[Editor's note: Florida State QB McKenzie Milton played in his first game Sunday night since a catastrophic leg injury threatened to end his career nearly three years ago. This story was published leading into that matchup against Notre Dame.]
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- McKenzie Milton gets down to the business of talking football, ticking off all the ways he feels comfortable with the new playbook and his new coaches and teammates at Florida State.
Ten minutes into the conversation, Milton has not mentioned his knee. Though the catastrophic injury that put his career on hold nearly three years ago is never far from his mind, the conversation around Milton has shifted. It's not about whether Milton can play again. No, what everyone wants to know is whether he will play Sunday in the season opener against Notre Dame (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN App).
Coach Mike Norvell didn't announce whether Milton or Jordan Travis would start until shortly before the game, only heightening the anticipation for kickoff. Travis ended up getting the nod.
The fact Milton has a legitimate shot to play is a marvel of the medical and human kind, a miraculous recovery in every sense. When Milton went down onto the turf in Tampa, Fla., on Nov. 23, 2018, and did not get up, no one could have pictured what awaits Sunday: Milton running onto a new home field, with 79,000-plus fans doing the Tomahawk Chop, welcoming a new season.
After Milton suffered artery and nerve damage to his leg, a dislocated knee and torn ligaments, doctors hoped he could one day walk without a limp, let alone play football. But Milton pressed forward -- through setbacks and operations, trips back and forth to a specialist in Minnesota -- pushing limits and boundaries to get to today.
Nothing has come easy. Rather than sit in his comfort zone as a backup at UCF, he left searching for one last chance to start again. Rather than go to a smaller school, he chose the bigger challenge: turning to a Power 5 school desperately looking for a quarterback savior to help turn its program around. Milton does not envision himself a savior, but he knows he can play at a high level and help Florida State. Whether that comes as a starter or role player -- against Notre Dame or another game this season -- Milton simply wants the chance to show he can still play quarterback on his terms.
"If I'm going to play I'm going to be full-go, I'm going to be better than I was or just as good," Milton said in an interview with ESPN. "You don't get what you deserve; you get what you earn, so you've got to go get it."
When Milton started to run the UCF scout team last season, it became clear he could play again. Then-coach Josh Heupel asked Milton if he wanted to take a snap against USF in Tampa in late November, two years removed from the injury that nearly cost him his leg. Milton said no.
It was then that Milton started thinking about leaving UCF for a chance at a starting role. Florida State made the most sense -- it was in the same state as UCF and it needed help at quarterback after struggling for consistency at the position over the last four years.
Norvell made no promises about the starting job, but he also told Milton he would get every opportunity to compete. Taking Milton was a no-brainer, even though the Seminoles returned three quarterbacks with experience, including Travis, who started six games last season and played in 12 during his FSU career. Norvell had a candid conversation with Travis too, making it clear why he wanted to sign Milton. He firmly believed a veteran like Milton would elevate the quarterbacks, as well as the entire team, with his leadership and work ethic in the locker room.
No one really knew how Milton would respond to being in a quarterback competition for the first time since his freshman year at UCF in 2016, especially with a reconstructed knee. But the first time Norvell saw Milton roll out in practice, he nearly cried.
"You see the work, but when you know the investment that's gone into it, and to be able to go out there and just play free and to see the lack of hesitation, it brought a smile on my face," Norvell said. "Just to be able to have that opportunity, it's special."
Norvell coached at Memphis when Milton was slinging it for UCF in 2017 and 2018. If anyone on the Florida State staff knows what's possible, it is Norvell who, as then-Memphis head coach, watched Milton throw for 494 yards and five touchdowns in the Knights' double-overtime win in the 2017 American championship game. Days after Milton got hurt, Norvell and Memphis played UCF again in Orlando for the conference championship, only this time without Milton. Yet the entire focus inside the stadium was on their fallen quarterback. After UCF beat Memphis again, the team dedicated the win to Milton.
There should also be no forgetting the arduous journey Milton made to get here, one that took every ounce of commitment and faith he could muster. He nearly had his right leg amputated after the helmet-to-knee hit caused blood flow issues. He was so terrified he would wake up from surgery without his leg, the first thing he did when he opened his eyes was look down and check.
What he found instead was a giant gash on his healthy left leg, as doctors removed a vein from there to help create a new artery for his right leg to restore blood flow and save it. On his right leg, he saw two gashes, a metal contraption holding everything in place and tubes sticking out, filled with blood. All that did not stop him from asking when he could play football again.
The only way for that to happen, however, was for the nerve to heal completely, but there was no medical procedure that could help. Only time would tell. So, Milton got to work, believing he would indeed play again. But imagine the uncertainty of working every hour, every day, to get back to normal, without truly knowing whether a nerve in your leg would ever function properly again.
Were there days Milton did not want to get out of bed? Days when he thought he was wasting his time, or wanted to throw it all away, quit football and move forward with his life? Of course. But Milton refused to allow his emotions to win. Were there obstacles that tested his resolve? Yes, there were. An infection in the fall of 2019 threatened to derail his comeback as he lost weight and needed a PICC line in his arm for antibiotics. When his nerve came back, his knee felt better and he could run and throw, he knew full well he would not be the UCF starter again following the emergence of his best friend, another quarterback from Hawaii Dillon Gabriel.
On the days he felt down, he gave himself a pep talk. Or his family gave him one. Or his trainers. Despite doubt, Milton never took one day off.
Then, Florida State offered him a fresh start and new perspective, a change he never expected.
"Being in Orlando for so long, it's easy to make that decision to stay where you're comfortable, where you know what to expect every day," Milton said. "That was the biggest challenge. But it's been a lot of fun from spring ball to summer workouts to fall camp. I've got a whole bunch of new brothers here at Florida State."
"For me, I don't look at what happened to him, I look at what he is now. He's fully cleared. He's comfortable. It's that simple. ... He doesn't play in fear. He plays fearless because he feels 1,000% comfortable with where he is." Florida State offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham on FSU QB McKenzie Milton
Milton made it a priority to get to know his new teammates beyond the weight room and practice field, on a more personal level. Though the situation could have been awkward with Travis, the two have formed a good relationship, to the point where Travis views Milton as another coach.
"I'm learning from him every day, taking little pieces from him and just trying to apply it," Travis said. "I'm a quiet guy, so he's forced me to step up as a vocal leader. One day, we had the whole offense in a meeting, and he had me go up on the board with the clicker, clicking through plays and teaching some of the guys what they need to be doing. He's shown me the most important parts about being a quarterback."
In addition to integrating himself within the locker room, Milton had to learn an entirely new playbook. He says there are similarities to what he ran offensively under former UCF coach Scott Frost in his first two years in Orlando, but the biggest challenge has been learning the new terminology and signals. "But I feel like I'm finally starting to speak the same language as the coaches," Milton said.
What is different for him compared to the other quarterbacks, of course, is his knee. Florida State coaches were extremely mindful throughout fall training camp of how many reps to give Milton, so as to not overtax him. When they could, they gave Milton and Travis the same number of reps, but Milton got more time off for rest.
Milton also has to do more than his teammates to prepare for practice. Every morning at 6:15 a.m., two hours before practice begins, Milton is in the training room for what he calls "prehab." A lot of time is spent in the pool doing hip mobility exercises to get his body loosened up. When he goes upstairs for pre-practice meetings, Milton is also doing stretching exercises to stay loose, something he did before his injury. It worked so well before that he continues the same routine. And whatever he does for his right knee, he does for his left. The same goes for his shoulders, which need to be strong and stable to perform at an elite level. It has been three years since he has used his shoulders regularly as a quarterback, and he is keenly aware of that, too.
Given all of these factors, the fact Milton is competing for a starting job is remarkable. Taking nearly three years to get here? Milton likes to describe it this way: "The days are long, but the years are short."
"For me, I don't look at what happened to him, I look at what he is now," Florida State offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham said. "He's fully cleared. He's comfortable. It's that simple. People on the outside, they looked at the injury and they looked at what happens to the normal person with that injury.
"But he's not normal. He's a special person. His knee feels good. When he feels good, his natural instincts take over, and he's not thinking about his knee. He's thinking about what he's done his entire life, and that's what puts me at ease, that's what makes me calm about it. He doesn't play in fear. He plays fearless because he feels 1,000% comfortable with where he is."
Ultimately, the question is whether Milton has done enough in practice to win the starting job. He and Travis are listed with "or" next to their names on the depth chart headed into the Notre Dame game.
"I've got a great deal of confidence in what McKenzie is going to do. I have a great deal of confidence in how he's going to prepare," Norvell said when asked about what his decision will be. "But at the end of the day, it's not just about him being given a rep. It's about doing what he's done his entire life and earning that rep, and that's what I told him when he came here and that's what it's going to be. I can promise you, he wouldn't want it any other way. That's what makes him special."
Milton remains adamant he does not want any sympathy snaps, saying, "If I'm in there, I'm legit in there. I don't want anyone feeling sorry for me."
"Through summer workouts, being able to do more stuff, and feeling back to normal, I'm gaining more confidence every day," Milton says.
Back to normal. Did Milton just go there?
"I feel like my mindset is," Milton says, "but I don't think it will ever be back to normal because of the scars and stuff like that. In terms of fluidity and movement and feeling comfortable on the football field, I feel normal. I feel even more confident than I did prior to getting hurt in terms of mentally understanding what the offense is doing, what the defense is doing. I feel really good."
He has pictured how it will feel waiting in the tunnel to run onto the field, in a bigger stadium, in front of a bigger crowd, in what will be the most impactful game of his life. But once the moment passes, Milton will be locked in, with one job. The same job he had when he led UCF to 23 straight wins as the starting quarterback between 2017 and 2018.
Winning. That would truly make everything feel back to normal.