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Finding Dorian Thompson-Robinson: The evolution of a UCLA quarterback

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson looks to pass against Colorado on Nov. 2, 2019. UCLA won 31-14.
UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson continues to stay focused on his junior season with the Bruins, even though he doesn’t know if and when that might happen.
(Kelvin Kuo / Associated Press)

It can feel like a football season in full swing inside Dorian Thompson-Robinson’s two-bedroom apartment.

The UCLA quarterback can be overheard on the phone talking to assistant coach Dana Bible about the nuances of playing the position or speaking on a video teleconference with graduate assistant Jerry Neuheisel about tips that could help him lead the Bruins back to glory.

In the living room, a football game is often playing on the television whether anyone’s watching or not, a reminder of the payoff for all these days of numbing sameness.

The last few months have not been easy. The season was pushed back and then postponed indefinitely. A return to campus that was supposed to foreshadow playing football has instead led to more uncertainty about a season. Players can’t use their own practice or intramural fields to throw the football because of restrictions related to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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It has all given Thompson-Robinson a prolonged chance to think about what he wants from what’s left of his college experience, and out of himself.

“Having this much free time is really finding myself again,” Thompson-Robinson said. “I’m not trying to be like anybody else; I’m Dorian Thompson-Robinson and that’s who I’m going to be and that’s who I’m going to promote and that’s who I’m going to embrace.”

Finding Dorian has involved plenty of self-reflection after two seasons of mostly disappointment. As a true freshman, he was a part-time starter on a team that went 3-9. After taking over as the starter last season, the Bruins struggled again on the way to finishing 4-8. It in no way resembled the way he felt or the success he enjoyed while winning state titles as a receiver and eventually as a quarterback at Bishop Gorman High in Las Vegas.

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Thompson-Robinson contemplated the ways in which he could do things better. He realized that it wasn’t just about him becoming the best quarterback he could be but the rest of the offense also maximizing its talent.

“It’s a team sport,” Thompson-Robinson said, “and you need all the other 10 guys working with you.”

Pulling together has involved the junior quarterback tutoring younger teammates on the Bruins’ plays and patiently explaining offensive concepts, all while providing encouraging messages on a group text chat.

With no player-led movements calling for coronavirus safeguards, lawyers for the SEC, Big-12 and ACC are comfortable with holding a college football season.

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Before the intramural fields were closed, Thompson-Robinson organized throwing sessions with receivers. When Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson materialized on the screen during a Zoom meeting, Thompson-Robinson asked the Super Bowl champion his advice on getting teammates to put in extra work.

Thompson-Robinson’s newfound gravitas wowed tight end Greg Dulcich, who has been his roommate since late June.

“This quarantine, he seems to really be focused, taking workouts really seriously, pushing really hard,” Dulcich said. “When we were able to throw, he was making sure everything was running smoothly, making sure people weren’t goofing off.”

A highlight video of one of the workouts, accompanied by brooding audio from “The Dark Knight Rises,” is pinned atop Thompson-Robinson’s Twitter feed. The caption reads: “I haven’t even seen this me before.”

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Before this spring, Melva Thompson-Robinson hadn’t seen this much of her son since he started college. She welcomed him back to their Las Vegas home for 3½ months after spring football practices were canceled amid the worsening pandemic.

The extended break gave Dorian a rare chance to decompress and reconnect with his brother Christopher Thompson, 31, and sister Lauryn Thompson-Robinson, 15. Dorian, who will turn 21 in November, commenced boxing workouts with his brother, a professional mixed martial arts fighter, while Lauryn shot video.

“I felt like I didn’t know them,” Dorian said, “spending that much time with them.”

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Dorian held a fundraiser by selling the Friends Over Fans hoodies that he designed as a tribute to his loyal supporters, splitting the roughly $1,200 in proceeds between the Los Angeles and Las Vegas chapters of the mentorship program 100 Black Men. If all goes well, he hopes the NCAA gives him permission to turn his clothing line into a business.

The extended break from football gave Thompson-Robinson extra time to film material for a video series he has uploaded to YouTube. One episode showed him getting a Black Lives Matter tattoo on his thigh along with an image of Daffy Duck.

The police killing of George Floyd and ensuing protests over racial injustice sparked deep conversations inside the Thompson-Robinson household.

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“It’s kind of brought to light some of the concerns that I’ve always expressed to Dorian and his siblings growing up,” Melva said, “and how they interact with the police and things that you can and cannot do and why you can and cannot do them.”

When the NCAA said it would allow social justice messages on player uniforms, Thompson-Robinson tweeted that he hoped to fit “Arrest the cops that killed Breonna Taylor” on his.

Actually playing football seemed more plausible once Thompson-Robinson moved back to campus in late June to start conditioning, but worries over safety protocols and other issues prompted some of his teammates and other Pac-12 players to start the #WeAreUnited movement that threatened boycotts of practices and games.

While supporting the crusade, Thompson-Robinson was unwavering in his desire to forge ahead with the season, tweeting, “You all need to feel this team and I this year.” He said the message did not drive a wedge between himself and his teammates after they discussed their differing opinions on the matter.

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“Everybody sees everybody’s perspective on things,” Thompson-Robinson said, “and nobody’s going to attack anybody for choosing one way or the other.”

In what could be the equivalent of being nominated for an Oscar in a movie that never gets made, Thompson-Robinson was added to the watch list for both the Manning and Johnny Unitas Golden Arm awards that go to the nation’s top college quarterback.

His hopes of playing a fall season were dashed last week when the Pac-12 pushed back all fall sports until at least Jan. 1. That left him to continue preparations for a season that might never take place amid days that can feel like an endless loop. Morning workouts are followed by virtual position meetings and optional throwing sessions that he sometimes completes at a park with teammates. Online classes won’t resume until next month.

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What might sound like monotony has reinvigorated him. He just hopes that football will eventually be played so that he can unveil a new version of himself that more closely resembles the old one.

“With this whole quarantine thing, it’s like a reset button,” Thompson-Robinson said. “For me, it’s getting back to how I was with loving the game of football.”


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