Detroit Lions scout tirelessly mines NFL Draft talent amid heavy heart

Justin Rogers
The Detroit News

Ypsilanti — If the NFL Draft is the engine that fuels a franchise’s long-term success, the scouts are the ones in the boiler room shoveling the coal.

Operating outside the peripheral of fan and media interest, it’s through the tireless effort of the scouts that a front office is equipped with the necessary information to make well-reasoned decisions in the draft. Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn understands this well, because before he ascended to his current role, he was shoveling coal.

Ron Miles, the Lions' college scouting coordinator, works Eastern Michigan's pro day last month.

That’s why every year, days before the event, Quinn opens his pre-draft news conference by acknowledging the year-round, behind-the-scenes work done by scouting staff.

“The life of a scout, seriously the area scouts, they’re on the road and in hotels for like 150 nights a year,” Quinn said before last year’s draft. “It’s a really important job. It’s the lifeline of our organization and I think it’s kind of a job nobody knows a lot about. Those guys are on the road all year long, looking for players, trying to gain information to help us make decisions on draft weekend that are really very critical.”

The overwhelming majority of Lions fans have never heard the names Cary Conklin, Dave Uyrus or Jay Muraco. They might have received a one-line mention in the newspaper when they were hired to scout for the organization, before quickly fading into the woodwork of the operation.

How about Ron Miles?

Miles, 29, came to Detroit from New England two weeks after Quinn. An up-and-comer in the scouting world, Miles spent just one season with the Patriots as a scouting assistant. Before that, it was six years at Ohio State as a graduate and coaching assistant, working with the team’s linebackers and defensive line.

If both Urban Meyer and Bill Belichick see something in you, it’s probably a good sign.

Miles is entering his fifth season with the Lions, serving as the team’s Midwestern area scout and college scouting coordinator. You know all those mock drafts you’ve consumed the past few months, while waiting for the real thing later this week? Many of those prospects projected to the Lions — from Ohio State cornerback Jeff Okudah to Michigan offensive lineman Cesar Ruiz to Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor — Miles has been on the ground level, building a profile on those players for years.

The life, it’s far from luxurious.

For every trip to a football mecca like Notre Dame or State College, Miles is making just as many, if not more treks to smaller schools like Bemidji State and Bowling Green. If nothing else, the Lions are thorough when it comes to scouting under Quinn’s leadership. As Miles puts it, the team doesn’t want to leave any stone unturned when it comes to prospecting for talent.

In total, Miles oversees around 30 schools. When asked, he’s reluctant to calculate anything related to his work schedule. But pushed for an answer, he estimates he racks up somewhere around 40,000 miles in flights and up to 100 nights in hotels during the year.

And even though NFL football teams are worth billions, the budget allotted scouts is modest. You’re far more likely to find Miles eating Panera while staying at a Fairfield Inn than a medium-rare filet at the Ritz-Carlton.

During the football season, there’s a rhythm to the work. Travel and visits are Wednesday and Thursday, while the remaining five days are spent watching film and writing reports. In a given year, Miles could write up as many as 400 players. Those initial reports each take between 30-60 minutes to write. And they’re fluid documents, always open to adjustments based on new information, with every iteration uploaded to an easily searchable team database.

Film study is just one part of the assessment. The rest of the information is gathered in-person, at the schools. That’s where relationships are critical for scouts and any relationship worth it is built on a foundation of food.

Taking a lesson passed down by his grandmother, Miles never shows up to a visit empty-handed. And if he can incorporate a local flair into his offering, he does. When we meet at Eastern Michigan, he’s brought in some doughnuts from Dom Bakeries, a 24-hour fixture known by everyone in town.

There’s a focus on learning about character and work ethic during the in-person visits, two things that don’t show up in film. Meeting with the school’s liaison and strength coach, among others, Miles gathers information and updates on players’ measurables, approach in the weight room, football IQ,  playing time and family background, while occasionally asking more probing questions about attitude, including how a player responded to an off-field adversity or a tough loss.

Every answer helps shape the evaluations. And the more open and honest Miles’ contacts are at the schools, the better, which is why he focuses on cultivating trust.

Ron Miles, the Lions' college scouting coordinator, watches film during a visit to Eastern Michigan last fall.

When Miles watches tape, he doesn’t place much emphasis on scheme. He’s watching for athletic traits, playmaking ability and physical errors, such as dropped passes and missed tackles. Even for a school like Eastern Michigan, which isn’t likely to produce many draftable prospects, Miles is charting 18 different players.

For even the smallest school, Miles breaks down the film for five games. For the bigger schools, like Michigan and Ohio State, he tries to study them all.

And on top of it all, Miles also studies every game the Lions play. It’s part of Quinn’s emphasis that scouts know the team’s roster so they understand where upgrades are needed.

The work never really stops. And to an outside observer, it’s pretty boring. With how much time Miles spends looking at his computer screen, it’s not all that different from an office job. The primary difference is his office is a revolving door of college campuses, hotel rooms and airplanes.

But Miles’ passion for what he does is obvious. He loves being a scout. He loves staying connected to football and loves being a cog in something bigger than himself, that feeling he’s part of a team working toward a bigger goal.

During that first morning with Miles, all three of his life’s loves are readily apparent, worn on the sleeve of his go-to, quarter-zip sweatshirt: Faith, family, football. The three concepts long have been intertwined in football circles and Miles wholly embraces the industry’s unofficial triad.  

Tragedy at home

But while Miles has been living his professional dream, he’s been dealing with a nightmare at home. In the past year, he and his wife, Justine, have lost three pregnancies.

Lions college scouting coordinator Ron Miles and his wife, Justine.

The first two were lost in the early stages, between five to eight weeks. Miscarriage statistics are rough estimates, since many likely occur during a time when the mother doesn’t know she’s pregnant, but the Mayo Clinic projects up to 20% of known pregnancies end this way.

Yet despite that heartbreak, Justine and Ron got pregnant again late last fall. Although they were walking on eggshells throughout the process, there was a sense of relief when they got through the first trimester, well known as an important benchmark in the process.

But while Miles was working at the scouting combine in late February, preparing for another round of data collection on the upcoming class of prospects, he got an early-morning call he needed to come home. There was a problem.

The drive from Indianapolis to Detroit should take 4½ hours. It didn’t take Miles that long to get home, even though it felt longer. On the way, he phoned a friend, whose wife is an OB/GYN, relaying what information he knew.

“All she said was be prepared to make the best decision for Justine,” Miles said.

A day later, Justine had to give birth. Sadly, at 18 weeks, their daughter wasn’t developed enough to survive. The couple named the baby Selah. In her personal blog, Justine explains the meaning, which she plucked from the Book of Psalms.

“Selah is the Hebrew word throughout the book (of) Psalms that calls for a break in singing to pause and reflect on the goodness and faithfulness of God,” Justine wrote. “Selah means to pause and become aware of the presence of God that surrounds us all. Even in the midst of our darkest days.”

These are, without question, the darkest days for the couple, yet they’ve found steady comfort in their strong faith in God and the embrace of their network of family and friends.

After the baby’s passing, there was a service for Selah at the couple’s church in Royal Oak. Miles didn’t do a formal head count, but he’s certain more than 100 people attended. In lieu of flowers, the couple requested donations be made to Care Net, a faith-based organization that works with pregnant families. So far, they’ve managed to raise over $3,000 in Selah’s honor.

“If you know Justine and I, we're not going to just stew in it and do nothing about it,” Miles said. “We're going to make good of this situation, somehow.”

And as she processes and progresses through her grief, Justine has found comfort in two gifts — a vase from the wife of another member of the Lions organization and a necklace from Ron.

“I got this really beautiful vase from a friend called a kintsugi,” Justine said. “It's the Japanese art of putting things back together. She got me this vase and it's all about putting broken things back together and making them beautiful again. I just feel that's the time we're in right now. God is putting our brokenness back together and making it beautiful.”

As for the necklace, it is engraved with a biblical verse from Lamentations that encapsulates their tribulations.

“For Christmas, Ron got me a necklace that has Lamentations 3:21 engraved on the back,” Justine said. “’It says, 'But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end, they are new every morning.' I'm reminded all through scripture, people go through really, really hard things. We can let that take us down, or we can pull ourselves up and see all that God is doing. I can bring my complaints to God. My emotions are never too big for him.

“I just wear that necklace around my neck every day,” Justine said. “It has two little two stones for our first two miscarriages and Selah's little baby ring, and I'm constantly reminded if I'm feeling down that I can bring my complaints to God. But this I call to mind and therefore I have hope. I know that I am loved and I am chosen and that's what I have to hold on to.”

Ron Miles, the Lions' college scouting director, checks his stopwatch during Eastern Michigan's pro day last month.

'We'll get through this'

Both Ron and Justine expressed appreciation for the support the Lions organization has given them during their recent personal struggles. Even with the opportunity to take as much time as he needed, it was only a couple of days before Miles thrust himself back into work.

The tape, the reports, just being a scout, it was the easiest way to take his mind off things.  

Before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the pro day circuit in its early stages, Miles was back in his element at Eastern Michigan last month, running the Wonderlic test and offensive line drills at the school’s pro day. At the time, no one knew this would be one of the final pre-draft events conducted before college campuses would close, part of the entire country slowly grinding to the halt.

After things wrapped up on the field, we meet at a local coffee shop, a quiet place a couple of miles off campus, with a hidden entrance and only a handful of patrons. We go over the days events and the importance of pro day events in the scouting process. The answers are thorough, but it feels irrelevant to weightier things on his heart and mind.

“I don't cry, but I've cried more in the last week and a half than I think I have the rest of my life,” Miles said. “I was feeling it pretty hard during the service.”

At one point in our conversation, when talking about his wife, he chokes up. The love and pain, it’s an emotional stew. He’s doing all he can to support Justine. He’s making sure he’s checking in more regularly, including a short phone call on his drive over for coffee.

“I'm trying to be more present, even when I'm here (at work),” Miles said.

In a strange coincidence, the pandemic has made that easier. What normally would be a grueling stretch on the road, sandwiched by long days at the team’s facility in Allen Park, are now worked from home. The hours being put in preparing for the draft are still long, but Ron and Justine are spending time together they normally wouldn’t have while they heal.

“I'm just soaking in the extra little moments that we get together right now,” Justine said. “I get to have dinner with him in the evenings. That's so great. We get to go on walks, which is really nice. Obviously, I would love to see my family, to give my mom and dad a hug, but the situation we're in, I'm just thankful I get to have meals with Ron. …It's been nice to just be together. I'm trying to count that as a blessing.”

Justine is remarkably positive, considering what’s she’s going through. She says multiple times she tries to find the good in everything, she chooses joy, and there’s nothing hollow about the words. It’s clearly how she views the world.

“I do believe all things work out for good,” she said. “I know that we'll get through this and we'll be stronger because of it.”

And although there are hurdles left to clear, both physically and emotionally, both Ron and Justine remain driven to raise a family.

“I'm going to be a dad, one way or another,” Miles said. “If we have to adopt — no, if we get to adopt, because that would be an honor to take someone in who doesn't have someone to take care of them — I would love that child just as much as Selah. Or if we can get pregnant successfully, that would be amazing. But one way or another, we will be parents.”

Twitter: @Justin_Rogers