The dinner at The Cheesecake Factory in Santa Monica was a needed respite from the daily taking of temperatures, logging of symptoms and nagging worries about missing any precious part of the shortened 2020 college football season.
Those fears momentarily dissipated at the home of the oversized entrée. As Dorian Thompson-Robinson and a few UCLA teammates spaced themselves the best they could at an outdoor table, one player, marinating in the moment, made a joke about COVID-19.
When that player tested positive for the disease the next morning, it felt more like an exercise in tempting fate. It also created a conundrum for Thompson-Robinson: to tell or not to tell that he had ridden along with that teammate to the restaurant and was considered a close contact?
“I actually had a decision to make because they didn’t know we were in the car,” the senior quarterback recently said, referring to his coaches. “So I had to be the one to step up and say, ‘Hey, there was a group of us’ just for the sake of the team. We didn’t want to knock out anybody else, so I had to say that.”
Honesty was a hard policy to swallow. It meant that Thompson-Robinson would miss two games while stuck in quarantine and nearly a third after a heart-stopping call about his preliminary viral test results only hours before he was expected to return against Arizona State.
A season that once held significant promise sputtered toward a 3-4 finish, including excruciating meltdowns against USC and Stanford, leaving some uneasy questions about the Bruins quarterback. Could he make it through an entire season without getting sidelined by one issue or another, even if it wasn’t his fault? For all his indisputable talent, could he make the Bruins contenders in the Pac-12 Conference?
The doubts confronted him every time he peered into his locker. Malicious tweets that he printed out and taped to the door served as reminders of everything he had failed to accomplish in three seasons. He piled up passing yards while adding some nifty runs, establishing himself as an intriguing NFL prospect, but there was no getting around the team’s 10-21 record since his arrival.
As legacies go, this wasn’t one he envisioned. So he came back for less of the same. He’ll take the first snaps of training camp on Friday eager to fashion himself into someone remembered for beating USC and leading the Bruins back to a bowl game, preferably on New Year's Day.
“I wouldn’t want to leave on a losing record, on the note that we left on,” Thompson-Robinson said when asked about his decision to return to college. “I want to leave on a good note and especially being someone that has been here from the jump and been here with coach [Chip] Kelly since he’s gotten here [before the 2018 season], I definitely want to go out with a bang.”
As Thompson-Robinson sipped Pinot Grigio and detailed his hopes for a happier farewell during a YouTube video posted in December, during which he spoke of his longing to “beat the everliving s— out of USC.” The visible hurt of his 2020 experiences could have prompted him to chug the whole glass.
He committed two turnovers during a season-opening loss to Colorado. After leading UCLA to an easy victory over California, his two-week quarantine caused by The Cheesecake Factory fiasco forced him to miss games against Oregon and Arizona while marooned in a single dorm room on campus.
He had a bathroom to himself. Food was left at his door. But there was nowhere to go, nobody to see.
The isolation was agonizing for someone who thrived on social interaction. Thompson-Robinson tried to stay upbeat, calling his girlfriend and his mother. He also texted the eight other Bruins who either had tested positive for the virus or were similarly stuck in the safety protocol, the teammates bolstering each other’s spirits by sharing their best jokes.
Game days were hardest. Thompson-Robinson had sat out with injuries in each of his first two college seasons, but not even being able to walk the sidelines with his teammates led to a different sort of emptiness. He screamed at the television. His tone was angry when the Bruins couldn’t complete a rally against Oregon and buoyant when they pulled away from Arizona thanks, in part, to backup quarterback Chase Griffin.
A week later, Thompson-Robinson was going over the game plan for his anticipated return against Arizona State when the phone rang in his hotel room. It was the team’s operations manager, and he wasn’t calling to say hello. Thompson-Robinson would have to stay in his room until the results from a second test for the virus came back.
The first test had been positive.
“That,” Thompson-Robinson said, “was definitely a scary moment.”
He couldn’t believe it. Positive? He had barely emerged from quarantine and was careful not to linger around anyone during his few days of freedom. A call to his mother prompted her to consider the frightening possibility of her son being evacuated from Phoenix via air ambulance.
“In my gut as a parent,” Melva Thompson-Robinson said, “my concern now becomes that if he is positive, he can’t fly back home with the team.”
Fortunately, the follow-up test came back negative, allowing Thompson-Robinson to throw for 192 yards and one touchdown while running for 49 yards and another touchdown, nudging the Bruins toward a 25-18 victory over the Sun Devils.
With a 3-2 record, it appeared as if UCLA might be on the way to its first winning season since 2015. Then came the back-to-back collapses and more heartache. A lost lead in the final minute against USC. A two-touchdown advantage evaporating in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter against Stanford.
So much for that winning season.
Rather than bury the pain, the Bruins memorialized it. Television screens inside the Wasserman Football Center repeatedly flashed “15,” a reminder of the combined number of points involved in the team’s four losses and how close it was to a breakthrough.
It also reinforced the need to avoid the breakdowns that cost the Bruins so dearly.
“It’s not about the hard work or anything like that,” said Thompson-Robinson, who ranks No. 9 on the school’s all-time passing list with 5,132 yards, “it’s more so about being dialed in on every play, you know, we can’t have any mess-ups, can’t have any false starts, any penalties on offense or defense and stuff like that.”
Whenever he dissects practice plays with Ryan Gunderson, the Bruins’ new quarterbacks coach, Thompson-Robinson delivers a mandate. Tell me what I did wrong, he’ll insist. Focus on the breakdowns. Help me get better.
“He says to me, ‘I want to know the bad stuff,’ ” Gunderson said. “He’s not afraid of the negative and he’s been super willing to fix it. That’s really fun, when guys are craving that information and craving the ability to just improve.”
Gunderson has suggested tweaks in footwork and balance that could lead to big changes for a quarterback who has struggled with consistency. Thompson-Robinson was among the nation’s leaders with 19 turnovers during the 2019 season and has repeatedly run backward under pressure, leading to big chunks of lost yardage.
Turnovers aren’t always the quarterback’s fault, Gunderson pointed out, noting that passes get tipped and offensive linemen get beat. Gunderson’s emphasis has been on avoiding critical errors such as making the wrong read and throwing the ball into a linebacker’s chest.
Another change has come internally. To strengthen his relationship with the entire team instead of centering his efforts on the offense, Thompson-Robinson has become more of a leader not just on game days, continually cleaning up the locker room and shepherding large groups during informal practices.
“I’m not naturally a bad person,” Thompson-Robinson said, “but we can kind of tend to be selfish at times, so really playing for my guys and playing for everybody else has really led to me being a better athlete on the field, off the field.”
Having been fully vaccinated and no longer subject to daily testing, Thompson-Robinson can also grab dinner in a group without fear of being isolated for weeks. He’s free to roam, intent on taking the Bruins where they haven’t gone in years.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.