TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Nearly an hour after McKenzie Milton played in his first game in over 1,000 days, a small group of family members and friends waited for him in the parking lot outside the Florida State football facility in the near dark late Sunday night, illuminated only by the lights of the neighboring practice field.
Milton finally emerged, with a portable massager in hand, and made his way over to his family. He hugged his brother Michael. Then, he saw his dad.
"Happy Birthday, Dad," Milton said, his eyes welling with tears. "I love you."
Next came Dr. Bruce Levy, one of the orthopedic surgeons who helped Milton return to the field. "This is your work out there, Doc!" Milton told him.
One by one, Milton hugged everyone who waited until nearly 1 a.m. to see him -- a portion of the 70 or so people who came out to see him suit up for the Seminoles.
They marveled at the miraculous comeback now complete.
Milton, 34 months removed from a catastrophic injury that nearly forced the amputation of his right leg, came off the bench and played as if he had missed no time at all -- going 5-for-7 for 48 yards to lead Florida State back from a 10-point deficit and force overtime against favorite Notre Dame before the Seminoles lost 41-38. Despite the heartbreaking ending, there was optimism in the air, something that has been missing of late at Florida State. It was because of what fans and others saw unfold in front of them.
"It was emotional, surreal. I keep thinking, 'Did this actually happen?'" said Levy, one of the orthopedic surgeons who helped Milton return to the field after the quarterback suffered artery and nerve damage to his right leg, a dislocated knee and torn ligaments in a game on Nov. 23, 2018.
Levy came to Tallahassee with his entire family. He had to be here. After all, he promised Milton he would be there in person when he played again. Levy warned him from the very beginning it might not be possible to play football because the injury was so severe.
"We had that conversation the first day I met him," Levy recalled. "I said, 'Even if you miraculously get back and do what no one has ever done before, you'll have to ask yourself, do you want to?' What was amazing is there was never a hint of a hesitation. He said, 'Doc, I know I'm playing football again. I just know it.'"
Levy makes it clear he was only one of many who played a role in the comeback, listing the surgeons in Tampa who saved Milton's leg the night of the injury, the team of surgeons who work with Levy at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and Milton's doctors and trainers at UCF, where the quarterback spent five years before transferring to Florida State.
In 2019, when a severe infection threatened Milton's leg for a second time, UCF orthopedic surgeon Dr. Michael Jablonski and the doctors in Tampa came to the rescue once again. Meanwhile, UCF head football trainer Mary Vander Heiden led Milton's daily rehab over two years, even going to his house to do the exercises when Milton did not feel like going into the facility.
Jablonski and Vander Heiden were in Tallahassee, too. Vander Heiden had perhaps the best view Sunday night, as she waited on the sideline hoping for the moment to arrive.
Milton spent this past offseason in a quarterback competition, believing he was good enough to start again, the sole reason he left UCF. Though Jordan Travis got the starting nod against Notre Dame, Milton stayed ready, often putting on his helmet on the sideline, perhaps a subliminal message to the coaching staff to give him a chance.
When Travis lost his helmet on a hard hit in the fourth quarter, the staff had no choice. Travis had to come out for a play. Up in the club level where the Milton family and 70 of their friends gathered together, they watched with nerve-wracking anticipation as No. 10 jogged onto the field to raucous cheers with 8:48 remaining. His father, Mark, and mother, Teresa, knew their son was ready for this.
McKenzie Milton took the snap and fired a 22-yard dart to Ja'Khi Douglas. The crowd erupted. Florida State could have then put Travis back into the game, but Milton stayed in for the entire drive. Seven plays later, Florida State scored a touchdown and Milton celebrated with his teammates, the way it was always meant to be.
"A lot of folks don't know that position and what it is to be responsible to go out there and be prepared to execute at the same level," Florida State coach Mike Norvell said. "McKenzie did it and did it at a very high level. It was impressive to see."
Vander Heiden and Levy focused solely on Milton's right leg, which was sporting a bulky brace, making sure his movement looked good and nervously watching when he took a hit or got sacked.
Milton went back in for the next drive, as the Seminoles trailed by 3 with 4:09 remaining.
One family friend turned to Milton's father and said, "Maybe we'll out-Rudy Notre Dame."
It nearly happened. Despite McKenzie's efforts, there was no comeback victory. But the comeback itself is a victory: For Milton and Florida State, and UCF and college football, everyone involved in his return and the supporters he has touched across the nation, from Orlando, Florida, to his native Hawaii. His return will be featured in sports and medical journals for years to come.
"He never had any doubt, and that was the most important thing," Mark Milton said. "We never stopped encouraging him to realize whatever dreams he has. We told him to go for it."
That determination is not easy to come by. Levy described the physical pain Milton had to endure just to achieve full range of motion within his knee, something that was a must before the quarterback could ever be cleared to return. "I don't have any patients with this type of injury that I have reconstructed that have anywhere near full range of motion," Levy said.
When Levy saw the photos of Milton getting his heel to touch his bottom, accomplishing the task, he just smiled. At every turn, Milton has blown away every benchmark.
"I remember the day when we cleared him [last year] and I was looking through every single report, from his triple jump, crossover jumps, vertical heights, isokinetic testing -- everything you can imagine we test athletes to return," Levy said. "He didn't just pass, he passed with flying colors. [They were] incredible numbers, and I said to him, 'I have no reason to hold you back. You've done everything we've asked you to do. Now it's just a matter of do you want to do this?'"
The nation saw why Milton wanted to Sunday night. Because he is good at it. Because he knows how to make plays. Because he knows how to make the players around him better. Because he has a competitive fire that is contagious. Because he has a strong will, strong heart and strong mind. Because he's a winner.
That might not have been reflected on the scoreboard, but everybody inside Doak Campbell Stadium saw it. As one fan said, "We just have to play Milton more."
Milton said he was just grateful he played, period. He had no idea whether he would get in the game, and neither did his parents. Maybe that is why there was no time for him to process his emotions. "I just felt like it was three years ago and I was just playing ball," he said.
What happens next is up to his coaches. Florida State, which has a short week to prepare for its next game against FCS foe Jacksonville State on Saturday, answered no questions about who will start at quarterback.
But those questions can wait for another day. The biggest -- "Can Milton play again?" -- was answered Sunday.
He can do more than play. He can win.