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Column: Persistence helped Wellington Bristow lead Taft to a championship

Taft quarterback Wellington Bristow poses for a photo with the City Section Division III championship trophy.
Taft quarterback Wellington Bristow holds the City Section Division III championship trophy.
(Eric Sondheimer / Los Angeles Times)

There were 54 seconds left in the City Section Division III championship football game on Friday. Woodland Hills Taft trailed Panorama 20-19 and was ready to try a two-point conversion. Jeff Kearin, who has been coaching for decades at the college and high school levels, thought he had the perfect play.

Yet, his quarterback, senior Wellington Bristow, told him during a timeout, “I don’t like it.”

Said Kearin: “I had a play that we always used and always worked but hadn’t practiced in two weeks. By the grace of God, they called timeout.”

After Bristow objected, Kearin said, “I don’t like it, either.”

“We both said, ‘Let’s run naked play action,’” the coach said. “He put us in a formation we had never done before.”

Then Bristow rolled left, saw there was no open receiver and proceeded to run, pushing away a defender, to reach the end zone for a 21-20 victory. A team that had a 26-game losing streak in August is now a City champion.

Call it the Miracle on Ventura Boulevard.

“I’ll be damned, he pulled it out,” Kearin said. “He muscled himself into the end zone. He stiff-armed this guy. If he did it on the street he would be put in jail.”

Who is this 17-year-old quarterback who had the courage and gumption to question his coach before pulling off a Hollywood ending?

Bristow is 6 feet 3 and 165 pounds. He gets all A’s on his report card and his father is a professor at USC. He has played three sports at Taft. He joined the football team as a sophomore receiver. He switched to quarterback when he was 145 pounds and “assessed” he needed to get bigger, stronger and better. He built his own weight rack during the COVID-19 shutdown. He broke his collarbone during the spring season. Even though Taft suffered defeat after defeat by as much as 66-0, he never thought of quitting.

“I think as sad as it was that we lost like that, we learned not to take losing in such a bad way,” Bristow said. “We lost so much we built a bond as teammates rather than what was on the scoreboard. We knew we could come to practice next week, get better. We knew not to take it in such a hard way because there’s always a next game coming up.”

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Kearin was hired as Taft’s new coach just weeks before the season. There was turmoil and uncertainty.

“I was really hurt,” Bristow said. “I didn’t just lose my head coach, I lost my quarterback coach. I never thought of quitting because I was too fond of my teammates, but it was very hard. It was a tough time for me and as a quarterback trying to lead guys without a head coach.”

Kearin, a former head coach at Cal State Northridge, Loyola and St. Monica, was quick to organize. The Toreadors ended a 26-game losing streak in the second game of the season against Van Nuys. They made the Division III playoffs as the No. 1 seed. Now they’re preparing to play in the CIF state championship Division 7-A bowl game on Dec. 11 with a trip to face San Francisco Balboa.

Bristow’s intelligence and work ethic serve him well. He admits his lack of strength and quarterback skills needed vast improvement.

“I did assess that was a problem and had to gain weight and I also assessed I wasn’t a good quarterback,” he said. “I couldn’t throw a slant rout at the start of the pandemic. It’s about knowing where you’re at and going from there. I had to build a weight rack to get stronger and go to the park with my family to get better.”

Kearin said what Bristow has accomplished is inspiring.

“He weathered the storm,” he said. “It’s unbelievable. I have to believe a lot of it is upbringing. I hold him to a pretty high standard and he’s able to take my completely irrational criticism at times. But he called the winning play.”


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