UCF's McKenzie Milton takes one more step toward improbable comeback

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McKenzie Milton's long road back from injury (5:45)

UCF QB McKenzie Milton suffered a devastating leg injury in 2018, but he hasn't let that hinder his determination to play football again. (5:45)

You can find McKenzie Milton on the UCF practice field these days, making plays on the move and getting defenders to miss, pushing around linemen when he believes they need a spark. Coach Josh Heupel told him just the other day he thought "the old KZ was back," the one who played with swagger and brashness and confidence -- the way Milton did when he was the unquestioned star on a team pushing for greatness.

Milton smiles because he wants everyone to see him this way, right here, right now. He feels ready to play because running the UCF scout team has allowed him to truly be himself again, no longer tethered to doctors and machines and rehab, and the doubts that find their way in. His legs feel strong. His arm feels strong.

Still, Milton knows there is no going back. His on-field demeanor might say he is the old McKenzie Milton, but the scars on both his legs and the bulky brace on his right knee tell him every day this is a new football life, and he is a new McKenzie Milton.

That comes with complicated questions that Milton wrestles with constantly. What if he isn't ready? He is out at practice, but hasn't taken a hit in two years. He wants to play, but he doesn't want to be a sideshow. He wants to start, but his best friend, Dillon Gabriel, is now firmly entrenched as the starter.

He wants to put his uniform on again, but only wants to do it if he's going to get into a game. The physical scars may have healed, but it's the questions Milton turns over in his mind that leave him wondering what he will actually do when his number is finally called into the lineup again.

"I'm close to where I want to be to be able to go play again at a high level and I know I can win football games, and that's the goal," Milton said. "So just stay tuned."

Those who have followed Milton have been tuned in for two years now, waiting on the Hollywood ending: Milton triumphantly jogging onto the field, taking a snap again. That he is on the precipice is nothing short of miraculous.

Two years ago this week, Milton and his UCF teammates traveled to Tampa, Florida, to play rival USF, riding a 23-game winning streak. Milton had 33 touchdowns and over 2,500 yards passing going into the game and the Knights were heavy favorites to win.

Before kickoff, Milton remembers feeling strange, in a way he never felt before a game. Then, in the second quarter, Milton took off on a scramble. USF cornerback Mazzi Wilkins dove for his right knee. Wilkins' helmet made direct contact and Milton fell in front of the USF sideline, his leg dangling awkwardly. UCF head football athletic trainer Mary Vander Heiden ran onto the field from the opposite sideline, and urged Milton not to look down.

"I already did," he told her.

The UCF medical staff determined Milton had a dislocated knee, prompting them to check for a pulse in his leg. It was erratic. They rushed him to the hospital, where doctors discovered artery, nerve and ligament damage and internal bleeding. They immediately went to work to save his leg.

When Milton woke up, he was relieved to see he still had both legs. In the weeks that followed, his orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Bruce Levy, told him, "A slam-dunk home run with a case like this is being able to walk normally, and have no pain."

Milton looked at him and said, "Doc, that's fine, but that's not good enough."

Milton got to work, determined to play again. Vander Heiden was at his side every day, changing his dressings and slowly beginning the rehab process. By late spring 2019, Milton was walking and had mostly recovered from the nerve damage. But in July, he woke up one morning with searing pain in his knee. He was unable to walk.

Revealing the story publicly for the first time to ESPN.com, Milton said he went to the doctor, who stuck a needle in his knee and drew out pus, a clear sign of infection. When the doctor told Milton he had to undergo immediate surgery, or he could lose the cadaver tissue they used for his knee reconstruction, he broke down and cried. For the first time since he got hurt, Milton thought, "Maybe it's not meant to be."

He had a PICC line put in his arm for daily antibiotics, but Milton was still having trouble getting his range of motion back and his blood levels kept fluctuating. An MRI revealed a pocket of pus behind his knee that the antibiotics could not reach. So he underwent another surgery, this time at Tampa General, and watched the 2019 season opener against Florida A&M from his hospital room. When he returned to Orlando, he kept mostly to himself. He wore long sleeves to hide the PICC line, mostly to avoid answering questions.

The progress he had made in rehab came to a halt, and practice was out of the question. Milton lost weight. He couldn't work out, and his knee was stiff. There were days he simply did not want to show up to the facility, the mental and physical exhaustion taking its toll.

"It was a roller coaster," Vander Heiden said in a recent interview with ESPN.com. "There were moments I know he wanted to give up, but he never would have. His family never would have let him. We would go to his house and we'd do his rehab from there, but we told him, 'We're not taking days off,' and he didn't take any days off. He literally has worked every day to get to this point."

Milton estimates the infection set him back six months; but once he started to feel better, he doubled down on his efforts, now more motivated to get clearance to play again. This past summer, Milton, his mother, Teresa, and Vander Heiden traveled to Minnesota for an 18-month checkup with Levy at the Mayo Clinic. Levy told them Milton was clear to play football again.

"It's between you and your soul," Levy said.

They all cried, allowing the words they so anxiously wanted to hear to truly sink in. Milton noted the dark days and moments when the finish line seemed like it was across the ocean, how sometimes the days felt like months and the months felt like years. The senior may have had doubts, but he never stopped believing that one day he would play again.

"There was so much joy in that room," Milton said.

Milton decided he wanted to take it slowly this season, knowing UCF had a special player in Gabriel, and the fall was going to unfold under unusual circumstances because of the coronavirus pandemic. Through it all, Milton showed up for quarterback and team meetings the past two years, even when it was clear he could not play. He has been on the sideline, serving as an extra coach for Dillon and the quarterbacks, while making his return to the practice field over the six weeks.

"You listen to him in the quarterback room, he's as engaged and as big a part of that room as any of them," Heupel said. "He's thoughtful in the way he's mentored Dillon and our other young quarterbacks. It's really special for someone who's lost the ability to play to pour into the guys that are still in that room. He's still so engaged in the locker room, and you see his competitive spirit now that he's back on the practice field with us. You can feel and sense his energy every day."

Vander Heiden said Milton's knee is stable and his strength is "within normal limits." She expressed no doubts about his ability to play in a game again, but said she would be nervous when that day comes.

"I'll be holding my breath the whole time, but I can't wait to watch it on the other hand," she said.

The decision is ultimately up to Milton, Heupel and Vander Heiden, and there is a complexity involved beyond asking, "Is he ready?" and "What is his role?"

Milton believes he could play at a high level, but could he do it week after week? "It's a risk-reward right now," he said. "I don't want to get too antsy and try to rush it. We've got a great quarterback right now. There's no need for me to be out there. I want to be out there, that's the other part of it."

Then there is the way his body will react, and finally the ultimate question: Why risk it all again?

"Tony Romo, when he got hurt, he said it best: Anyone that hasn't played doesn't understand that competitiveness, and that feeling you get playing. It's something that you can't describe and only those who have experienced it know what it is," Milton said. "I don't know if it's me chasing that feeling again. When I'm on the field, I feel like everything's slowed down and nothing else matters. It's something I love to do. I was born to do it."

For his part, Heupel said, "I fully believe that he's going to continue on his journey. I think he has a long future ahead of him playing this game."

UCF's trip to USF on Friday is the first since Milton got hurt. The Knights played in the same stadium for their bowl game last year, so Milton has been back. But this time is sure to feel a little bit different.

Milton has not suited up since he got hurt, and he wants to ask Heupel if he can Friday. He knows Gabriel is the starter and backup Quadry Jones is ahead of him on the depth chart, but if there is any role for him in the game plan against the Bulls, he wants to have one. He also knows another year awaits him given the pandemic-altered eligibility rules.

The ultimate goal is to start again, something he knows will have to wait a little bit longer with the hard work, resilience and competitive spirit that brought him to this point. He understands every bit of that opportunity must be earned on the practice field first.

"I don't take for granted being out there, but at the same time, that's what I expected," Milton said. "I didn't expect to end my career going off the field on a cart. That's not the mindset I had, that's not the way I thought it was supposed to be, and it's not the way it's going to be."

He knows how he wants his story to end. The new McKenzie Milton can't wait to get started.