RUSSELLVILLE, Ala. — When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers held offseason workouts in mid March, guard Arron Sears was there.
But he wasn't the person teammates and coaches remembered. He was distant, even for someone with his shy demeanor. Sears participated for several weeks, until shortly after the team's minicamp in April, when he simply stopped communicating. He was unresponsive when asked questions. At times, he resorted to replying in writing.
He hasn't practiced since.
The team hasn't explained his absence, and general manager Mark Dominik would say only it's a "private matter." Bucs players and staff know little about the situation.
A week shy of the training camp reporting date, the mystery remains about part of one of the Bucs' strongest units, the offensive line.
What's wrong with Arron Sears?
The answers are elusive.
This week a St. Petersburg Times reporter visited Russellville, a tiny Alabama town where Sears' family lives and where he recently has been residing.
Wednesday afternoon, Sears' mother, Henrietta Woods, answered the door and was pleasant but prudent, declining to comment.
Minutes later, when the reporter returned for a follow-up question, a black sedan that had been circling the neighborhood was in the driveway. Sears was behind the wheel. Usually one of the most polite players on the team, he declined to lower the window or even communicate with the reporter.
His mother repeated her no-comment stance, and the reporter left.
Many questions remain.
Trying to glean information about Sears' near three-month absence has been difficult. Only a small circle of people are in the know about it, and they aren't talking.
But teammates and Bucs staff are concerned about Sears. The Bucs have worked with his representatives to arrange for unspecified expert help. But the cause of his problems remains unknown.
Last season Sears, 24, missed the Nov. 2 game at Kansas City because of a concussion. The effects of concussions on athletes is an increasing area of study. But Dr. Thom Mayer, who helped the NFL and its players union establish guidelines to identify, report and treat concussions, said it would be unusual for physiological symptoms resulting from a concussion to get worse over time.
"In many respects, there's a lot more we don't know (about concussions) than we do know,'' said Mayer, who has not examined Sears and spoke only in generalities.
No official diagnosis has been made, but at this point, playing football does not appear to be a realistic option for Sears in at least the short term.
The Bucs will soon be faced with a decision if Sears, entering his third season out of Tennessee, is unable to report for training camp. They must determine how to classify him and likely will consider placing him on the nonfootball injury list.
If he remained on the active roster, Sears would count against the 80-player training camp maximum.
Sears is in the third year of a four-year contract that is scheduled to pay a base salary of $460,000 this year. If he is unable to play during the season, whether he is paid would depend upon the cause of his problems. NFL contracts generally are not guaranteed.
The Bucs have been preparing all offseason to accommodate the loss of Sears. Second-year player Jeremy Zuttah, drafted in the third round in 2008, has taken ownership of left guard and has earned rave reviews from coaches.
But Sears' absence deals a serious blow to the depth on the line, with Zuttah no longer available for backup duty at guard or center. Veteran Sean Mahan becomes the top reserve at those positions.
And the search for answers about what's wrong with Arron Sears continues.