NEW YORK — The outline of McKenzie Milton’s knee brace is easy to spot beneath his black joggers as he slowly makes his way toward the stage to take his place at the panel he’s speaking at as a candidate for the AAU James E. Sullivan Award, given annually to the nation’s most outstanding amateur athlete. The brace is thick enough that it exposes his injury immediately to anyone who missed the crutches that give the UCF quarterback away in transit.
“When I was in eighth grade, my dad told me to choose between baseball and football,” Milton said. “I was a catcher, so after double- and tripleheaders my knees would be shot. It sucked. So I picked football, and of course I go on and bust my knee.”
It’s been 146 days and five surgeries since Milton last walked unassisted. Three of those procedures took place in the first five days after the grisly season-ending injury he suffered against USF; the final two came about a month apart in December and January. Enough time has passed that Milton can joke about the dislocated right knee, severed popliteal artery and two torn ligaments that nearly ended his football career, but he still has a long way to go before he’s back on the field. Heck, he isn’t even back to walking on his own yet.
“That’s next,” Milton says. “I’m pretty close to [walking] ... in my brace.”
He has a checkup at the end of the month at which he hopes to get the all-clear from his surgeons at the Mayo Clinic to ditch the crutches. “That’d be a big step—literally,” Milton jokes. “That’s something I’m really looking forward to.”
The 21-year-old Kapolei, Hawaii, native is also looking forward to returning to the field—a step that may have to wait another year. While UCF has yet to make it official, Milton said he anticipates taking a medical redshirt during the 2019 season to retain his final year of eligibility for 2020.
“During spring ball I’ve just tried to be like another coach on the field for the guys,” Milton says. “Helping out the other quarterbacks on the field, getting them ready for the season since I'll most likely redshirt this year. I still have a voice in the locker room because of what I’ve done on the field so I can connect with my guys. I think my presence there makes them feel better. With [the injury] my role definitely changed but our goal remains the same. We still want to win a conference championship, still want to be the best that we can be.”
When he wasn’t mentoring the Knights’ healthy quarterbacks, Milton spent spring practices studying plays—or studying for the three final exams in the classes he was unable to finish last semester after his injury—and rehabbing his knee, a process that has only just begun.
“All things considered, I have really good motor function in my ankle and my foot, which is really good when you have nerve damage,” Milton says. “A lot of times it’s like six months [that] go by and you still have no movement in your foot. But as you can see, I’m moving it around pretty good.” He wiggles his Nike-covered toes—even before he chose UCF, wearing Nike was a superstition of Milton’s, especially on game days—to prove his point, giving his ankle a spin both clockwise and counterclockwise for good measure.
In 50% of all cases of the injury Milton sustained, doctors have to amputate the lower leg. If the patient doesn’t enter surgery within six hours, that amputation rate shoots up to 90%. A dislocated knee also usually means that all ligaments surrounding the knee sustained damage, but Milton miraculously escaped meniscus damage, meaning that his recovery time might not be as long as it could’ve been.
After a leg-saving surgery to restore blood flow just hours after Milton left the stadium and a final nine-hour reconstructive procedure riddled with complications on Jan. 25, he’s mentally, and now almost physically, ready to start working his way back onto a football field. The nerve damage can’t be rehabbed—that comes with time—but Milton was able to breathe a sigh of relief after the surgeons managed to reconstruct his knee without damaging the artery bypass, which had scarred down to the bone. If the bypass had been nicked in the process of moving it off the kneecap, the 5'11" quarterback would have been back at square one.
“After that, I was like, ‘O.K., this is done,’” Milton remembers. “Now I can do my part in physical therapy and just let time take its course.”
His part includes five days a week of physical therapy focused on activating the muscles around his knee, strengthening his lower leg and regaining the weight he lost while recovering. At the end of April, when they test his knee’s stability for the first time since his final surgery, Milton hopes to get the green light to start walking in his brace without crutches for the first time in more than four months.
“I think about little things that you take for granted before you go through something like this,” Milton said. “Like now, being on crutches for four months. When I start walking again, I’ll just be super grateful. It’ll feel like I just climbed Mt. Everest.”
If walking is Everest, then getting back under center will be like multiple trips up K2. The road to return and complete recovery for Milton will be long and arduous, but he’s confident in the four other UCF quarterbacks all vying to take his starting slot as he sits out the 2019 season. Notre Dame graduate transfer Brandon Wimbush headed south to Orlando so that he could battle with 2018 backup Darriel Mack Jr., true freshman Dillon Gabriel (who is also from Hawaii) and redshirt freshman Quadry Jones, an Orlando native. Although he won’t be a part of the Knights’ attempt to build another lengthy winning streak, Milton is still ready to continue to contribute in whatever way he can.
“Whoever the [starting quarterback] is going to be, it’s uncertain right now, all four guys had a good spring,” Milton says. “So I’m just trying to spit knowledge because I’ve played more ball than anybody in that room. I definitely see the game differently than them so whatever knowledge I can give to them to help our team is what I can do this year. Whoever that guy is, we’re going to roll with him. I think they’ll do a great job.”