McKenzie Milton’s college football story is one many are familiar with — a painful tale that put the quarterback’s career on hold indefinitely and, it once seemed, permanently.
His return to the football field, then, is the perfect confluence of everything sports fans love: resilience and hard work in the face of incredible adversity, all for a player who was at the top of his game and had his career seemingly cut too short too early.
Milton’s last game was on Nov. 23, 2018, when he took the field in UCF’s season finale against South Florida. It would eventually be the final game he played for the Knights. After keeping the ball on a zone-read option, Milton was tracked down by two Bulls defenders who, in the act of tackling him, severely injured his leg and knee. The play forever altered Milton’s career.
Now with Florida State, Milton could potentially take his first snaps since that fateful play in Sunday’s 2021 season opener against Notre Dame. Coach Mike Norvell hasn’t named a starter at quarterback, but Milton’s presence on the field at any point during the season would be in defiance and in spite of conventional medical wisdom.
Here’s a look at Milton’s comeback and what led him from a record-setting career in Orlando to starting with a blank slate in Tallahassee.
What was McKenzie Milton’s injury?
Milton was assessed on the field and, after UCF team doctor Mike Jablonski and athletic trainer Mary Vander Heiden reduced his knee, he was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to save his right leg.
Dr. Bruce Levy, one of the top orthopaedic surgeons in the United States who took over Milton’s case, told the Orlando Sentinel that he suffered a knee dislocation in his knee where the thigh bone and lower leg bone were completely dislocated; that caused significant disruption to the blood flow in his leg. He also tore ligaments and some tendons, resulting in “no nerve function or very little nerve function” in his knee, per Levy.
One doctor reportedly told Milton that nearly 50 percent of patients with similar injuries had to have their leg amputated. The damage was more severe than expected, and doctors, including Levy, weren’t sure if Milton would ever play football again.
“I had gone through all of the college and NFL databases on prior players that had dislocated their knee,” Levy told the Sentinel. “And there’s one or two that were able to get back to playing, but none with this specific ligament, vascular and nerve injury.
“I said, ‘Look, my immediate goal is to get through the surgery tomorrow, and you still have your leg because if we injure the artery again, there’s the chance that you’ll still end up with an amputation. So Goal No. 1 is to safely do the operation so that you keep your leg. Goal No. 2 is to give you a limb that you can walk with that’s stable and doesn’t have pain. Anything above that is unknown and in God’s hands.”
Milton’s recovery timeline
Six weeks after the initial surgery to save his leg, Milton faced several surgeries from Levy and his team to repair his knee. From the Sentinel:
“Levy arranged three surgical teams: one to handle the vascular side of things, one to repair the ligaments and then one team to reconstruct Milton’s, including repairing nerve damage.
For more than seven hours, Levy and his surgical teams worked tirelessly on the right knee of Milton.
Surgeons crafted a vein graft to create a new artery to provide blood flow to the leg using a piece of vein from the other side. Then the surgical teams were able to rebuild the ligaments around the knee joint, and then finally Levy had to reconstruct the knee.”
The Sentinel reports that Levy also had a radiology team on hand during the surgery, performing frequent ultrasounds on the leg to make sure the artery in his leg wasn’t clotting. Following that, Milton rehabbed for five months while restricted to a wheelchair and, later, crutches.
He suffered a setback in July 2019 when he got an infection, which required another surgery and prolonged his recovery an additional six months.
Milton was finally able to return to play in October 2020; he was listed on UCF’s roster, but did not play a game. Instead, he ran the scout team offense. It was clear, however, that he could play again, even if he couldn’t retake his position from starter Dillon Gabriel.
Why Milton transferred to Florida State
Once Milton finally was cleared to play football again, he had the choice of continuing to do so at UCF, opting for another Group of 5 school, or betting on himself and hoping his prolific offensive numbers at UCF were enough to be alluring to a Power 5 program. He chose the latter, both betting on himself and showing deference and respect to Gabriel, who is one of Milton’s best friends.
He announced his decision to transfer on Dec. 3, 2020 and, in a video posted to Twitter, said the team was Gabriel’s. He added that he didn’t want to ruin any momentum he or UCF might’ve had at that point in the season.
Meanwhile, Norvell — in first year as coach of the Seminoles — called Milton and persuaded him to play at Florida State as a graduate transfer. His team had issues at quarterback and Norvell, who had coached against Milton several times while at Memphis, knew what he could bring to the position.
“You see Florida State, the garnet and gold, it speaks for itself,” Milton told ESPN. “The notoriety the people that have come through there, Deion Sanders, Charlie Ward, Jameis Winston, it speaks for itself. I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity. It’s something I don’t take for granted, especially what I’ve been through the past two years. It’s a very special opportunity, and I feel like we can get that thing turned around in the near future.”
McKenzie Milton comeback timeline
Nov. 23, 2018 — On a third-and-7 play in UCF’s season finale against in-state foe USF, Milton keeps the ball on a zone-read and injures his leg. He’s then rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery.
Late November, early December 2018 — Milton is released from the hospital and watches UCF take on Memphis in the American Athletic Conference title game. The Knights won 56-41 and extend their winning streak to 25 games.
January 2019 — Milton undergoes reconstructive surgery on his knee.
July 2019 — Milton’s knee gets infected, requiring additional surgery and setting his recovery back an additional six months.
October 2020 — Milton takes over scout team duties for UCF.
Dec. 3, 2020 — Milton announces intent to transfer from UCF.
Dec. 13, 2020 — Milton announces he’s staying in-state and taking his talents to Florida State.
July 1, 2021 — With the NCAA’s approval of student-athlete compensation for their name, image and likeness, Milton teams up with Miami quarterback D’Eriq King to start a company called Dreamfield, intended to help other athletes capitalize on that market through things like meet and greets, autograph signings and other events.
Sept. 5, 2021 — Florida State faces Notre Dame in 2021 season opener.