In February 2009, Nick Schuyler and three friends — Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper, Detroit Lions defensive end Corey Smith and former University of South Florida tight end Will Bleakley — boarded Cooper’s 21 foot boat in the early morning hours for what was supposed to be a day-long fishing trip in the Gulf of Mexico. What transpired over the following two days became a heartbreaking story of lost lives, friendship, teamwork and a fight for survival that has since been shared by Schuyler in his New York Times bestselling memoir “Not Without Hope.”
Now, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and I are developing the memoir into a major motion picture.
How our firm became involved in Nick’s life goes back to the days and weeks following the accident, which I will detail a bit later.
The four friends, who got to know each other through Schuyler, set out off from the coast of Clearwater, Florida to fish for amberjack and lemon shark. Nick wasn’t much of a fisherman, but as a personal trainer he worked with Cooper and Smith, ex-Tampa Bay Buccaneer teammates, during their off-seasons, and he enjoyed the camaraderie with the guys. He asked Cooper if he could bring his best friend and former USF teammate Bleakley along on the trip.
The day long excursion turned tragic when their boat overturned 70 miles out to sea, just as the worst storm to hit the area in 20 years was bearing down on their position. Without a beacon to let rescuers know the boat had overturned — and with no cellular phone signal that far out — the four men fought a heroic battle against Mother Nature as one by one they succumbed to hypothermia and dehydration. In the end there was only Schuyler, who was near death when he was rescued by a Coast Guard crew that refused to give up the search after three days of being beat back by the elements.
Given that two NFL players had been reported lost at sea, the world turned its attention to the search and rescue effort. When one survivor was finally rescued, everyone clamored for details. Our Tampa office was connected to an attorney who knew the family, and he suggested they engage FWV to assist with the onslaught of media requests.
I offered Nick our pro-bono assistance because, well, it was the right thing to do. The young man had endured an unspeakable tragedy and with conspiracy theorists suggesting there must be malfeasance involved for one man to have survived, he clearly needed some professional counsel in dealing with media requests.
For many months, Nick wasn’t able to grant any interviews, physically or emotionally. So we cataloged every request and told media from almost every major news outlet in the world that he would speak when the time was right.
After six months, Nick was finally able to compose himself long enough for a sit-down with HBO’s “Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel.” We chose one media outlet to tell Nick’s story, because granting multiple interview requests would have been asking too much of the young man, who was still shell-shocked from the tragedy. Longtime contributor Bernie Goldberg was assigned the story.
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Knowing that Nick was still struggling to speak about the horrors of the incident, we asked a longtime friend of the agency — legendary Buffalo Bills quarterback Jim Kelly — if he would come to Tampa the morning of the HBO taping to meet with Nick and provide some perspective on dealing with grief. Jim had lost his eight-year-old son Hunter to a fatal nervous disease four years earlier and helped convince a reticent Schuyler that talking about the accident would be the first step in his recovery. Without Kelly, I’m not sure the interview would have happened.
During the HBO taping, as Nick told his story for the first time, there wasn’t a single dry eye in the room. Bernie had to stop the interview several times to compose himself. The producers were in tears and Jim and I were wiping away our own.
HBO aired the story in August 2009 as the season premiere of Real Sports, and the story smashed ratings records and earned the network an Emmy nomination. Book publishers and movie producers immediately came calling, and after listening to a number of pitches, we agreed to a publishing deal with Harper Collins. We brought on board former sportswriter and “United 93” best-selling author Jere Longman to collaborate on the book.
On the day it was released — March 2, 2010 — exactly one year to the day after Nick was rescued, the book shot to number-four on the New York Times best-seller list following an hour long special on Oprah and appearances on “The Today Show” and CNN with Larry King, who commented at the end of Nick’s interview he was certain the book would become a blockbuster motion picture.
And so it will. As book sales reached the hundreds of thousands worldwide, movie studios and A-list actors with their own production companies began calling. After hearing pitches, we optioned the film rights to Mark Wahlberg and his Closest to the Hole Productions. That was the same year that Mark’s career went to another level with the release of “The Fighter” and “Ted,” but after a year and a half of little activity due to Mark’s schedule, we took the rights back and again entertained studio pitches. This time we chose Relativity Media, a midsize studio whose executives shared our vision for the movie.
We brought aboard a hot young writer, Nick Mariani, to develop the script and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, one of the most bankable actors in the world, agreed to star in and produce the film. Johnson has called “Not Without Hope” the most important film project of his career, because as a former football player, he understands the teamwork required for the four guys to work together in the middle of a foreboding sea to try and survive.
Alas, Relativity got caught in a debt-financing situation and was forced into bankruptcy by its note holders. So, here we are again, taking meetings with studio executives as we decide which partner is best to help us tell Nick’s story: Not a story of how the three men died; but a story of how they lived, loved and made the world a better place during the brief period we knew them.
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Rick French is Chairman & CEO of French|West|Vaughan and Exec. Producer of “Not Without Hope.”