There are many things that McKenzie Milton can’t do right now.
He can’t run. He can’t jump. What hurts worse is that he can’t celebrate with his UCF Knights teammates after triumphs or commiserate with them after defeats. Although he is still around the team, imparting knowledge and encouragement to anyone who needs it, it’s not the same, he says, as suiting up and living those wins and losses with them.
But as Milton met the media Thursday morning, he appeared as a man grateful for his present and optimistic for his future, one that he says will include his return to the football field.
“In 50 percent of these cases, you don’t have a leg, so I’m very optimistic,” he said. “My nerve feels great, I’ve got full feeling in my foot, so I’m building up strength right now. I’m very grateful. I’ve got a little baby quad coming back. Hamstring muscles are all there, so it’s rolling right now.
“I’ve still got a ways to go. I’m not saying I’ll be playing next week or anything like that, but it’s getting there.”
Milton can't run or jump yet, but he remains very optimistic about his progress in rehab.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) November 14, 2019
"In 50 percent of these cases, you don't have a leg, so I'm very optimistic. ... Got a little baby quad coming back. Hamstring muscles are all there, so it's rolling right now." #UCF pic.twitter.com/K1KEiP5eZZ
Next Saturday, Nov. 23, is the anniversary of the hit that put Milton’s career on hold. He said he’ll probably use the date to reflect on far he has come in the past 12 months.
On Nov. 24, Milton woke up in Tampa General Hospital unsure if he still had his right leg. Rods had been inserted to hold his devastated knee in place. Blood flow within the extremity had been restored, staving off possible amputation.
That is where he was 12 months ago.
Now, Milton is walking without assistance. When he’s not watching his teammates practice, he is working with UCF’s trainers, and strength and conditioning staff — namely Mary Vander Heiden and Dave Young — to regain everything he lost. He’s on a steady diet of leg presses, squats, walking lunges and other exercises, day after day.
“Kind of feeling like an athlete again,” he says.
Milton has cleared so many hurdles to get to this point. The next landmark? Casting aside his bulky leg brace and moving into a more sports-specific support. He says that should happen in the near future.
What Milton can’t forecast is when he will play football again. He reiterated Thursday that his dream is to play for UCF again, become an NFL player and then graduate to coaching.
“None of that’s changed. That’s still the goal,” he says.
Nearing the anniversary of his major knee injury, Milton said this year has had a lot of ups and downs, but the present is "night and day" from where he was in Tampa.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) November 14, 2019
"I'm definitely grateful for where I'm at now." #UCF pic.twitter.com/AdjZFEPbOb
But Milton also understands that he may never play football again. No matter how badly he wants to achieve his dreams, he is also pragmatic about what it will take to get there. And if it comes to the point where his mind is willing but his body is hesitant, he wants to be the one to make the final decision.
“I want to get back out there and suited up with my guys, but I don’t want to be in a position where I’m out there, 85, 90 percent, not being the best player I can be for those guys. I feel it would be a disservice to myself if I’m not right or if I don’t fully trust the leg to make cuts and jumps.
“If the doctors say, ‘You can’t go,’ then it is what it is. I know I gave my best shot to play football. I know I left everything out there for my guys, myself and my family. I’d be OK with that, but I don’t see that being the case. I do see, if it comes down to the doctors saying I can go and I don’t feel like I can go, I feel like it would probably be on me more so than the doctors.”
Milton also knows there's a chance he never plays again. That decision will be up to him and his doctors. But he isn't close to considering that idea.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) November 14, 2019
And he probably won't be emotional on his injury's anniversary.
"I don't think I'll cry. If I do, I'll let you guys know." #UCF pic.twitter.com/wf6SwqByk5
This season has given Milton an early start on that coaching career. His lead pupil thus far is the man who followed in his footsteps at Hawaii’s Mililani High and then at UCF: Freshman quarterback Dillon Gabriel.
Before each game, Milton gives his protege the same piece of advice: Go out there and be who you are — the best player on the field.
“I’m pretty sure, statistically, he’s the best [quarterback] in the country as a freshman,” Milton said of Gabriel. I know there are some naysayers about him, but he’s going to be a really, really good football player -- probably a great football player -- for this program. Probably beat a lot of my records, maybe all of them. I think when it’s all said and done, he’ll be one of the greats here.”
Milton shares his thoughts on Dillon Gabriel's freshman season and the advice he's had for DG during the year.— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) November 14, 2019
"He's a lot better than I was (as a freshman). That's for sure." #UCF pic.twitter.com/jW5iXwtPih
Wide receiver Gabriel Davis said he sees himself as a wide receivers coach on a Milton-led staff one day.
“I know we’ll be together for life,” Davis said. “I’m happy to have him around. Again, the smartest player I’ve ever been around. ... He knows the game like the back of his hand.”
All of that is nice, but Milton still believes full-time coaching is far off on the horizon for him. Getting back into playing shape is the most immediate end goal.
These past 12 months have changed Milton. As he has rebuilt his leg, he has been fortified mentally more so than physically. His rehab has tested the limits of his perseverance, and he now realizes just what he can conquer. He has seen football from a different perspective, one that has allowed him to fully grasp the nuances of the game. He said this time away has motivated him to become a better leader.
But as far as on the field, Milton says he plans to return as the same player who electrified Spectrum Stadium over the past few seasons.
“I feel like I’ll still be the same guy when I do play again, just giving 100 percent, whatever I’ve got for the team,”
Perhaps there will be one change: “Maybe I’ll slide a little more,” Milton said with a smile. “We’ll see.”
Finally, what has Milton learned about himself during this ordeal?— Brian Murphy (@Spokes_Murphy) November 14, 2019
"I know, physically, I'm a tough guy. But I know, mentally, I can overcome a lot now. I still have a lot to overcome, but it's heading in the right direction." #UCF
And that's it. pic.twitter.com/aEvcsifvSz