No one wants any tragedy to hit close to home.
This past weekend and into this week, the Smith family, the Cooper family, the Bleakley family, the Schulyer family, the Detroit Lions family, the Oakland Raiders’ family and the University of South Florida family experienced tragedy in all too real of a way.
Corey Smith, who has played with the Lions for the past three seasons, and friends Marquis Cooper of the Oakland Raiders, Will Bleakley and Nick Schulyer did not return from a fishing trip off the Gulf Coast that began on Saturday morning.
When families did not receive any contact from the men into Saturday night, the U.S. Coast Guard was called and began a search for the missing boaters.
Miraculously, Schulyer was rescued mid-day on Monday, found clinging to the capsized boat. The search continued for the other three as friends and family remained hopeful, but there was still no sign of the missing men through Monday night and then Tuesday afternoon.
To the heartbreak of all three families and the friends who knew these men well, the Coast Guard ceased the search at dusk on Tuesday.
“Today’s news is a sobering reminder about how truly precious and fragile life can be,” said the Detroit Lions in a statement on Tuesday.
“We will continue to pray for a miracle, though we fully understand and respect the decision of the Coast Guard. While we still have that hope, we have begun to cope with the grim reality of this sad and tragic situation.”
The public learned of the missing boat on Sunday, so when Detroit Lions employees returned to work Monday morning, the mood was somber.
Coaches and staff stayed glued to television sets, anxiously awaiting good news of a rescue. As hours passed, things became harder to handle and the difficulty of the situation began to sink in.
Now, though everyone continues to hold out for a miracle, a feeling of loss has crept in among players, coaches and staff.
“I’d like to really commend the Coast Guard and the officials in Florida who put forth a phenomenal effort,” said Team President Tom Lewand on Tuesday on behalf of the Lions’ organization, “as did the team at the NFL and some of our friends in Tampa with the Buccaneers who availed themselves of their services to keep us informed, to keep the families informed. It was a laudable and commendable effort and we certainly appreciate everybody’s involvement.”
News coverage highlighted both Smith and Cooper as NFL players, also mentioning that Bleakley and Schulyer were former players at South Florida.
But these men are more than just football players. There is humanity about these men that will be greatly missed – not only by their families but by their friends who have become family.
Smith signed with the Lions in November of 2006 after a rash of injuries had swept across the Lions’ defensive line. He had played under then-Head Coach Rod Marinelli in Tampa, and – at the time – had most recently been with the San Francisco 49ers.
Though he hadn’t played defensive end with the 49ers – they had moved him to linebacker – Smith got right into the swing of things at defensive end. He accumulated two sacks in just eight games and would go on to be one of the more consistent players on the Lions defensive line.
“He is the epitome of what NFL football is all about and what Detroit Lions football is all about: hard working, dedicated, tough. (He) showed up every day with the exact right attitude,” said Lewand. “If we had 53 Corey Smiths, guys with that attitude, we’d have a heck of a football team.”
But Smith has done more for the Detroit Lions organization than play solid football. He has touched lives … even those who only saw him in a working capacity.
Corey has a way about him that impacts every person he comes across. With an infectious smile and an upbeat attitude, you can’t help but smile when you’re around him. He is always willing to lend a helping hand, whether that’s to a teammate, a friend, a colleague, or to those in need.
“Corey is one of our go-to guys in the locker room for helping in the community – especially if children are involved,” said Lions’ Director of Community Affairs Tim Pendell. “Last December, for instance, Corey and four of his teammates co-sponsored a Feed the Children project with the Children’s Aid Society to help 400 needy families in Detroit.
“It was bitterly cold and there was a blizzard but people kept coming seeking help. There was Corey taking time for everyone, giving them that big smile and passing out food deep into the evening. Corey is a special person and we have him and his family in our prayers.”
Aside from being a warm person with a warm heart, Corey also has a great sense of humor and was often found laughing it up with someone.
He could also spur laughter in others through his words and through his actions.
The Detroit Lions have a full-service kitchen and dining area in their practice facility that includes a staff that is as close to the players as anyone in the organization.
“We always joke around that we need to make a full pan of baked chicken just for Corey,” said the kitchen staff headed by Mark Skamiera, Denise Anchill and Dell Williams. “When we have chicken on the bone, Corey can eat a good 10 pieces … and come back up for six more when he’s done with that.”
They also fondly remember their recent seasons with Corey and him beginning each and every day with peanut butter, banana and honey on wheat toast without fail.
Obviously Corey impacted those around him with more than just his on-field play, but that’s not to say that the way he played football wasn’t also exemplary of his heart.
Special teams coordinator Stan Kwan, who has coached Corey since he signed with the Lions in 2006, has many memories that show just what kind of man Corey is.
There is one memory in particular that Kwan fondly recalled to the local media on Wednesday morning. It was of a Lions’ win in 2007 at home against the Bears when Detroit came back with 34 points in the fourth quarter to win 37-27. At the end of that game, after a Chicago score when the Lions were only up by three, the Bears attempted an onsides kick.
“He was injured during that game; they had just scored late to bring it close so we knew they were going to do an onsides kick,” said Kwan. “We had to get our hands team out there. We knew he was hurt, so Sam Gash and I were looking for his replacement.
“Corey said, ‘Coach, I can give you one more play – I might not be able to walk after that, but I can give you one more play.’ So he hobbles out there; he was a ‘hit-man,’ which means his position was just to take out the first two guys. As soon as the ball was kicked, he runs straight at Mark Bradley, knocks him 5 yards out of bounds and then Casey (FitzSimmons) recovers the onsides (kick) and inexplicably starts running towards the endzone.
“So Corey turns back in and just laid out Adrian Peterson and Peterson rolled into (Hunter) Hillenmyer and then Casey just went untouched (into the endzone). You can see everybody cheering and celebrating the touchdown and then you see Corey Smith just trying to limp off the field.
“Rod (Marinelli) just showed that play over and over; right then and there, his teammates knew that this guy was a team guy first.”
The events of this past weekend are tragic, as is the idea of never seeing Corey again.
As the website writer for Detroitlions.com, I have gotten to know Corey over the past three years. I’ve never spent time with him outside of work or talked with him on the phone, but he is a friend.
He has always been willing to do an interview and help out, no matter what the circumstances, and even when the times have been tough – and they were last season – he was always there to help with a story if I needed him to. That’s just the kind of person Corey is.
You can’t help but smile when you see him because he is such a light.
The families and friends of Corey and these two other men – Marquis and Will – will continue praying for a miracle that there will be a safe return. But, at this point, there is that aching reality that a son, a brother, a significant other or a friend is gone.
“Speaking, just on my behalf, I lost a brother,” said Cory Redding. “Playing with Smitty the last two-and-a-half years, I’ve grown to respect him as a teammate and as a man of God and he has grown to be more than just a teammate. He felt like a brother to me – that’s how all the guys are on the D-Line. That’s how much they mean to me.
“I felt like I lost a brother and a good teammate and a good man. It’s going to be tough to not see him sitting in the (position) room with me. He’s going to be greatly missed.”
More from the Detroit Lions family …
From team president Tom Lewand – “I think any story with Corey is going to start with either how quiet he was or how tough he is – one or the other and he is both quiet and tough. Whether it’s playing, I mean he – I can recall Coach Marinelli, every time a trainer would bring up an injury report, you know, Corey Smith has a terrible ankle sprain, ‘Oh, he’ll be fine.’ Sure enough the next day, not just for the game, but for the next practice, Corey Smith would be out there practicing hard. His toughness is really unmatched and I think there are numerous stories, but one that all of the fans got to see firsthand is when last season Casey FitzSimmons took the onside kick back for a touchdown Corey Smith, with a severely strained hamstring, made not just one block but two blocks. A lot of guys wouldn’t have been out there playing, but that’s an example of the kind of guy that Corey Smith is.”
From the Detroit Lions coaching staff and administrative assistants – “Our thoughts are prayers are with Corey and the other young men lost at sea as well as their loved ones. Corey is many things to us with the Lions. He is a fine teammate, a respectful competitor and an acknowledged leader of our team. But, more than that, Corey is our friend. Someone who always has the time for us no matter what the situation or who you are. We will all continue to hope and pray for our friend Corey.”
From fellow-defensive end Cliff Avril – “It’s so unfortunate – especially someone that’s on your team let alone played the same position as you. It’s definitely tough for anybody to go through and for anybody’s family to have to go through this. It’s unfortunate, but all you can do is pray for him and his family.”
From special teams coordinator Stan Kwan – “He’s kind of a quiet person; he’s got a real infectious smile. He would sit in the meeting room and he was quiet, he didn’t say a whole lot. He just kind of let his play do his talking for him … He’s just all heart; he’s not a guy that’s going to put up these huge numbers like a No. 1 or first round draft pick but when he got in, he produced and it all came from here (pointing to his heart). He probably is not the fastest guy; he wasn’t the tallest or the biggest guy for a defensive end but his heart was bigger than everybody else’s.”
From Detroit Lions player personnel – “Several people have stated that Corey Smith is an “overachiever.” From the Detroit Lions personnel department’s perspective, that is not the case because he is a talented player. Corey is an “achiever,” using every ounce of his God-given ability to its fullest potential.”
From Detroit Lions community affairs (Tim Pendell, Kim Doverspike, Chad Walker and Ryan Hackworth) – “Corey truly is one of the good guys — a pro on and off the field with a quick smile and a good heart. He is a big man with a gentle, giving spirit. Corey is one of our go-to guys in the locker room for helping in the community especially if children are involved. Last December, for instance, Corey and four of his teammates co-sponsored a Feed the Children project with the Children’s Aid Society to help 400 needy families in Detroit. It was bitterly cold and there was a blizzard but people kept coming seeking help. There was Corey taking time for everyone, giving them that big smile and passing out food deep into the evening. Corey is a special person and we have him and his family in our prayers.”
From former Detroit Lions head coach Rod Marinelli (currently with the Chicago Bears) – “Corey Smith is a very special guy to me. He is a cornerstone of what this league is about: toughness, effort and team. Corey is as tough as any guy I ever coached. He earned his way into the NFL, along with the respect of his teammates and coaches. He is a humble man who works. As a coach, you couldn’t ask for more than what Corey brings to a team. And as an individual, he is the type of person you want your kids to emulate. My thoughts and prayers have been with all three missing men and their families.”
From former Detroit Lions defensive line coach Joe Cullen – “Corey Smith is the epitome of what you want and look for in a football player. He shows up to work every day; he attacks everything with great intensity and effort. You can always count on him to get his job done. As great a competitor and team player Corey is, he is even a greater person. My prayers and thoughts are with Corey’s family and the families of the other missing players.”
From the Detroit Lions equipment staff – “Since the day Corey arrived and became a member of the Detroit Lions, he has been a class act and a true pleasure to have as part of the team. We have always appreciated Corey’s positive attitude, hard work, perseverance and true professionalism. Our thoughts and prayers are with Corey and his family.”
From Detroit Lions media relations – “For everything he represents as a player and a man, Corey embodies a true pro. We loved watching him the past three years give everything he had to this organization, and he wanted to contribute in any way he could. His story is one of the great ones in the NFL – the player who was ignored at draft time but refused to let that stand in his way. He played seven years. Before landing in Detroit during the 2007 season, he bounced around during his career with Tampa Bay, San Francisco and NFL Europe. He never stopped working hard to stay in this league. His persistency is inspiring.
“Many have spoken recently of the special teams play he made against the Bears in 2007 when he blocked a guy out of bounds and then peeled back to get another that led to a kickoff return touchdown. What we remember most, perhaps, is Coach Marinelli replaying that play to the entire team and highlighting Corey barely jogging off the field with a hamstring injury. You could see the significant amount of respect that he received from his teammates. In simplest of terms, that was awesome!
“Always courteous and friendly, we appreciate his cooperation when it came to either media or website requests. He may not have been the most requested guy in the locker room, but he always assisted us when we approached him. We will continue to pray for everyone affected by this tragic event.”
From Detroit Lions communications assistant Tara Ryan – “My first opportunity to really get to know Corey was during the 2007 NFL Europe training camp in Tampa where he was serving as a coaching intern. I had interned with the Lions the previous season and Corey signed with Detroit in November of that year, so I was aware of who he was, but not on a personal level. Over the course of the few weeks that we worked together in Florida I quickly learned just how wonderful of a person Corey is. He is caring, funny and someone that I consider a friend. Through difficult times last season Corey always had a way to make light of the situation and never turned down the opportunity to offer his insight for the Detroit Lions website. I truly feel blessed for having gotten the opportunity to know him and he will remain in my thoughts and prayers.”