UCF QB McKenzie Milton's journey, in his own words: 'I got hurt for a reason'
UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton is working to recover from a devastating leg injury suffered on Nov. 23. Laura Heald for ESPN
McKenzie Milton led UCF into last year's regular-season finale against USF the Friday after Thanksgiving on a 23-game winning streak, hoping to close out another undefeated season and clinch a second straight New Year's Six Bowl. But a devastating injury to his right leg in the second quarter changed everything for Milton. The quarterback, called "KZ" by friends, details the journey to recovery and what happens next, as told to ESPN's Andrea Adelson.
It's weird, thinking about it now. Before the game even started, I felt unsettled. During the game, too. I don't know why. I never have butterflies. I almost threw up on the sideline, and I've never done that. I even told DJ [Milton's backup, Darriel Mack Jr.], "Bro, I feel like throwing up."
We got off to a slow start and led 7-0 in the second quarter. It was third-and-7. We looked to the sideline to check for a play called Sling Push. After the D-end clamped, the corner, Mazzi Wilkins, peeled off and kind of caught me off guard; he dove for my leg, and his helmet went straight onto my knee. The next thing I know, my leg was just kind of dangling there.
I took one look at it for a split second, and I put my head back down, thinking, "Wow, this doesn't really feel real." I knew it was bad, but I didn't really feel too much pain, I guess from the adrenaline and shock. It happened right next to the USF sideline, and next thing I know, the USF trainer was out there, and coach Charlie Strong was out there, asking me, "KZ, how are you doing? How are you doing?" I said, "Coach, I'm not doing that great," and then Mary Vander Heiden, our head athletic trainer, was over me, and I feel Dr. [Kenneth] Krumins, our team physician at the time, tugging on my knee. I felt him put it back into place.
John Evans, our team chaplain, was praying over me, and both sidelines were clear. Coach Strong kept asking, "How you doing, KZ?" I kept telling him, "Coach, I don't know. My leg hurts." I started feeling the pain. I felt it throbbing. They took off my shoe, cut my tape, and they were feeling for a pulse down in my leg, and I wasn't really sure why.
USF's DBs coach came out and told me, "You're the best I've ever seen at this level. I have a lot of respect for you. I'll be praying for you."
They put me on the stretcher, and there were a lot of emotions running through my mind at that point. You see that happen to people, and you never want yourself in those shoes, but you know it's a reality in the sport we play.
We got in the locker room, and they checked for a pulse again. There was no pulse in the leg, so we knew that was an issue. Blood flow was not getting to the bottom of my leg. They said, "We're going to have to go to the hospital right away. We need to get on this." I had an idea of what was going on. I remember Zach Miller [the Chicago Bears tight end suffered a similar trauma in 2017, which Milton saw at the time.]. I heard he could've lost his leg from his injury, and I remember seeing it, and I was like, "Dang, am I in that situation?" A normal ACL tear, you're not going to rush to the hospital for that. The fact they couldn't find a pulse was scary.
When we got to Tampa General Hospital, I saw my mom waiting in the hallway, and that's when I started crying. I had a CAT scan, and it showed I had a torn popliteal artery. The doctors told me, "We're going to have to go into surgery right away to try and restore the blood flow to the bottom of your leg." I went into surgery at about 6 or 7 p.m. and woke up around midnight. I looked to see if I still had my leg, and it was still there.
My parents, my girlfriend, Coach [Josh] Heupel, [UCF athletic director] Danny White and many of my teammates were all there. I saw Sam Jackson, our offensive lineman, and told him we were matching now because he had an ACL earlier that spring. Seeing all those people there definitely lifted me up at that time. I saw a different side of Coach Heupel, a softer side.
I had a huge contraption on my leg: two pins sticking into my bones in my thigh and the bones in my shin. Anybody that dislocates their knee, that's what they get, to essentially keep your leg in place. At this point, I thought I tore everything in my knee: the ACL, PCL, MCL, LCL and both meniscuses. I had a huge scar from my left knee to my upper groin in my left side, which is my good side. They had to take the saphenous vein out of my left leg and make a new artery in my right leg to restore blood flow to save the leg, which is amazing. I also had two big cuts on each side of my right leg -- they were open with tubes running in and out with blood just coming out. They had to keep those open because, if not, your leg would puff up and basically explode.
The other scary part of the injury was the nerve damage.
The mere violence of the hit caused the ligaments to tear and the knee to dislocate and tore the artery and stretched the nerve. Sometimes, the nerve can rip. If it does, you're not going to have feeling in your leg the rest of your life. If it stretches, the nerve heals gradually over time, about a millimeter a day, which is not a lot at all. If you have no function in the nerve, you have to cut off your leg because it'll just sag. It'll swell up.
I was happy to have my leg, but I still didn't fully understand how you could lose your leg from playing football. I watched the hit several times in the hospital. I had to. I wanted to see how bad it looked.
I could have maybe jumped over him or something. I don't know. My doctors tell me 0.001 percent of orthopedic injuries are like mine, and this type of injury is typically from motorcycle or car accidents.
Once the artery was repaired, the next biggest thing was addressing the nerve. After the surgery, the doctors would ask me to wiggle my toes, but I couldn't move my feet for the first few days. About Day 3 or 4, I could get a little movement in my toes. Some people with nerve damage, it takes six months for them to even wiggle their toes at all. Mary and Dr. [Michael] Jablonski saw me wiggle my toes, and they were emotional.
The prognosis: You may never play again. You may be able to play again. We don't know.
It's tough hearing that, but I didn't cry or anything. I said, "Forget that. I believe I'm going to play again." I really do.
By Day 5 or 6, I got a walker. I could go about 10 steps. I was weak. I lost about 30 pounds, going from about 180 to 150. I didn't have a lot of iron in my blood. My back was sore. It was hard to sleep through the night because they had to keep coming in to check my pulse in my foot every two hours to make sure the new artery was functioning properly. I'd have to take blood thinner shots in my stomach to make sure there were no blood clots. It felt like I was in the hospital forever.
There wasn't a moment when I broke down and cried or asked, "Why?" But there were multiple moments when I broke down from the overwhelming support I received from my team, the community and Knight Nation. That was unbelievable to me.
I also reached out to the player who hit me, Mazzi Wilkins. I heard he's getting death threats. Nobody deserves that. Nobody deserves people trying to go after your family. It's ridiculous. We know what we're getting ourselves into playing football. I told him I have no ill will toward him. DBs typically hit low. I know that as a player.
I got out of the hospital a week later. My teammates Brandon Moore, Gabe Davis and Tre Nixon came late that night to see me and missed curfew. I had to force them to leave. I was like, "Guys, you've got to play tomorrow. Get out of here."
I wanted to go to the game, but my doctors were worried about infection, so I stayed home with my dad and watched the conference championship against Memphis from my couch. [Memphis led 38-21 at halftime, but UCF rallied to win 56-41.] I was screaming at the TV. I was telling DJ, "Hold on to the darn ball!" He settled in. He did his thing. I was proud of the guys and the way they adjusted in the second half.
I was pretty much bedridden when I got home. You take little things for granted until you're in a situation like that, like showering, brushing your teeth, washing your hair, just walking. I had to use a walker going from room to room, and walking a few feet felt like I ran a whole mile. It was also hard to sleep with the metal contraption on. You can't get comfortable, you can't roll over, and it starts pulling on your skin. It eventually got to a point where I could shower with it. I sat in the shower for an hour.
About three or four weeks later, I had surgery to take the metal brace off before getting well enough to fly with the team to Scottsdale for the Fiesta Bowl. I was on crutches, in a brace and was weaning off the pain meds so I could go back to normal function, but I was still really weak.
Being up and about doing stuff made me feel so much better. I was excited for the guys playing on that stage against LSU. I still got the same butterflies as if I were playing. I was able to interact with the fans, too. You don't really do that while you're playing. I was on crutches on the sideline, and they're screaming, "KZ, we're rooting for you!"
I was sad not to play and sad for our guys that we lost [40-32]. Would it have been different if I were playing? I don't know. But I wanted to be sharing the loss or the win with my guys.
Before I had my knee reconstruction [in January], I had an MRI to confirm the extent of the damage. It showed that I had torn only my LCL and PCL, and that was it. I had knee surgery in January, and both meniscuses when they went in for surgery were perfect, which is crazy. The ACL read well on the MRI, and it was perfect. The MCL is perfect.
I've also had nerve conduction tests, in which they take needles, and they do electric impulses because that's how your nerves work. The person who did my test was very optimistic, and she thought that over time, I'd have complete healing with the nerve, which is really a miracle.
The nerve coming back, it feels like your foot's asleep and your leg's asleep, and when it comes back -- I don't know how to describe it -- it's kind of like fire in your leg. It hurts. The nerve pain does hurt. I feel it on occasion, but I'm used to it now. I'm feeling it come back, and that's a good thing. There's still a little numbness, like the lower leg. I can feel it when I touch it, but it feels dull. You know when your hand falls asleep and you touch it? That's what it feels like. My toes, I can wiggle them but not all the way. It's getting better. I wear a little pantyhose sleeve on my right leg to help with swelling because of muscle atrophy. I haven't activated all my muscles in my leg for so long, [but] I'm starting to weight-bear again.
There's no rehab for the nerve damage. I take vitamins and fish oils that are supposed to help bring nerves back, but that's in God's timing.
I've also been doing physical therapy: putting a sand bag around my ankles, doing leg lifts, adduction lifts, abduction lifts, glute raises, clamshells. I'll do ankle mobility with a band trying to strengthen it. I do electric stimulation to try to fire that nerve to raise my big toe. The furthest part away from the nerve is the big toe, so once that's fully back, then you know the nerve is fully back.
The toughest part for me was not having a normal life for a few months. Now I'm getting back into my routine. Being laid up, you kind of go crazy by yourself. I go to quarterback meetings. Just seeing my guys, seeing smiles on their faces, joking around with them, it's awesome. I told Coach Heupel that I need to be around the guys.
Last weekend, I met Mazzi face to face at a Better Man event in Orlando. I didn't know he would be there. It was cool to meet him and his family in person. We just said no hard feelings. It's part of football.
As for playing again, it's going to take divine intervention, which has already taken place, considering the best-case scenarios. I tore only two of the four ligaments that usually get torn when you dislocate your knee. My blood's flowing great. The nerve's coming back, so that's already happening. But what it's going to take from me is busting my butt, listening to our medical staff. It's going to be the hardest thing I've ever done, but it's worth it.
It probably won't be this season, but I don't think that would be fair to put a set date on it. I don't want to disappoint myself. I'm trying to have mini goals. I want to walk without crutches by the end of April, and then whenever I knock that down, what's the next thing I can do? Maybe jog by the end of summer, maybe start running by the end of the year. I've already started throwing balls, sitting on my butt, kind of standing up just doing that. Right now I'm checking off stuff one by one.
I want to be an even better player, and I think I can be. I'm going to be better as a teammate. I'm going to be better as a leader. That's where it starts. That will make the guys around me better. I'll be better within the pocket. Who knows? Maybe I'll be faster. We'll see when that time comes. If I'm not going to be able to play at the level I want to, there's no point in me doing it. So until I get to that point, I'm not going to stop, no matter how long it takes.
Patience is a virtue. I feel like I'm developing that now. I've had a lot of injuries throughout my career. None as bad as this, but I feel like all that prepared me for something like this. Trust me, I go crazy not being able to participate in spring practice, but I'd go more crazy if I weren't out there helping those guys. I'm trying to embrace my new role on the team, and I'll embrace it as long as I have to, but I'm definitely going to take care of what I need to take care of to get where I want to go.
I feel like I got hurt for a reason. Something good's going to come out of it. If I could write my story, if I could write my book right now, I'd play 10 years in the NFL, win a couple Super Bowls and then maybe coach at UCF after that. That would be the way to go.
But it's for God to write, not me.