There will be a time when McKenzie Milton is hit again. Count on that. His right leg — once so shredded that amputation was considered — will be tested. The quarterback’s parents, friends and perhaps even his teammates will wince. But not Milton.
In that moment, the impact will be more than physical. It will be sweet relief.
“I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do on a football field,” Florida State’s new quarterback said.
The words should not surprise. Milton always said he would come back from one of the most gruesome injuries in college football history. In a 2018 game against South Florida, the former UCF quarterback was injured so badly his lower right leg hung limply from his knee. Ligaments and nerves were severely damaged. Doctors took an artery from his left leg to save his right.
A former Army superintendent said he had seen soldiers die in battle from the same injury if there was no military hospital nearby. Forget football, Milton would be lucky to walk again.
Coming up on 2 ½ years since the injury, Milton has made good on his promise. Last fall, he was recovered enough to run UCF’s scout team. In December, he transferred 274 miles up the road to Florida State. It was a good fit. Both program and player are longing to be relevant again. Last month, Milton was fully cleared by his Mayo Clinic doctor.
“I do not see one reason why this young man can’t play football,” that doctor told the Milton family.
Yes, but how well and for how long? Modern medicine and the transfer portal make Milton one of the most valuable newcomers entering the 2021 season. Florida State gets a 23-year-old veteran with a 27-6 record as a starter and almost 9,000 career passing yards. If only those legs hold up.
“If we had to play this weekend, I feel like I would be ready to go,” Milton said.
It’s a good start. Any sort of FSU reboot certainly had to start with an accomplished quarterback. The Seminoles finished 97th in passing offense, second-last in the ACC, after coach Mike Norvell’s first season. Glance at the portal, and Milton just might have been the best QB available this offseason even if he has become an athletic version of The Bionic Man — reassembled, reconnected, rehabbed.
Ready to be tackled again. Just don’t wince.
”He’s going to get hit,” Milton’s mother, Teresa, concluded. “He’s going to be a target, especially the teams we’re playing. I think he’s crazy, but aren’t most football players? Crazy about their sport. They have passion.”
Teresa has tried to talk her son out of this comeback in her own motherly way. What mom wouldn’t? McKenzie has his whole life ahead of him. He already has a sport and exercise science degree. If the next level doesn’t work out, Milton definitely has an interest in coaching.
It doesn’t matter if this return from a devastating injury has book and/or movie written all over it. The last chapter hasn’t been written yet.
Compared to what Milton has been through, that probably looks like a leisurely 7-on-7 scrimmage.
“A year ago, I wasn’t running or jumping,” he said. “Six months ago, I probably just started running. Three months ago, I was fully practicing and running scout team. … I have eight months to strengthen my body from the top down.”
If you feel like this story is familiar, there’s a reason. Washington Football Team quarterback Alex Smith had a documentary made about his comeback from a similar injury. Smith suffered a gruesome leg injury in 2018 and returned to the NFL this October. The ESPN documentary that emerged from his comeback was one of the best things on TV in 2020.
“After I saw it, I pretty much threw up,” Teresa Milton said. “I re-lived everything [my son] went through.”
The grim similarity reinforced the fact Smith was one of the few football sources who could call Milton at one of his low points during rehab. They had lived the same life.
“There has been nobody who has gone through it,” Norvell said. “Not only the physical aspect of it, the mental aspect of it. When McKenzie gets hit, there’s probably going to get a sense of joy that he’s out doing it.”
At his UCF peak, Milton led the Knights to 23 consecutive wins. He finished in the top 10 of Heisman Trophy voting in 2017 and 2018. Milton remains the only two-time AAC Offensive Player of the Year. There was a symbiotic relationship with former UCF coach Scott Frost, who had recruited Milton out of Hawaii. He adored fellow Hawaiian Marcus Mariota, who won the 2014 Heisman out of Oregon with Frost as his offensive coordinator.
That kick-started a quarterback pipeline snaking out of the islands. Milton arrived in Orlando in 2016, almost 5,000 miles from home. Tua Tagovailoa went to Alabama in 2017, winning a national championship and maybe becoming the Crimson Tide’s best-ever player in three short seasons.
Mariota and Tagovailoa are in the NFL. The 2021 season will be Milton’s sixth year of eligibility. Twice in as many years, he lost 35 pounds following rehab setbacks.
That kind of struggle will teach you humility. Milton has said all the right things, knowing he has to win over the Noles with his work ethic. Nothing less will work for an outsider coming in for a one-and-done season.
“Come in early and leave late instead of being a ‘rah-rah’ guy,” Milton said.
“I’m trying to live in the moment and enjoy this one year I have at Florida State,” he added. “When I look back on it, [I want to have] no regrets. I don’t want to be thinking down the road about writing a book or movie. Just be where my feet are — in the present.”
Norvell couldn’t have been thinking about a savvy recruiting move when he sent a team-signed ball to Milton after his injury. Norvell was coaching Memphis back then. UCF was the biggest target in the AAC. Milton never forgot the gesture.
“That was a cool gesture,” he said. “Class act doing something like that. I was down, bad.”
Then when Milton entered the portal, Norvell showed interest within “five seconds,” according to Teresa.
“That actually sparked a connecting piece,” Norvell said of the signed football. “For me to tell him I respected his game, those are just words [from] any other coach. … I never knew this would ever be a possibility.”
Now Milton is a foundational piece, even if it is only for one season. That’s how quickly fortunes can change these days with a transfer quarterback.
Spencer Rattler at Oklahoma in 2020 was Lincoln Riley’s first starting quarterback signed directly out of high school. In his three previous seasons, Riley advanced to the College Football Playoff with a pair of transfers who won Heismans, Baker Mayfield and Kyler Murray.
Any concerns about FSU’s offensive line should be mollified. Everybody is back from a unit that was near the bottom nationally giving up 29 sacks in nine games. The sixth-year quarterback will play behind a pair of freshman All-Americans in guard Maurice Smith and tackle Robert Scott. How time flies when you’re faced with your athletic mortality.
“You come in as an 18-year-old kid; now, I’m a 23-year old man,” Milton said. “Man-child, I would say. … I would say exhaust every resource you have in college. There are so many people that want to invest in you.”
Norvell has scoured that UCF scout team tape. Milton has craved scout team reps. Having not played for two seasons, he needed the work and exposure. Milton’s father had called around. If his son was going to make an NFL impression, he needed film.
Weird, maybe, for a veteran who has started 33 games, but the skeptics want to see how that leg holds up, too.
“Who cares if you’re pushed around as a third- or fourth-string quarterback [in the NFL]?” Teresa Milton said. “… I said, ‘Son, you might as well get paid $400,00 if you’re going to take this beating.'”
Considering where her son has come from, a pro career would be a blessing beyond imagination. But not until this critical, all-or-nothing season. Not just for Milton but for Florida State.
The ACC isn’t getting any easier, and the Noles haven’t had a winning season since 2017. Their last 10-win campaign was five years ago.
“I can’t think about if something happens to him two games in or one game in,” Teresa Milton said, “because I have to trust that God would not have allowed a coach to pick him up, God would not have allowed him to heal. God would not have opened a door.”
In private moments, the mother shares those concerns with her son.
“Are you scared?” she asks.
“No,” the son says.
“I’m scared,” she responds.
The son laughs. He has already told his mother what he has already shown the world once before.
There’s nothing McKenzie Milton can’t do on a football field.