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McKenzie Milton: ‘I’m really close’ to being fully cleared

KZ gave an update on his status in an Instagram Live stream with former UCF quarterback Brandon Wimbush on Monday

McKenzie Milton runs across UCF’s practice field in August. Milton is about 21 months removed from his right knee injury and has been cleared to practice in pads.
Photo: UCF Athletics

McKenzie Milton said Monday night that he is “really close” to being cleared for full football activity.

Milton joined former UCF Knights quarterback Brandon Wimbush for a 35-minute conversation about his health, the Knights’ 2020 season, Florida’s name, image and likeness bill and many other topics. Here are the highlights:

On the progress Milton has made made in his recovery

Milton: “I’m feeling real good, B-Dubs. Just grinding every day with David Young, our strength coach, and I’m close, man. I’m close to being fully cleared. Put on the pads for the first time last week. Been going through full practice with the boys. Just kind of taking a step back, just been a blessing being out there with the boys again. That’s something I’ll never take for granted again, just suiting up, lacing up the cleats, even going out to practice.

“I kind of just took a step back this past week on the way into practice on Wednesday and just took it back. I’m coming up on two years in November since I got hurt. It’s gone by really fast and it’s gone by really slow at the same time. It’s been a crazy time, and I wouldn’t have gotten through this without you, without the boys, without my parents and obviously lots of prayers and the healing hands of God. Like I said, man, I’m really close. Had a great medical team and it’s just been a big blessing, bro.”

On what he has missed most while on the sidelines

Milton: “For me, just playing out there. The calm within the chaos. Just being out there on the field and just the whole stadium erupting but it also being silent at the same time. I feel like you know that feeling, just being in complete control out there. It’s like an echo. It’s just a unique feeling. Just being in complete control of the game and honestly just feeling like you’re the best guy out there. I miss that feeling. I want to get back to that and I feel like I will.”

On what he has learned during his rehab

Milton: “Just keeping your mental strong and just keeping positive people around you. For me, this has been more mental than physical. Just trying to stay positive through several surgeries, a few setbacks and just always trying to trust that God has a bigger plan than I could ever imagine. ... It hasn’t always been good days, but bad days are only a promise that good days are ahead.”

On the medical support he has received from UCF

Milton: From literally the moment I got hurt, Mary (head UCF football trainer Mary Vander Heiden) was right there on the field. Dr. (Kenneth) Krumins put my knee back into place. I was rushed over to Tampa General, right into surgery in less than an hour or two to restore blood flow to my leg. I don’t want to say my injury happened at a perfect time, in a perfect place, but I was right by one of the best trauma centers in the country in Tampa General and they were able to save my leg. Then I went up to the Mayo Clinic for my reconstruction and they took care of me. I had a few setbacks after that. The guys at Jewett — Dr. (Michael) Jablonski and Mary Vander Heiden.

“UCF has done a great job just putting all their eggs into me. Trying to get my leg right and they’ve done the same for so many other people, too. ... I’m just grateful for the medical team and all the support they’ve given me. It’s second to none at UCF. They’ve really done a great job.”

On how UCF’s medical team has guided the football team through the pandemic

Milton: “With COVID, they’ve done a phenomenal job. We’re getting tested three times a week. They are sticklers about wearing masks, just trying to keep everyone safe and giving us an opportunity to ball. I really didn’t think we’d have a chance to play football this semester, but they’ve done a fantastic job getting us out there. It’s been a blessing. I couldn’t imagine, I know must of us couldn’t imagine not having ball. It just would have sucked.”

On UCF’s 2020 season thus far

Milton: “I thought we had a great camp off a COVID year — no spring ball, really no summer workouts and a short camp. Just lot of craziness in the world with the social justice piece. I think our team has done a great job of sticking together through this.

“We started off hot — Georgia Tech, ECU — and this past week was just a crazy week with injuries. We had three or four guys go down, if not more. Just a crazy game. Like you said, Tulsa has kind of been our Achilles’ heel the past two years and they caught us slipping at home. But we can still control what we can control. ... I don’t think they are a better team than us; they just caught us that night. It kind of is what it is. We had some guys get banged up, but we’ll move on. We’ll move forward, stick together as a team, and we’ll take care of Memphis in a week.”

On the lighthearted mood in UCF’s QB room

Milton: “I feel that like started out from my freshman year, having guys like Justin Holman, Nick Patti, some senior leaders. ... There’s only one guy that can throw the ball out there; we all know that and that’s just the way it is. There’s only 11 guys that can suit up and there’s only one QB that can go out and take the snaps, but it has always just been a weird dynamic. Everybody’s been supportive of each other in that QB room from the time I got in there. When I went down, DJ (Darriel Mack Jr.) stepped up. And then DJ got banged up, you and Dillon battled it out and we just all supported each other, bro. There’s no ill will towards each other. Always cracking jokes in there and if someone scores, we’re all chest-bumping and stuff. Obviously, everyone wants to play, but that’s just not the nature of our game. If one of us eats, we all eat, and that’s been a beautiful thing.”

On wanting to be a coach after his playing days

Milton: “I absolutely want to get into coaching. My dad was one of my first football coaches. Billy Graham, he was one of the most famous pastors of all time, he said, ‘A coach will influence more lives in one year than most people will in a lifetime.’ I feel like I can help a lot of kids that have gone on the same paths as me.”

Since this conversation took place on the IG page of MOGL, a company co-founded by Wimbush which seeks in part to help businesses and college athletes connect for endorsement opportunties, a good portion of this conversation centered around college athletes earning money off of their name, image and likeness. Florida’s NIL bill will go into effect in July.

On allowing college athletes to earn money off their NIL

Milton: “When it first came out, I just thought it’s about time that athletes are able to start using their name, image and likeness to get an extra few bucks in their pocket. ... I think it’s huge for the landscape of college athletics. I think the NCAA has kind of had a hold on the control, money.

“There’s no reason a kid shouldn’t be able to go back to their home town, have a camp for kids from their community, charge them, what, $10 to put a little extra money in their pocket. And every kid on the team can do that, from walk-ons to scholarship guys. It’s not just limited to starters and scholarship guys. It’s open to everyone.”

“You know there’s a lot of guys that don’t come from much that make it to D-1 football, and there’s [cost of attendance] checks, there are pell checks. They go back to their families back home and they really got no money in their pocket. They’re just surviving off the food they get from football and the protein shakes they get in the weight room. Me personally, I never really had that struggle just because my parents, they’ve been able to take care of me. But I can’t say that for 90% of my teammates. So, I think it’s great that this is going to be passed I think next summer. And really, it’s just about time. It should be all over the country.

“For someone like me in my situation, I’ve been hurt the past two years. All I really have to show for the success I had in college football is a few rings and a few banners, you know what I’m saying? And I’m going to be rehabbing my leg for the rest of my life, really. From the time I wake up, I’m loosening this thing up, getting ready to go to stack workout after workout.

On the importance of healthcare coverage for college athletes after their playing career

Milton: “These guys get banged in the head; we just had three guys literally get knocked out in a game on Saturday. I feel like there should be four or five years extended — after your time playing, after your eligibility is exhausted — of healthcare.

“I think that’s something you can’t take for granted. Literally at any moment, your career could end. I think the healthcare is something that NCAA athletes should definitely advocate for. When their eligibility is exhausted, I feel like four or five years of healthcare provided by whether it’s the NCAA or the school should be a thing just because these guys put their body out there every day, from summer workouts, spring workouts to literally tossing their bodies out against 300-pound guys, getting pounded out there.”

On the worries that college football would become more about money for players than the love of the game

Milton: “The thing about guys getting to college and playing football, most of them, they’ve been playing since the time they were kids. They just grow a passion to love the game from the time they’re little. I feel like you don’t really see guys lose that even when they get to the NFL. You see Patrick Mahomes, the highest-paid guy ever, he looks like a 14-year-kid out there playing ball. Just having fun, fist-pumping. I feel like the money that comes with football is just guys reaping the benefits, the fruits of their labor. If it got to a point where they were paying salary to college students, then I think it would be that. But I think using your name, image and likeness, you can still give back to your communities. You can give back to the college community that you’re working in.

“Granted, there might be guys that are in it for the money, which is understandable. People want to feed their family. I support both sides of it, really. You’ve got to put food on the table. But for me, I’ve grown a love for this game from the time I was five years old. I’ve been playing football since I was in the second grade. For me, I don’t want to get back on the field because of the money. I want to get back just to compete and just ball, because that’s not how I want to go out; I don’t want to go out on a cart. I want to get out there and ball.”

On what brands or businesses he would prefer to promote

Milton: “I take a lot of pride in where I’m from, Hawaii, so I think some clothing brands back home — Hawaii’s Finest would be dope. And then I’m a Nike guy. One of biggest reasons I came to UCF was just because they are a Nike school. If I’m wearing anything but Nike, I feel it’s bad luck for me on the field.”

Near the end of the conversation, Miami Hurricanes quarterback D’Eriq King commented in the stream’s chat. That led to Wimbush mentioning how Miami and Notre Dame might meet this year for the ACC title.

Milton put his hands up, quickly interjecting with a big smile, “No comment, no comment!”

This transcript has been edited for clarity.