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Q&A with McKenzie Milton: On his recovery, playing football again and being an inspiration to others

The UCF quarterback is still aiming to make his return to the field in 2020

McKenzie Milton
Photo: Derek Warden

Will McKenzie Milton play football again?

It’s a question that has gone without a firm answer for more than a year, and Milton deftly handled multiple versions of that same question during his Zoom press conference Thursday.

His goal today remains just as it was prior to the start of the 2019 season: Return to the field for the UCF Knights in 2020.

Will he attain that goal? He doesn’t know for sure. No one does. A checkup with his surgeon in Minnesota next month will hopefully create some good news. For now, Milton continues to work and strive and stay positive.

What is undeniable is that Milton has made steady progress. His latest accomplishment came three weeks ago when he began doing unsupported jumps on his surgically-repaired right leg. It’s another checkpoint reached on this long road to recovery.

With each little milestone, Milton comes that much closer to turning a question of “will he?” into a statement of will.

McKenzie Milton will play football again. He doesn’t know it, but he believes it. And he’s rehabbing every day to make it so.

“People have done it before and I definitely think I’ll be able to, too,” he said.

Here is what else Milton said during Thursday’s interview. Among many other topics, he talked about what it’s like to be viewed as an inspiration to others, working out on UCF’s deserted campus and what he has seen from one of his knee-rehab partners, cornerback Brandon Moore.

This transcript has been lightly edited.

Q: WHAT DID IT MEAN TO YOU TO BE WITH GABRIEL DAVIS WHEN HE WAS DRAFTED BY THE BUFFALO BILLS?

McKenzie Milton: “It meant a lot. I met him in his senior year of high school. Obviously, (Davis is) close friends with Brandon Moore, so he’d come and hang out with us at the dorms after our games my freshman year. Just seeing him go from a high school senior to an NFL player is just something special. It’s a culmination of all his hard work paying off. Just super happy for him and his family.”

Q: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE PROGRESS YOU’VE MADE IN YOUR KNEE RECOVERY AND HOW HAVE YOU FELT PHYSICALLY OVER THE PAST 8 WEEKS OR SO?

Milton: “I’ve been making a lot of progress. I’ve been going into therapy just about every day at the school. They still have got the training room open for about five of us that are long-term injured guys — me, Brandon Moore, Jordan Davis, Alec Holler and Jarrad Baker. All knee guys, so we’ve been in there rehabbing just about every day and we all have been making big strides.

“I’m feeling good, I’m feeling strong. Upper body, lower body. But there is still a long ways to go. I’ll go see my surgeon in a little less than two months, at the end of June. We’ll see what he says when I get up there.”

Q: WHAT IS A TOUGH MOMENT YOU’VE HAD DURING THIS REHAB THAT YOU COULD SHARE WITH US AND HOW DID YOU GET THROUGH THAT TOUGH TIME?

Milton: “There’s been a lot of high moments and a lot of low moments, but I would say the toughest thing has just been staying mentally strong throughout all of this. Just being patient throughout the whole process. Breaking down scar tissue, it’s extremely painful, but once you start seeing the progress and you start seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, it makes it all worth it.

“I guess it’s like the saying: No pain, no gain. I’ve just been kind of dealing with that. It’s been a tough process, but it’s also been an eye-opening one. I feel like it’s been good for me in a way.”

Q: DO YOU FEEL LIKE YOU’VE BECOME MORE IMPACTFUL TO PEOPLE, ALMOST LIKE A SYMBOL OF HOPE, AS YOU HAVE FOUGHT BACK FROM THIS INJURY?

Milton: “Yeah. I think performing on the football field is one thing, but how you carry yourself off of it is a whole other thing. I try to represent UCF and the name on the back of my jersey with pride. I’m a symbol of hope for people that have gone through tough things physically. That’s great. I definitely want to get back on the field and show people that you can overcome tough obstacles. I’m doing it for others, but I’m also doing it for myself, just to prove to myself that I can do something special.”

Q: A LOT OF PEOPLE INITIALLY DOUBTED THAT YOU WOULD PLAY FOOTBALL AGAIN. BUT AS YOU HAVE PROGRESSED AND IT SEEMS MORE REALISTIC, HAVE THOSE DOUBTERS FUELED YOU AT ALL? AND HAS IT FELT MORE REALISTIC TO YOURSELF THAT YOU WILL PLAY AGAIN?

Milton: “Honestly, it’s not so much about the doubters because from my freshman year, there’s been doubters (in) just me being able to perform on the field. So, it’s not necessarily about that; it’s about people that have gone through this who haven’t been able to make it back, like Zach Miller on the Bears going through a tough injury. And then seeing people who have had a tough injury like this — Jaylon Smith, being one of the best linebackers in the NFL, dislocating his knee in his last game in college and having nerve damage. In my opinion, he’s one of the best linebackers in the NFL.

“Like I said, it’s just something for myself and the guys going through rehab with me. Going through that struggle with each other, it’s not easy. But it’s not so much about the people that don’t believe in me because that’s natural. There is always going to be people that don’t believe in you. It’s more so for myself and my family. If people can draw hope from me, then that’s great, because I’m one that draws hope from people like Zach Miller, people like Jaylon Smith, people like Teddy Bridgewater that have been through stuff like this. People have done it before and I definitely think I’ll be able to, too.”

Q: WHAT DID IT MEAN FOR YOU TO HAVE A GAME OF CATCH WITH UCF SUPERFAN BRITTANY RIGGS?

Milton: “Yeah, Britt is our number 1 fan at UCF. Like I say, everything is not as bad as it seems and everything is not as good as it seems. Someone like Britt, she puts things into perspective like me. She treats me like I’m her brother and I treat her like she’s my sister. All she sees is love and hope, so I love going to hang out with her at her house.

“It’s just a big UCF family. All the support I’ve been getting, not just from Britt but from others, has honestly been a big help with me going through this rehab process. If I didn’t have that support, who knows where I’d be?”

Q: IS IT WEIRD BEING ON CAMPUS WITH IT BEING A BIT OF GHOST TOWN?

Milton: “Yeah, it is. It’s extremely quiet. It is weird, the parking lot being empty at Wayne Densch. Nobody riding bikes, nobody running around. It is weird, but it has kind of become the new norm now, so I feel like it’s going to be weird once everyone’s back, just adjusting to all the coaches being back, all the players being back, all the support staff being back. But I look forward to that time when everyone is back. Honestly, I’ve been kind of enjoying it. It’s a little more quiet. There’s not as much pressure, I guess. You just get in there and grind and it’s been good.”

Q: DO YOU THINK YOU WILL GET ALL OF YOUR ATHLETICISM BACK EVENTUALLY?

Milton: “I sure hope so. Like I said at the beginning of this injury, if I’m not to the level I was or surpassed that, there’s no reason for me to be out there. But I feel like I’ll be physically better and I feel like, mentally, I’ll be even sharper. Just having mental toughness going through all this. I sure hope that I can give our fans and whoever is supporting UCF what they paid for and give them a good show, because that’s what it’s all about: Performing in front of the fans and getting wins on the board.”

Q: IS IT TOO SOON TO SAY YOU WILL BE READY TO PLAY IN 2020? IF SO, HAVE YOU AT LEAST MADE STRIDES THAT MAKE YOU MORE CONFIDENT THAT YOU COULD BE OUT THERE BY THEN?

Milton: “Yeah, it still is my goal. Like I said, I’ll go see my surgeon in June and I’ll know a lot more at that point. The reason I set that goal is because I want to approach my rehab every day with the idea that I’ll be ready to go for fall camp and I’ll be able to go for North Carolina in our first game. If I’m not approaching it that way, then I feel like I’d be missing days in therapy, not working as hard as I can. That’s why I’ve set that goal and I hope to reach that. If I don’t, it is what it is. I’ll just keep knocking down block by block. But hopefully when I go to Minnesota at the end of June, I’ll get some good news.”

Q: HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THAT HAWAII PIPELINE TO UCF? AND WHO’S THE NEXT GREAT QUARTERBACK COMING TO ORLANDO FROM HAWAII?

Milton: “It’s been a special thing to see Orlando accept us with open arms and kind of adopt some of our culture. It’s become like a family atmosphere out here. And we’ve got another offensive lineman, Lokahi Pauole, from Hawaii as well. So, it’s not just quarterbacks, it’s other guys, too. There’s a lot of talent out there. You saw the NFL Draft; there’s a lot of guys from Hawaii that got picked up. Hopefully we can get another QB out here. Dillon Gabriel probably knows the young guys better than me because I’m kind of an old head now. Dillon would probably be the guy to ask to see who the next guy out here would be.”

Q: WHEN YOU’RE NOT TRAINING AND RECOVERING, WHAT ARE YOU DOING TO STAY ACTIVE? LOOKS LIKE YOU WENT FISHING THE OTHER DAY.

Milton: ”Yeah. I’ve gone fishing before, but I never caught any fish. Went on Wekiva River down near Altamonte (Springs). It was beautiful. Caught my first bass; that was a blast. I’ve been doing some home workouts as well. Been playing some video games, been playing 2K. Been watching a lot of TV — I’m watching Ozark right now. Just TV, hanging out with my mom, hanging out with the dog. Really been trying to stay indoors as much as possible besides going to the school just because I don’t want to put anyone at risk out there.”

Q: WHAT IS THE DYNAMIC CURRENTLY LIKE BETWEEN YOU AND STARTING QB DILLON GABRIEL WHILE YOU ARE TRYING TO COME BACK AND PLAY?

Milton: “He’s like a little brother to me. Like I said in past interviews, he’s way further along than I was as a freshman. That’s a credit to his hard work and how hard he pushes himself in the weight room, in the training room and in the film room.

“I think it’ll be a little bit more competitive once I’m fully cleared and where we’re all competing for that job, with me, Dillon, DJ [Darriel Mack Jr.], Quadry Jones and Parker Navarro, who’s coming in as a freshman. But at the same time, whoever’s at the helm, we’re all going to support each other, like I did last year.

“It killed me not being on the field just because I played football every year since I was in the second grade. It was tough watching, but it was also really rewarding seeing a young man that went to my high school and now is at the same university as me and is going to do some special things here.”

Q: IF YOU HAD TO PUT ODDS ON WHETHER YOU WILL BE READY TO PLAY THIS SEASON BASED ON HOW YOU FEEL RIGHT NOW, WHAT DO YOU THINK THEY WOULD BE?

Milton: “That’s a tough one. I’m not a betting man, so I can’t really say. But right now, I’d honestly say maybe 50-50. It’s still up in the air. I’ve been making big progress, but like I said, I still have a long ways to go. I’m not sure what my surgeon is going to say when we go up there in June. I hope that he clears me, but if he doesn’t, it is what it is. It’s been a long, hard process and I’ve learned patience throughout this. If I have to wait longer, so be it. If not, whatever he does clear me to do, then I’ll take that and run with it.”

Q: HAVE YOU SEEN THE E60 PIECE ON REDSKINS QUARTERBACK ALEX SMITH AND HIS RECOVERY FROM A SEVERE LEG INJURY? HAVE YOU HAD A CHANCE TO TALK WITH HIM AT ALL ABOUT WHAT HE HAS GONE THROUGH?

Milton: “I haven’t been able to check it out yet, but my dad and Coach Heup both reached out to me to definitely look into that. I haven’t gotten to talk to him. I definitely would like to. But after I first got hurt, Joe Theismann did reach out to me. He went through something very similar like Alex Smith. Just being able to reach out to guys who have gone through similar stuff, like Teddy, Joe Theismann, and just kind of grabbing on to some hope that they’ve shared with me, it’s been cool.

Q: ARE THERE SPECIFIC STRIDES YOU HAVE MADE IN YOUR KNEE RECOVERY IN THE PAST COUPLE OF MONTHS?

Milton: “Just in the past few weeks, I’ve been doing a lot of single-leg jumps. At first, it’s just kind of hard because with the nerve damage, it takes a little while for it to wake up. It was hard to just ‘pop, pop, pop, pop’ and do explosive stuff. But just in the past three weeks, it’s gotten a lot easier and I’m definitely feeling a lot more athletic doing that kind of stuff, single-leg jumps on my surgical leg. Like I said, seeing the progress is like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. That’s why we come in every day and we bust our butts to try to get back on that field. All of us.”

Q: WHAT HAVE YOU SEEN FROM BRANDON MOORE WHILE REHABBING WITH HIM?

Milton: “He’s just a freak athlete in the way he heals. Part of me wishes I was kind of like him in that sense. But it’s also his work ethic and his mindset. He’s set on getting back for 2020 as well. We encourage each other every day and he’s making big strides as well. I think he’ll be getting his brace off in about a month here, so I’m super excited for him with that because he’s been through so much in his life. I don’t think he has taken things for granted, but just being back on that field, we talk about it all the time. He’s going to be a different animal physically, and his mind is going to be so sharp. I don’t think anything is going to be able to stop him.”

Q: YOU’VE PREVIOUSLY EXPRESSED YOUR INTEREST IN COACHING. WHAT HAVE YOU LEARNED ABOUT COACHING IN THE PAST YEAR WHILE WORKING CLOSELY WITH UCF’s STAFF?

Milton: “It’s a grind, man. It’s very similar to being a player. They put in more hours, but they spend a lot of time away from their family. I wouldn’t say that’s making me second-guess being a coach, but it’s just putting things into perspective, how much time they invest into us as players and athletes. I have kind of grown more of appreciation for them and how much they sacrifice for us.”

Q: HAVE YOU TALKED WITH SOME OF YOUR TEAMMATES ABOUT HOW THEY ARE DOING AS THEY GO THROUGH THIS PANDEMIC AND NOT KNOWING WHEN THE NEXT SEASON MIGHT START?

Milton: “I talk to my guys all the time and they are busting their butts, doing some home workouts. Some of them are working out together. Some stayed in Orlando, some went back to their homes. But just from the broad view of our team, everyone is working their butts off. Whenever we get back, I think our team will be ready to roll. I don’t think we’ll miss a beat. I think we’re all itching to get back on campus and get back around each other just so we can have that camaraderie once we go into fall camp.”