. "Any search and rescue case we have to stop is disappointing."
Bleakley's father appreciated the Coast Guard's effort.
"I think they were not to be found," Robert Bleakley said.
Schuyler told rescuers after they plucked him from the ocean Monday that the boat was anchored when it capsized.
"He said basically that Will helped him keep going," Schuyler told Miller. Miller said he had also known Bleakley since the sixth grade. Eventually, Bleakley also got separated from the boat, leaving Schuyler alone.
Shortly before the search's conclusion was announced, the missing men's family and friends embraced and sobbed outside the Coast Guard station. They left without talking with reporters.
"He'll be an inspiration for me for a long time," Robert Bleakley said later of his son. "He always has been. I told everybody, I call him my hero."
Lions running back Kevin Smith called Corey Smith "a good, quiet guy, who always put in an honest day's work."
Kevin Smith, a Florida native, said he has been fishing as far off the coast as the four men, in boats larger and smaller than the watercraft that capsized.
"The No. 1 thing when you're out there is, you have to respect the water," he said. "I know those guys had safety vests. I'm trying not to even think about it. That's a tough way to go."
Close said some family members asked about continuing the search on their own, which he discouraged but said the Coast Guard wouldn't prevent. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission may be heading out Wednesday to recover the boat.
The Coast Guard hadn't had more detailed conversations with Schuyler "due to his physical and medical condition," Close said. Schuyler was in fair condition and told hospital officials he didn't want to speak to the media.
Cooper, 26, was selected in the third round of the 2004 NFL draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers out of Washington. He played 26 games for the Bucs in his first two pro seasons, then led a nomadic NFL existence.
Cooper and Smith, 29, became friends when they were teammates at Tampa Bay. Smith signed with the Bucs as an undrafted free agent in 2002, and spent last season with Detroit before becoming a free agent. The former North Carolina State standout recorded 42 tackles (28 solo), three sacks and 10 special teams tackles in 2008, his best NFL season.
Bleakley, a 25-year-old former tight end from Crystal River, Fla., was on the USF football team in 2004 and 2005. He had one reception for 13 yards in his career, which also included some time on special teams.
Stuart Schuyler said his son is an instructor at L.A. Fitness and had helped train Smith and Cooper.