MOBILE, Ala. — He’ll see passengers striding down the aisle of the airplane. They are looking for their seats, and Dave Sears can’t help himself. A guy has broad shoulders, long arms, fluid gait. By the time they sit down, he’s already figured them out.
As the director of college scouting for the Detroit Lions, it happens in the post office and grocery store. It’s ingrained. His wife even caught him staring intently at one of his 10-year-old daughter’s dance instructors. Sears told his wife the instructor had “some really fast feet” and was “really impressive with his footwork.”
His job is to scout. It never really stops.
“I’ll describe athletic traits, like with my wife or my daughter, and they are like, ‘I don’t even know what you’re talking about,'” Sears said. “But one thing is, like, short arms. You never think of people having short arms until you’re analyzing them for pro athletes and stuff.
“But now, I see somebody and I’m like, ‘Wow, that guy has really short arms.'”
Sears is paid to analyze college football players, traveling across the country from August until Thanksgiving, driving and flying from various campuses and practices to compile more than 300 player evaluations. On the road, Sears has accumulated 3,233 nights — and counting — at Marriott hotels, with the next stop coming this week in Indianapolis at the NFL scouting combine.
He averages 73 nights per year in Marriotts if you take it over his whole life, not just the 22 years he’s scouted. He holds Titanium Elite status with the chain, along with Ambassador status for more than 100 nights per year.
Sears, 44, has spent one-fifth of his life — 8.8 years — at Marriott hotels as part of his continued search for the next potential NFL star.
Sears sits halfway up the gray concrete bleachers, a white towel strategically placed under his butt. He’s attending his 23rd Senior Bowl and knows to come prepared for any weather, including the towel working as a seat cushion for practice and head covering if it rains.
Watching from almost 20 rows up at the 35-yard line, his usual perch, Sears has already analyzed most of the players on the field. Everything he sees now he commits to memory. Later, he’ll go back to his downtown hotel and rewatch the north team’s practice, which the Lions’ staff is coaching. It’s then he’ll write down his thoughts and start preparing updates to prospect reports.
“Now I’m fine-tuning some things and the guys I haven’t seen,” Sears said while players went through individual reps. “Like if I see Player X go over that and he looks really good. Like I can make the mental note and remember it.
“I could have a pad out here and say, ‘No. 44 looked really good going over the bags,’ or something like that. But I’ll remember that and then when I go back and watch the tape, that’s when I’m going to take all my notes, from the film.”
Sears has a photographic memory and has been scouting since former NFL general manager Charley Casserly hired him out of Springfield College as an intern in Washington in January 1997. From there he went to Houston and then Detroit, gaining knowledge and titles along the way until being promoted into his current role with the Lions.
He has gone from being the initial look on prospects to the second or third person breaking them down. He doesn’t have to write many laborious initial reports on a player’s background. Now he drops his detailed thoughts in a report and moves on.
“Life on the road is difficult,” said Sears’ boss, Lions general manager Bob Quinn, in an email. “They are long and lonely days at times. You definitely need to have a certain mental makeup to handle the job, you have to be very good at time management and have excellent self-discipline.
“Dave has both qualities.”
Sears could be a one-man Yelp for college towns. At Clemson, he stays at a Fairfield Inn off the highway because of proximity to chain restaurants. Sometimes a hotel is better because of the food around it, preferring local spots for sit-down meals and Subway and Firehouse Subs for meals on the go. Other times it is how close it is to a school, the highway or an airport depending on the next stop.
The job is monotonous, and the entire country is his office.
“There’s really no glamour in it at all,” Sears said. “Some people think you get to watch football for a living. Well, I get to type reports for a living and get to travel for a living. There’s a lot of other aspects other than just watching football, but it’s great because it’s football-related.
“It’s isolated more than it is lonely.”
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The isolation comes from the nights on the road in hotel rooms. Sears will see similar scouts from stop to stop. It’s how he met Detroit’s current vice president of player personnel, Kyle O’Brien, when O’Brien was a scout for New England.
The routine goes like this: get to a school and meet with the school’s pro liaison, watch tape alongside other scouts. Then, meet with trainers, strength coaches and maybe position coaches. Depending on school regulations, watch some or all of practice. Then more tape and either back to the hotel to file a report into the Lions’ database or hit the road for the next stop. Each report takes 30-90 minutes to write, depending on the player.
It’s a regimented structure. Experience matters. About 90% of the information is the same. It’s the extra 10%, either from his own abilities or from a relationship with a coach or the school he developed over years of scouting the university, that makes the difference in the information he is able to provide.
Particularly on players who might have legal issues, of which there are at least a handful every year, the difference matters.
“There are a few instances where it’s really important to get that 10% that everybody else isn’t getting because that maybe swings whether you want to take a guy that’s on the fringe or not on the fringe,” Sears said. “The majority of the information is very similar.”
Otherwise, there’s no real competitive advantage. Basic information ends up being close to the same for those scouting for an organization making multimillion-dollar decisions — and often putting jobs on the line — due to their advice.
Quinn said Sears has “been involved in all our picks over the last four years,” turning into one of his more trusted evaluators.
“To trust somebody, you got to trust them,” Casserly said. “[The scouts] are out there every day. You’re not going to keep track of these guys. You keep track because of the reports they write and the accuracy and the information they get, that’s the check on it.”
The work often overtakes life. Sears is away from his Morrisville, North Carolina, home for more than 85% of nights from August until Thanksgiving. Even in his supervisory role, he’s still a scout, with the job of making sure evaluations are right.
It’s a long way from growing up in Hauppauge, New York, and college at Springfield, where he played football and majored in sports management. He always wanted this — although he didn’t necessarily understand the personal cost. His wife, Nancy, used to travel to see him on weekends if he had a two-week trip. That changed when they had their daughter, Delaine.
She’s 10 now. Sears figures he’s legitimately missed half her life.
“That’s where it’s like, when you think about that, you’re like, ‘S—, that sucks,'” Sears said. “You try not to miss the birthdays, the holidays, the dance recitals, that kind of stuff. But some days you just can’t be there.
“And that’s hard for them to understand.”
Sears misses family vacations — and when he’s off work, he rarely wants to travel — and often connects with his family through FaceTime and phone calls. As a former scout, Quinn’s philosophy is “if the work gets done at a high level, I am OK with any type of schedule,” including watching more film at home than on-site. Nancy said, “he doesn’t really ever clock out.”
Nancy, who began dating Dave long-distance, recognizes “it’s different than the traditional marriage,” and while she thinks his job is “pretty cool,” she understands the challenges of being a scout’s wife.
“He tries to do the best that he can to be around, but his job, it definitely, it takes a lot of time,” Nancy said. “It’s a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of commitment from him. It’s a sacrifice from us, too, but I knew his goals and his dreams going into it.
“I knew that part but it is hard knowing what it is living it day-to-day. … You try. That’s the best you can do.”
Sears needs to see players live, which means driving on back roads and interstates to evaluate prospects. Decades in, it’s a balance Sears struggles with.
“I don’t think you can cheat the job. I think that’s a big mistake, and that’s why it’s so hard,” Sears said. “When you get into the personal side of this job, it’s very hard to maintain a quality family life and give them the time and attention they need and also give the job the time and attention.
“… It’s a lot of hours and a lot of monotonous, kind of behind the scenes, sitting in front of a monitor and just grinding the tape. Trying to find that one play that’s going to give you the answer you’re looking for one way or the other. You can’t do that while you’re hanging out with the wife and kid.”
This is what Sears believes he was born to do. He started working under veteran scouts in Washington and Houston. He observed what they did, how they balanced the job — or didn’t — with personal lives. He asked questions about how they watched players — even if in Washington he was often the quiet one known for not writing anything down and for eating the same lunch almost daily: a turkey sandwich from Subway, chips and a chocolate chip cookie.
His work ethic stood out above his relative silence. When they hired him, some scouts were worried about it. Casserly asked scouts if he worked hard, if he was thorough? He was.
“He paints a picture,” said Larry Bryan, a veteran scout Sears worked with in Washington and Houston. “There are some guys that can look at guys and say, ‘Hey, he’s a player.’ There are other guys that look at guys and write down exactly what their strong attributes are, what they do well.
“He was always able to do that. Was always pretty impressive when he would read his reports. He was more detailed about some of the kids’ techniques and some of his strong points and things that would benefit him playing at the next level.”
Sears has learned over the years that the job is to look for athletic ability and “figure out if the guy can do it physically” at the NFL level along with small parts of technique. The part about getting a player to do it is something he can’t be worried about, because he’s not a coach.
He’s a scout. With decades of experience.
From his first set of reports on a cross-check of the Pittsburgh Steelers during training camp to his work for the Lions at the Senior Bowl, every note and report sits in Tupperware bins and on display cases in his basement.
There’s the report he wrote about the best corner he ever scouted, Champ Bailey, and the big hits and misses. A hit: He thought Iowa guard Marshal Yanda would be a higher-level player than most with a third-round grade. A miss: He didn’t think Cal cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha would be able to play in the NFL, but Asomugha became a first-round pick by Oakland.
The basis of any good scout is the base of knowledge, so Sears will sometimes go back and review all his successes and failures in the basement.
“I’m a bit of a collector, so I don’t want to throw this stuff out,” Sears said. “It’ll be cool when I retire, hopefully I live long enough, to look back someday and go back through that stuff. It might be pretty cool, and if I know some younger scouts or something, give them a couple of things.
“All that stuff, when I first got into it, was all very interesting to me, the history of the game and scouting.”