04/17/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Mind Over Muscle: What Really Happened to those NFL Players Lost at Sea?

Four men set off from Florida's Gulf Coast on a weekend fishing trip. Anchored 70 miles from land, their 21-foot boat flips over in 15-foot seas and 30-mph winds. But these aren't your usual fishermen. Two of the boaters play in the NFL; the other two are former college players. In choppy seas, they manage to don life-vests and try to right the boat. But they fail. Their only choice is to cling to the hull and hope for rescue.

After searching thousands of miles of ocean, the Coast Guard finally arrives 46 hours later. They find only one man -- Nick Schuyler -- sitting on top of the overturned boat. Three others -- including Oakland Raiders linebacker Marquis Cooper and Detroit Lions free agent Corey Smith -- are missing and presumed dead.

How did one man -- a former college player, not a pro -- survive this ordeal while the other three perished? "A miracle," says the doctor who treated Schuyler. But was it really a miracle. Or was it a wrenching case-study of the laws of survival in extreme situations?

A new 23-page report from the Coast Guard (obtained by the Associated Press) sheds light on what really happened.. The sole survivor - Schuyler - says that a few hours after capsizing, one of the boaters "freaked out," removed his life vest, and let the waves sweep him away. A few hours later, a second boater started throwing punches, took off his vest, and dove into the ocean, never to be seen again. Sometime the following day, the third man - presumably William Beakley - believed he saw land in the distance, removed his life jacket, and tried to swim for help.

A few obvious questions arise from this account: Why would two professional athletes -veterans of extreme physical challenges - give up after a few hours? And why would someone try to swim for help that far out to sea?

For the last two years, I've interviewed some of the world's most effective survivors and thrivers - men and women who were mauled by wild animals, left for dead by violent criminals, slammed by 20-ton trucks, and devoured by flesh-eating bacteria. Along the way, I spoke with survivors who drifted for months on the open seas in life boats and made it through gale force winds and bitter cold after ferries sank.

My goal was to uncover the secrets of the world's most effective survivors. What do they know that we don't? What follows are a few key lessons underscored by the tragedy in the gulf.

1. Mind over Muscle.

First and foremost, survival isn't only about physical strength or stamina. In fact, 80 to 90 percent of survival is mental, according to top experts in the military. Here's what really matters: How psychologically tough are you? How quickly can you bounce back after you've been knocked down? All the muscle mass and competitiveness in the world won't keep you alive if you're incapacitated by fear or overwhelmed with despair.

At the air force survival school in the woods of Washington state, I learned that appearances are deceiving. You can't pick out the best survivors just by looking at their biceps. The strongest and fittest men and women often "crumble like blue cheese" under extreme pressure, one instructor told me. Out-of-shape moms who have experienced the pain of childbirth are sometimes able to withstand the greatest punishment while buff, well-muscled aviators give up quickly.

Especially in the water, muscle isn't really an advantage. In fact, it can work against you. It's heavier than fat and if you're swimming, it takes more energy to stay afloat. In cold water, muscle doesn't help conserve heat, like fat, which acts as insulation. In short, fatter people tend to fend off hypothermia longer.

2. People Decline at Different Rates

All four boaters were all athletes in their 20s in good physical condition. What distinguished Schuyler - the youngest at age 24 - from the others? According to his doctor, Schuyler's thoughts of his mom kept him going. "He didn't want his mother to come to his funeral," the doctor says. But surely, the three other men were thinking of their families and friends too. Didn't they have the same motivations? Why would they give up sooner?

In survival situations, experts say, people decline at differing rates. In an emergency, four similar guys can follow four entirely different survival paths. For starters, while hypothermia affects people differently, it always drains your strength and resolve and eventually induces delusions or what's known as "cold stupid." For instance, people with even mild hypothermia sometimes engage in "paradoxical undressing." As your body's temperature drops, your vessels dilate and warm blood from your body's core rushes to your extremities. This can cause you to feel hot, and you start taking off your clothes. That's why in the wilderness and water - and even urban areas - hypothermia victims are sometimes found in various states of undress.

Biology obviously plays a critical role. So does psychology. Fear can paralyze and quickly wreck even the toughest men and women, while others somehow manage to control it. If you can't shut off the fear, you can quickly become overwhelmed with stress, anxiety and despair. Without question, a feeling of helplessness is one of the greatest dangers in survival situations. Indeed, experts say, hopelessness can kill you faster than the cold.

3. Practice the Right Kind of Optimism

So what should you do if you're stranded in the ocean on an overturned boat (or if face your own crisis like unemployment or foreclosure?) At a psychological level, exercise your optimism. Survival may be 90 percent mental, but don't blindly hope for the best. This kind of foolish expectation will only lead to disappointment and even greater despair.

It's a phenomenon known as the Stockdale Paradox, named after Admiral James Stockdale, the highest ranking American prisoner of war in Vietnam. In the POW camps, optimists were the first to die, Stockdale told author Jim Collins in his bestselling book Good to Great. Optimists were always hoping to be released at Thanksgiving or Christmas, but were crushed when those holidays passed and they were still imprisoned. They couldn't stand the disappointment and gave up fighting, Stockdale said. Soon after, they died. In the toughest situations, experts say, you should exercise "realistic optimism." That means combining a blunt factual appreciation of your predicament with steadfast hope that things will turn out okay.

4. Think the Unthinkable - then Do Something About It

Before you ever get into trouble, spend a moment imagining the worst cases scenario. Then focus on a few low cost/high impact choices that can save your life.

> File (and stick to) a float plan that can help rescuers find your location faster.

> Buy a $79 VHF radio with a one-touch Mayday button connected to your GPS. In an emergency, you just hit the distress button and your location will be broadcast to rescuers.

> Purchase (or rent) an emergency satellite beacon - for as little as $145 - that can guide rescuers, especially if you're more than 20 miles offshore beyond VHF radio contact.

We'll never know exactly what went through the minds of those boaters fighting for their lives. But what makes their loss even more tragic is the likelihood that they didn't have to die. When their boat flipped over, they could - and should have been rescued - with plenty of time to spare.

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