Melva Thompson-Robinson doesn’t wear her son’s jersey at games. Even as the No. 1 fan of No. 1, she doesn’t openly identify herself as any relation to one of the top quarterbacks on the West Coast.
It has nothing to do with not being proud or not wanting to support her son. It’s just that no matter how well Dorian Thompson-Robinson plays for UCLA, no matter how many touchdown passes he throws or defenders he leaves behind on a squirrely run, Melva knows the criticism is going to spew into the air like toxic fumes.
“For every good thing, there’s probably at least one or two bad things that somebody’s going to say,” Melva said, “and I just don’t want to hear it.”
After a 3-4 season in which he missed time because of COVID-19, Bruins quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson returns to try and leave a winning legacy.
She sits among friends and family at the Rose Bowl, everyone nearby supportive, helping to insulate her from the insults that would make her cringe.
The cauldron of negativity has burbled since Dorian made his college debut more than three years ago. For all the promise he showed as a true freshman that day, jogging onto the field at the Rose Bowl as an injury replacement against Cincinnati, fans focused on a fumble that led to a safety and the fourth-down pass that fell incomplete, sealing the Bruins’ defeat.
It’s a relentless pattern that has followed Dorian from that unsteady start to his unquestioned standing as one of the best quarterbacks and grittiest players in school history heading into UCLA’s Holiday Bowl matchup against No. 18 North Carolina State on Tuesday at Petco Park in San Diego.
Among the many refrains fans have trotted out on social media and message boards: Dorian is a great athlete but not a great quarterback and should be moved to wide receiver; he possesses a strong but inaccurate arm; he keeps fumbling without being hit; he inexplicably runs backward under pressure; he’s as gutty as they come but can’t make good decisions against tough defenses.
Melva has heard it all, even amid a resurgent season in which the Bruins (8-4) could win nine games for the first time since going 10-3 in 2014. She was warned about this before Dorian threw his first pass. College friends at Michigan who played football at her alma mater alongside Jim Harbaugh as well as Liz Lippincott, the mother of former UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen, told her to brace for the verbal barbs.
“Some of them were like, ‘Don’t even listen to it because it will drive you insane,’ ” Melva said, recalling her friends’ advice. “People will say all kinds of things — he can have the best game ever and somebody’s still like, ‘He should be benched.’ ”
A professor of social and behavioral health at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, Melva has developed her own rubric for dealing with bitter Twitter. If someone has so few followers that it suggests even their friends and family don’t care what they have to say, Melva won’t respond. The same goes for those who make outlandish critiques, Melva shaking her head and moving along.
Sometimes, restraint giving way, it’s impossible to resist a retort.
Barring a COVID-19 disruption, UCLA will play No. 18 N.C. State on Dec. 28 in the Holiday Bowl — the first bowl game for nearly the entire Bruins roster.
“There will be times when I’ll say something,” Melva said, “but other than that, me and my family, we kind of talk about it, we look at each other and we just laugh. We’re like, whatever.”
Dorian takes Twitter off his cell phone at times during the season so he’s not getting bombarded with notifications about the latest thing he could have done better.
But no matter how much they try to gird themselves, words can hurt. Melva said she would like to show up at some of the critics’ jobs and blast them so they know how it feels.
“Basically you’re telling somebody, ‘Hey, you’re not doing a good job. You suck. You should be benched. You shouldn’t even be playing. You should be playing wide receiver and not quarterback’ — all those things,” Melva said. “And so, you know, I could turn around and say the same thing about them. And they wouldn’t like it, their family wouldn’t like it, their friends wouldn’t like it, hell, their boss wouldn’t even like it, you know?
“But we have a society that makes that OK and to a point, it’s not OK. You know, we talk about mental health of athletes and you’ve got people who get mad that athletes take time off to protect their mental health and all that these people do is, they’re cutting these athletes down whether it’s collegiate athletes, to a point, high school athletes, professional athletes, Olympians, they’re cutting people down and in some cases, it’s not about that person thinks what they’re saying is right or wrong, part of it is about these people are trying to say something to get a rise, to get light, to get people to respond and to pay attention to it, and that’s the messed up part.”
Dorian Thompson-Robinson wants to leave a lasting legacy in Westwood, and he did just that, accounting for six touchdowns in UCLA’s 62-33 win over USC.
Melva has done her best to shield Dorian from criticism since he started playing sports. In middle school, she told him not to post shirtless selfies on Twitter or say anything that could be construed as degrading toward his teammates, coaches or opponents. Tweeting and deleting was also a bad approach because of screenshotting that could come back to haunt him.
As Dorian started being recruited by colleges, Melva met with prospective coaches to assess how willing they were to support her son if things went wrong, understanding that pushback could be especially strong against Black quarterbacks. She gave the coaches a hypothetical situation: What if Dorian threw an interception against a rival that cost his team the game and fans called for him to be benched?
Among those who best eased her worries was UCLA’s Chip Kelly, who had coached a litany of top quarterbacks at Oregon and in the NFL. Kelly’s answers made Melva feel that her son would be protected, that he could play through mistakes without feeling like he was always on the verge of getting yanked.
That’s exactly how it’s played out, Dorian starting every game since the start of his sophomore season and receiving support from Kelly after bad performances and off-the-field missteps such as the time Dorian disparaged UCLA with an obscene word on Snapchat before spring practice in 2020.
“That’s been huge because Dorian hasn’t always been perfect and some of that, even though people may like to call for Dorian’s head on it,” Melva said, “it’s not always been Dorian’s fault and so to have that support has been huge.”
The backing that has meant the most to Dorian has come from his mother, always there to help solve any conundrum. That’s not to say it always involves a smile and her blessing to do whatever he wants.
“She doesn’t just say ‘Yes’ to everything that I do or agree with everything that I do,” Dorian said, “It’s definitely tough love and I love her to death for it.”
Dorian said his mother’s best advice has been to stay his giggly, goofy, sometimes introverted self no matter what’s being said around him. That can be hard even with the Bruins on the upswing because their fans wanted more, hopes of a long-awaited Rose Bowl berth fading with back-to-back losses before Halloween.
To the surprise of no one, the critiques started anew as some fans looked longingly toward 2022. Some thanked Dorian on message boards while saying they were ready for the senior to give up his final year of eligibility so that Dillon Gabriel, a prolific transfer quarterback from Central Florida, could take over as the starter.
“Now we’re winning, but people still aren’t satisfied, you know?” Melva said. “And that’s annoying, that’s frustrating. Like, I get the high expectations, but the team isn’t there yet, and they’re getting there and I think they will get there but they’re just not there yet.”
UCLA scores 32 unanswered points in a 42-14 win over California. The Bruins now wait to see which bowl game they’ll land in after their 8-4 season.
Offsetting the exasperation was the joy visible in Dorian after victories over Colorado and California, not to mention a historic beatdown of rival USC in which Kelly didn’t have to worry about any of those anxiety-provoking hypotheticals involving his quarterback. Dorian threw for four touchdowns and ran for two more as the Bruins dropped a record 62 points on the Trojans.
Fickle fans started appreciation threads in which they debated their favorite Dorian moments (was it his signing of a fan’s UCLA hat after scoring a touchdown or vaulting a defender on his way to running for another score?). That wasn’t the turnabout that mattered to Melva regarding her son.
“I would say the one thing this season with them winning is seeing a smile on his face because they won a game and not the tension and the frustration of, ‘We lost another game,’ ” Melva said. “That doesn’t mean anything to some fans, but to family members who are there week in and week out with their sons and watching them play this game, you know, seeing them happy that they’re winning is huge.”
In the end, win or lose, epic performance or groan-inducing day, Dorian can count on satisfying the only fan who really matters.
Go beyond the scoreboard
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