Dorian Thompson-Robinson leans on lessons from UCLA, high school to find NFL success

Dorian Thompson-Robinson threw three interceptions, no touchdowns and was sacked four times in his first NFL start. His Cleveland Browns got crushed 28-3. But his mother Melva Thompson-Robinson didn’t worry about her son, whose first taste of being an NFL starter turned out so sour.

Amid the disappointment, Melva remembered a conversation she had with Thompson-Robinson when he was still starring at UCLA. He called her one day to share Chip Kelly’s latest wisdom. The coach had told the team to be goldfish, echoing the popular phrase from the TV show “Ted Lasso.” Through the ups and downs of his first NFL season, Thompson-Robinson’s ability to have a goldfish’s 10-second memory has become more important than any pinpoint throw.

“All the lessons that people have tried to instill in him over the years are what’s guiding him to now being successful,” Melva said recently.

Hardened by a five-year, record-setting career at UCLA and a high school tenure that tested his patience, Thompson-Robinson is getting his shot to thrive in the NFL. TV cameras caught him wiping away tears on the sideline last week after he led the game-winning field goal drive against the Steelers for his first win as an NFL starting quarterback.

The former UCLA star’s emotional moment turned him into the feel-good story of Week 11 as he led the Browns to a 13-10 victory, throwing for 165 yards and one interception on 24 of 43 passing. He was a perfect three-for-three on the final drive to get the Browns in position to kick the game-winning field goal. His eyes were still red from emotion as he stepped in front of TV cameras for a postgame interview on the field.

His voice hoarse from barking play calls, Thompson-Robinson concluded the conversation by shifting his attention to the next game against the Denver Broncos. Sitting on her flight Sunday evening, Melva was finally able to sift through all the social media highlights from the thrilling win and she recognized immediately where her son got that forward-thinking mindset.

“That’s that Chip Kelly memory of a goldfish,” Melva said.

Thompson-Robinson, who will start Sunday against the Broncos, had to wait for that storybook NFL moment. He struggled in his starting debut on Oct. 1 against the Baltimore Ravens, throwing for 121 yards on 19 of 36 passing while turning the ball over three times.

He learned he would be starting against the division-leading Ravens hours before kickoff because Deshaun Watson was a late scratch. The short notice didn’t exactly set the 24-year-old rookie up for success. But when Watson was ruled out for the season after shoulder surgery on Nov. 15, it allowed Thompson-Robinson to get more reps in practice leading up to the game against the Steelers.

It made all the difference.

“The team is embracing me, people are talking to me, it feels like this could be my team,” Melva said while recalling Thompson-Robinson’s reaction to the week in practice. “So that’s what the final result showed us: Yeah, this kid can do it when he has the support of the team.”

He has the full support of a football-crazed town desperate for a true star quarterback. Fans chanted “D-T-R” before the Browns’ final drive. After the thrilling win, Thompson-Robinson got mobbed by selfie-seeking fans while at the mall. He’s no anonymous backup quarterback anymore, Melva told him.

UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson scores past USC linebacker Ralen Goforth

Everything about the last year feels surreal for Melva, who is a professor at UNLV. When her second son’s name was called as the fifth pick of the fifth round in last April’s draft, her friends teased her that she was an NFL mom now. She brushed them off. He still needed to make the 53-man roster first, she said.

Thompson-Robinson did that by playing so well during the preseason that the Browns traded veteran Joshua Dobbs to keep the rookie as Watson’s backup. It felt like Melva had to finally accept her friends’ teasing as truth when she got added to the Cleveland Browns mom group chat. Moms of stars like Myles Garrett and Nick Chubb share prayers before games, send well-wishes for safe travel and type out all-caps “LET’S GO” messages after big plays.

It’s weird to think about the latest turn in the journey, Melva said. Not long ago, her son was the kid who couldn’t win the starting quarterback job in high school. He played receiver until his senior year while backing up Tate Martell at Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High.

Gorman offensive coordinator Craig Canfield watched the game in a Las Vegas restaurant last week with his wife, who was decked out in Browns gear cheering for Thompson-Robinson during the game-winning drive. Seeing his former pupil’s professional career blossom makes Canfield revisit his decision to keep that player on the bench.

“I was like, ‘What was I thinking?’” Canfield said half-jokingly last week, one day after the Gaels capped off an undefeated season to win their 19th Nevada state championship.

But Martell went 45-0 as a starting quarterback at Gorman. Thompson-Robinson’s willingness to stay at the powerhouse program instead of transferring shows “how Dorian’s just a grinder and a fighter,” Canfield said.

Like he’s done with the Browns, Thompson-Robinson didn’t need to win the starting job to win over his teammates. During seven-on-seven periods, he ran the first eight plays at receiver, then ran the next eight at quarterback without a break. He jumped in at safety — often playing in third-and-long situations — and rotated in at punt returner.

Quarterback Dorian Thompson Robinson embraces his mom, Melva Thompson-Robinson, on senior night at Bishop Gorman High

Thompson-Robinson had 22 receptions for 397 yards and eight touchdowns as a junior receiver, but some of his best plays were his blocks. Canfield remembered the backup quarterback throwing “some of the best blocks I ever seen a receiver make” during Gorman’s 2016 season opener in Texas against Cedar Hills High and he emphasized the game-changing plays during a film session with the team the following day, exemplifying the powerhouse program’s motto of “It’s not about me, it’s about the G.”

“I was like, look at this guy, this is our backup quarterback playing receiver going out there and throwing blocks at linemen and then going in at quarterback and playing like a Division I quarterback,” Canfield said.

Thompson-Robinson was never one to shy away from a physical challenge. During his junior season at Gorman, the Gaels boasted a tough secondary led by Miami-bound safety Bubba Bolden. The defensive backs wanted to send a message on the first day of padded practice and thought they could bully the quarterback when he lined up at receiver. Instead, Thompson-Robinson put Bolden flat on his back, Canfield remembered.

It didn’t surprise Canfield to see Thompson-Robinson throwing his shoulder into a block against the Steelers’ Patrick Peterson during the first half of last week’s game. He was even fined during the preseason for a blindside block.

“I texted him and said, ‘Dude, this is the NFL, you can’t do that,’‘’ Canfield said laughing. “If you start doing that, people are going to start coming after you.”

Consider it one more lesson the rookie is still learning.