The public putdown spread thanks to an unlikely source.
Earlier this summer, Dorian Thompson-Robinson retweeted a criticism of his play to nearly 17,000 followers. He wasn’t trying to prove anyone wrong or motivate himself or send any sort of message.
The UCLA quarterback shared the words of sports gambling analyst Brandon Walker because they rung true.
“At some point this season,” Walker wrote in June, “you will bet on UCLA because you've convinced yourself Dorian Thompson-Robinson is a good QB and you will be sad. Every single year.”
As much as it might have stung, Thompson-Robinson agreed that the critique accurately depicted the unfulfilled promise of his first four years as a Bruin.
“Y'all watch, y'all know football, I’m not going to sit here and act like y'all don’t know anything about the game,” Thompson-Robinson said of the media, “so yeah, there’s always some truth out there; he wouldn’t be saying it if wasn’t true.”
To be fair, many of UCLA’s recent failures haven’t been the fault of its quarterback. The Bruins couldn’t supply a defensive stop to beat Fresno State, or a touchdown to upset Oregon after Thompson-Robinson departed with an injury, or a decent kickoff to prevent USC from an improbable rally in the final minute.
The details didn’t matter. The bottom line, in Thompson-Robinson’s mind, was that he was the leader of a team that didn’t get it done.
As he pondered the pain of the past, the Bruins continually out of the running in the Pac-12 by Halloween, Thompson-Robinson foresaw a breakthrough in his final college season. Thirty quarterbacks have thrown passes for UCLA since Cade McNown led the Bruins to their last Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1999. UCLA has not won a Rose Bowl since 1986.
Thompson-Robinson thought about what it would be like to end the streak of national insignificance, to walk onto the field of his home stadium on Jan. 2, 2023, for UCLA’s first Rose Bowl in nearly a quarter-century.
“I do, every day,” he said. “I envision being that guy.”
Being that guy doesn’t mean replicating McNown or John Sciarra or Gary Beban but staying true to the first and only Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
“I’m trying to be me and do it my way and coach [Chip] Kelly’s way and the way the team wants and get this thing done,” Thompson-Robinson said. “Not just talk about it but get it done.”
That entails relentlessly correcting his flaws and embracing his teammates and becoming the best version of himself. It’s a package that was on full display during the Bruins’ final three games last season, when they won in runaway fashion to secure their first winning record since 2015.
Thompson-Robinson engineered a historic beatdown of USC during which he hurdled a cornerback and showed that the pen is mightier than the sword by signing a fan’s hat near the corner of the end zone after another touchdown run. It was hard to imagine he would account for six touchdowns — four passing, two rushing — after his first two passes were intercepted.
When Thompson-Robinson returned to the sideline following the second interception, quarterbacks coach Ryan Gunderson inquired about his well-being, the mentor more unnerved than his pupil.
“I was like, ‘Hey, are you OK?’ ” Gunderson recalled this week.
“Dorian said, ‘I’m fine. I’m totally fine. I’m good.’ ”
“ 'Are you sure?' ”
“ 'Yeah, I’m good. I screwed up. I’m fine. It’s all good.' ”
It really was. Thompson-Robinson completed 16 of his final 20 passes on the way to a 62-33 triumph, UCLA’s most points in the nearly century-old rivalry.
A month later, the Bruins were supposed to play nationally ranked North Carolina State in the Holiday Bowl. It was a chance to show just how much progress the team had made under the coach and quarterback whose arrival were in lockstep.
The morning of the game, Thompson-Robinson was showering in his San Diego hotel room, listening to music on his phone. Songs kept cutting off, phone calls and text messages ruining the vibe.
Thompson-Robinson stepped out of the shower, quickly toweling off to check his phone. There was an emergency team meeting. He knew what it meant.
“Whenever we have emergencies, they’re not good emergencies,” Thompson-Robinson said, “so that right there was the giveaway.”
The game was canceled. Too many UCLA players had tested positive for COVID-19 to play the bowl safely. Kelly delivered the news, crying in front of his team.
Many expected it to also signal the end of Thompson-Robinson’s college career. He had played four seasons and was on the cusp of several school records. Kelly told his quarterback he was ready for the NFL.
Nope, Thompson-Robinson decided. There were more yards to gain. More wins to tally. More memories to make.
He’ll earn his undergraduate degree in African American studies after the completion of two classes this fall. He joined others on the cusp of graduation participating in UCLA's summer commencement ceremony. He’s also within reach of UCLA records for career yards passing, total offense, completions and rushing yardage by a quarterback.
More important are the team goals. First conference title since 1998. First major bowl game this century. Restoration of the UCLA football brand.
It would all start with love. Thompson-Robinson invited teammates Zach Charbonnet, Jake Bobo and Titus Mokiao-Atimalala to put on a summer camp for nearly 70 underprivileged Native American children in Mesa, Ariz. Flinging footballs was just part of it, the Bruins also delivering messages on the importance of staying in school and finding a passion.
On the eve of preseason camp, Thompson-Robinson hosted the entire offense on a yacht ride around Marina del Rey funded by proceeds from his name, image and likeness riches. Players scarfed down barbecue and confided their goals in one another, Thompson-Robinson saying this was his last shot at something special and he was going to give his teammates everything he had in hopes they would do the same for him.
Before the evening ended, most everyone pulled out their phones to record dolphins flipping through the water.
“We kinda chased a pack of dolphins around for 10, 15 minutes,” Bobo said. “I had never been that close to a dolphin before, so that was cool.”
It’s the kind of bonding that has allowed Thompson-Robinson to hold difficult conversations without anyone becoming overheated. He’s told younger players what they need to do to earn playing time and others what they could do better to help the team.
“He’s the thermostat — he sets the temperature in there and I like that, I want him to,” Gunderson said. “Sometimes we’ve got to pick it up or cool off a little bit, but you don’t want a guy who’s the thermometer and just takes the temperature and adjusts to it; you want a guy that’s going to have some presence and pick people up or get people going.”
Even though Thompson-Robinson remains part of an offense that returns considerable firepower, doubts persist. The media picked UCLA to finish fourth in the Pac-12 despite dual Heisman Trophy candidates in Thompson-Robinson and Charbonnet.
After unfollowing team beat writers on Twitter three games — and three losses — into his college career and questioning fickle admirers with his “Don’t be a fan later” and “Friends over fans” brands, Thompson-Robinson has shifted his focus to more important endeavors.
“At this point, our concern is with NFL scouts and GMs and owners and head coaches,” said Dorian’s mother, Melva Thompson-Robinson. “So it’s not a matter of trying to be mean or anything, but we have to be focused on a bigger prize. He and I have been talking since the early spring about, 'Dorian, you want to be a pro? It’s time to step it up and walk like a pro, act like a pro, talk like a pro, throw like a pro, work like a pro.' You know, all these things.”
As part of that change, Thompson-Robinson has undergone his own transformation. He welcomes criticism, embracing the ways it can help him improve, no matter how hard it might be to hear.
All those losses he’s endured? He’s studied the details like an autopsy, trying to understand what it will take to turn a disappointing season into one that leaves a legacy. He knows he can’t run backward under pressure or let the ball slip out of his hand or throw into tight coverage, all maddening tendencies of earlier seasons.
There always will be critics. Brandon Walker has something to say? Thompson-Robinson is listening, ready to absorb every word in the hope it can avert more disappointment.
“There’s always the one or two games — whether it’s the Arizona States, the ‘SCs, the Utahs, the Oregons — that we let slip away that if we win those games, we’re in that big game, we’re in the Rose Bowl, we’re in the Pac-12 championship,” Thompson-Robinson said. “So for me he’s right and that’s going to remind me every day that on those three big games that we’ve got this year that I’ve got circled — Arizona State, ‘SC and Utah — that we’ve got to finish, we’ve got to win those games so that we can play in the games that we want to.”
Soon enough, the Bruins will know whether they can get there. There might be more games to circle, maybe even one in Pasadena in early January.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.