NFC South Reporter
Floating in open water after the helicopter he and his parents had taken a tour on made an emergency landing into the water off Davis Islands on Thursday evening, Hunter Hupp had no idea who the three men were who quickly approached on two jet skis as he treaded water.
Hupp, 28, had spent the previous hour on a flight out to the beaches and back as a Christmas gift, but he and the helicopter’s other passengers heard a loud noise in the rotor above and had to land in the water, about 200 yards from shore.
“Let me tell you, helicopters sink really fast,” Hupp said Friday morning, grateful to wake up to another morning with his parents. “We learned that rather quickly.”
Hupp’s parents, Wes and Lisa, made it out of the helicopter as it took on water, as had the pilot, but Hupp was the last one out, unable to free himself for about a minute before getting out and to the surface. The four of them floated together, only inches of the helicopter showing above the water, contemplating whether to wait for help or try to swim to land while fully clothed, then almost immediately saw two men on jet skis approaching.
One of them was Tampa Bay Buccaneers backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who lives on Davis Island and was part of the rescue effort, along with his two brothers, Tyler and Brett. Hupp said the two men helped his father up on one jet ski and he and his mother on the other, staying with them and coordinating how to bring back more people than the jet skis were meant to carry.
“They slowly brought us back to the shore, a sandy beach near the yacht club, and hung out for a while, were really nice,” Hupp said. “We exchanged pleasantries upon reaching flat ground. They were really an asset to helping us out, because we were the only ones out there for a while. It was a handshake and a hug and, ‘Thank you so much.’ They went out for a nice afternoon ride and just happened to come upon a stranded helicopter family.”
Photo credit: Hunter Hupp
Tampa police arrived in a boat within five minutes, Huff said, but having the two jet skis there quickly kept them from having too much time alone in the water, unsure how long they could stay afloat.
“We think about all the what-ifs,” said Hupp, who lives in Philadelphia and works in sales. “What happened obviously wasn’t great, but we managed pretty well for what happened.”
Gabbert, 33, is in his 12th NFL season and fourth with the Bucs, though he hasn’t played a snap this season as the top backup to Tom Brady. The Bucs have been busy preparing for Sunday’s game against Carolina, where a win can clinch a second straight division title for Tampa Bay, but that wasn’t all Gabbert did Thursday.
The veteran QB spoke at a press conference with local law enforcement officials who called him a “citizen hero” Friday after practice, but he said he and his brothers were simply out for a ride on an unseasonably warm December afternoon and fortunate to be in the right place to help someone.
“It was just a pretty crappy situation that turned good in the end,” Gabbert said. “I was just right place, right time … the credit really goes out to Tampa PD, fire department, sheriff’s department because they were there within five seconds. It was pretty remarkable. It wasn’t me, just my brothers and I out having fun.”
Gabbert was presented with a ceremonial “unit coin” from the Tampa Police Department’s marine unit and a ballcap as an “honorary member” of the department from the city’s interim police chief, Lee Bercaw. His brother Tyler played football at Missouri and Central Florida from 2010-13, and his brother Brett has been a starter at Miami (Ohio) since 2019.
Hupp said he had no idea one of his rescuers was an NFL quarterback, as they hadn’t exchanged more than first names, but told a description of Gabbert, he said “I think that was the one my mom was clinging to.”
“My mom said she was hoping to meet Tom Brady while we were down here,” he said. “I think she came pretty darn close.”
Tampa police said a helicopter had to make an emergency landing just after 5 p.m. Thursday due to an engine failure as it approached Peter O. Knight Airport, on the southern end of Davis Islands, in Hillsborough Bay, the northeast tip of Tampa Bay. Local agencies were working to remove the submerged helicopter from the water Friday morning.
Gabbert hadn’t mentioned who he was and said he was content to remain anonymous until his identity was made public. He attended a Tampa Bay Lightning game Thursday night with his brothers, and within an hour of the rescue, he got a text message from Bucs general manager Jason Licht, asking “Did you just save some people from a helicopter crash?”
Gabbert has a home on Davis Islands, in an area several Tampa Bay pro athletes, including Brady, have called home. He said he’s spent a lot of time on the water in his adult life, and he knows to be responsible when he does so, understanding that you don’t always have control over what happens there.
“The water and Mother Nature, she’s undefeated,” he said. “If you don’t treat the ocean with the utmost respect, in the air or on a boat, she’ll always come back to bite you. You always have to responsible, hyper-aware and know what’s going on. … I’m just glad they all made it out alive. I was just trying to do the right thing and help them out.”
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Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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