ORLANDO, Fla. — It flashes across our television screens and social media feeds as an invitation into a gruesome, voyeuristic world where careers and lives are in limbo. We can’t help but watch. And rewatch. Until eventually, the spectacle fades. And the fallout—the pain and heartache and collateral consequences—isn’t nearly as alluring.
Then comes McKenzie Milton, and this time, with this career-threatening injury and its aftermath, you just can’t turn away.
Milton was on his way to a Heisman Trophy invitation and a second straight undefeated season with UCF last November heading into a rivalry game with USF. Then came the injury that put everything in doubt. Except to him.
“Football will end for me someday, whether it was November 23 or 10 years from now,” Milton says. “But that will never change who I am.”
Your life is defined, Teresa Milton used to tell her son when he was young, by how you care for others.
Even the very player who may have ended your football career.
Want to stare at something and not look away? Here’s your invitation to a beautifully ironic story, where healing a soul is just as important as healing a career. Where the lives of two football players crossed at the worst possible time, then intersected again when both needed it more than anything.
“[Milton] didn’t have to do what he did,” Mazzi Wilkins says. “It meant the world to me.”
Wilkins is the USF defensive back who dove at Milton’s lower body to make a routine tackle in the second quarter of the game that day, hitting Milton’s right knee and beginning a fateful turn of events.
Wilkins immediately popped up after the play, putting his hands on both sides of his helmet in disbelief and walking to the USF sideline. Milton could only lie on the ground with his right leg in a gruesome contortion.
Mike Carlson/Associated Press
“Just a football play,” Milton says. But not everyone saw it that way. When Wilkins turned on his phone after that game, a flood of social media hell awaited him. Death threats. Racial slurs. Vicious verbal assaults. Threats against his family and friends. The phone froze from the whizzing scroll of message after message after message.
“It’s really stuff I don’t want to repeat; I’ve blocked it from my mind,” says Wilkins, who recently signed a free-agent contract with his hometown team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “If it was just about me, I could take it. When they bring in my family, it’s different. I already had a thick skin from growing up. I’m not a soft individual.”
Wilkins stops here because, frankly, he knows what you’re thinking.
Just ignore it. Put down the phone.
But this is how the world communicates, how friendships are built and how life moves day after day.
And fittingly, how Milton reached out and found him.
This is so much more than an injury. More than UCF and its two-year public tantrum to be heard by the elite College Football Playoff club. More than Milton’s two seasons of playing as well as anyone in the country.
This is about one of life’s great treasures, picked up by Milton growing up in the paradise of Hawaii.
The world doesn’t stop where the sea ends and rolls onto your beach. It stretches far and wide, to the horizon and beyond.
But when you’re alone in a hospital bed and medical professionals are coming into your room every two hours to check the pulse in your leg—the same pulse they couldn’t find on the field, when the popliteal artery tore and the clock began to tick on Milton’s right leg—that big world is your phone.
And that’s where Milton began to see the ugliness unfold. His knee injury, he says, “didn’t really hurt as much as you’d think.” It was a fraction of the pain he was witnessing play out on social media.
So there he was in Tampa General Hospital, days after surgery that took the saphenous vein from his left leg and used it as an artery in his right leg to avoid amputation, thinking about someone else.
In a simple message to Wilkins on Instagram, Milton wrote:
I have no ill will toward you. Don’t listen to that noise, it’s just stupid. Between you and I, as long as we’re good, it doesn’t matter what other people say.
Four months after the injury, Milton had been asked to be part of a speaking group at The Better Man Event—”an annual three-hour power-packed men’s event designed to equip, encourage and engage men to become ‘better'”—at UCF’s CFE Arena.
Former heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield was also set to speak.
What the event organizers didn’t tell Milton: They had invited Wilkins too.
That night, Milton texted Wilkins to see how he was doing. Wilkins said he was at the event in a backstage room. They were sitting in back-to-back rooms at the UCF arena.
“I was by myself for a long time, waiting to go out there,” Milton says. “We figured out where each other was, and I walked out of the room, and he’s right next door.”
It was the first time they’d seen each other face to face.
“When you’re a player, the helmet is on and you don’t know the personality,” Wilkins says. “When the helmet comes off, you see the guy. When we were in that room, it just felt like we were friends for a long time. We talked about family and fishing and nothing about football.”
Julio Aguilar / Getty Images
That night was the first time since the injury that Milton walked—ever so briefly—without crutches. Those precious seconds where he felt whole again were a respite from the physical and mental toll he has endured since the injury, including:
• Surgery to replace his artery. He has a thick, 12-inch scar on left inner thigh as a daily reminder.
• Surgery to open his right leg to release pressure and fluid buildup and prevent damage to the new artery. “Basically,” Milton says, “so it wouldn’t blow up.”
• Surgery to implant a metal fixator that stretched from his thigh to his shin to keep the leg stabilized, prevent damage to his new artery and allow his damaged nerve to begin to heal without sudden movement. “You know the halos you see around people with head injuries?” Milton says. “That’s what I had around my leg. It couldn’t move.”
• Surgery, three weeks later, to remove the fixator.
• Surgery to repair the lateral collateral ligament and the posterior cruciate ligament. There was no torn anterior cruciate ligament, the most common tear with dislocated knee injuries and the most important ligament in the knee. No medial collateral ligament tear or torn meniscus (also typical). “Usually, you tear everything,” Milton says. “The doctors can’t explain it. If I didn’t have nerve damage, I’d probably be playing this year.”
But here he is now with that nerve damage in his right leg, the injury that leaves his limb feeling heavy and numb. Sort of, he says, like when a typically healthy person sits awkwardly on their leg and it falls asleep and gets numb and tingly.
The long road back to playing—something many close to him don’t want to see—begins with a frustrating waiting game. There is nothing doctors can do to facilitate the nerve’s healing.
Time is the only answer.
“Sometimes,” Milton says, “I look down at my leg and say, ‘Hurry up!'”
He has been told it typically takes a year for the nerve to fully heal, and only then can he begin rehabilitation.
It’s not hard to add the months and figure a timeline, something Milton refuses to speculate about because, he says, his rehab, “Is in God’s hands.”
“I’ve beat every benchmark the doctors have set for me,” Milton says.
Best-case scenario, he says, is a healthy, strong nerve by January 2020 and rehab that doesn’t take longer than nine months. If it does, there’s no sense in playing in 2020.
A rising senior, Milton will use his redshirt for the 2019 season, and if the rehab rolls into the 2020 season, he’ll have to apply for a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA to play in 2021, a season during which he’d turn 24 years old.
He’s adamant about playing again, which doesn’t sit well with everyone.
“I purposely told him no interviews because I didn’t want him to be put into a situation where he has to make a decision about playing again,” Teresa says. “I’m very protective of him. He was weak emotionally, mentally, everything. But every day, God puts people in his path that help him move forward.”
In the six months since the injury, he has received thousands of cards and letters, hundreds and hundreds of text messages and never-ending goodwill wishes on social media. So many that Milton hasn’t had the chance to see them all.
Peyton Manning called to wish him well, as did Joe Theismann and countless other football dignitaries. Former NFL tight end Zach Miller, whose career ended because of a similar injury, called to give support.
But none of that, Teresa swears, had a greater impact on McKenzie than a chance meeting with a boy at Tampa General Hospital. Eleven days earlier, the boy lost his leg to an injury.
“I knew when he saw that kid get his prosthetic leg—I saw my son’s face—I knew right then he planned to play again,” Teresa says. “My heart sunk.”
Her voice trails off, and the enormity of what she just said—of hearing herself say it aloud—has made it reality all over again. She is sobbing now, because the last thing any mother wants to see is her child put themselves in harm’s way.
Christian Petersen / Getty Images
“I asked him, ‘Why are you saying that?'” Teresa says. “He told me, ‘Mom, if I don’t believe it, no one else will.’ I went into my room and just balled, screamed into my pillow. Whatever it takes to motivate him, for him to not lose his mind, to not be bound by depression, I understand it. Most athletes can’t survive when their passion is taken away from them.”
She stops midsentence again, because it’s more than just a football game. This is her youngest child. The one who wasn’t planned and she had when she was 40. The one who used to get scared at night and crawl into bed with her and her husband. The one who worked so hard as a young boy to just keep up with (and live up to) his three older brothers.
She moved to Orlando three years ago when McKenzie chose UCF over Hawaii. She was there during the first season when she says fringe UCF fans were just as brutal on him as they were on Wilkins—before they grew to love her son and treat him as family.
Who knows what could’ve happened had she not been there from that very moment her son’s 5’11”, 185-pound body crumpled to the turf.
“He’s not a big guy, but he plays like he’s 7-feet tall because that’s his mindset,” Teresa says. “I don’t want to see his body broken. When they took the bandage off his leg, it was something I’d never seen before. I could see the doctor tearing up. To see your son in that situation…I just can’t.”
This strong woman who grew up in a broken household, who promised herself she would take care of others and that her children would do the same, knows she must come to grips with it. She and her husband, Mark, built a football league in Hawaii for youths whose parent or parents had been incarcerated.
It grew to become the largest, most successful youth league in the area and for 17 years a critical factor in youth development in Kapolei, Hawaii.
“I get it, surfers in Hawaii ride until the last wave,” Teresa finally says, almost willing herself to find peace with it. “That’s what McKenzie is doing.”
Late last season, in the middle of UCF’s nation-best 25-game winning streak and days before a critical, nationally televised game against Cincinnati, Milton was asked where he thought his career was headed. He said he wanted to play in the NFL. Or if not, he wanted to coach football. Just like his dad and mom did in Kapolei, or maybe even on the collegiate level.
“I want to be involved, in some way, reaching young guys and helping them with football and life,” he said at the time.
Fast-forward to this spring, and there was Milton, gingerly moving around the UCF spring practice on crutches and helping coach the Knights quarterbacks.
“He is a strong guy, a fierce competitor. I wouldn’t doubt any goal he has for himself on or off the field,” UCF coach Josh Heupel says. “When his playing days are over, he’s going to make a heckuva coach. He knows the game, he thinks like a coach, and the guys love playing for him. Don’t ever doubt him.”
Julio Aguliar / Getty Images
Milton says he has reached every benchmark doctors have given him earlier than expected, so why would his return to the game be any different? He points to his path to UCF and figures this injury is all part of the plan that has played out over the last three years.
He wanted to play for Oregon, but the Ducks didn’t offer him a scholarship. When then-Oregon assistant Scott Frost accepted the head-coaching job at UCF in December 2015, he asked Milton to play for him.
He took a flier on leaving the islands for Florida because he wanted to help change a program. His mom and dad both decided Teresa would go with McKenzie to Orlando to help the transition. They have lived together since.
Milton met his longtime girlfriend, Alennix Merejo, at UCF, where she was studying to be an athletic trainer. She currently works at Jacksonville State, and her knowledge was invaluable to the Milton family during the initial stages of the injury.
She just happened to be at the game—she was on Thanksgiving break from her job at JSU—and eventually stayed seven straight nights in a chair next to Milton’s hospital bed.
“It was a blessing to be where he was at that specific time,” Merejo says. “If that would’ve happened at ECU, or some school not within 20 minutes of a Level 1 trauma center, he would’ve lost his leg. “
Milton is told that, and there is no hesitation in his response. Just another example of how everything has lined up since he arrived at UCF. All part of a plan, he says.
“The way I look at it, it could’ve been much worse, and it’s not,” Milton says. “Think about it: There were only two ligaments torn. They were able to restore the blood flow with a vein from my other leg. The nerve damage isn’t permanent. Everything has been best-case scenario for me.”
If he saw that injury happen to someone else, would he think that person would ever be able to play again?
“It depends on the person. His faith, what he believes, how badly he wants it,” Milton says.
He looks down and wiggles his right foot, the same foot he wiggled right after his first surgery when doctors didn’t think he’d have nerve feeling in the leg.
“I’m going to heal,” he says. “And I’m going to compete again at a high level.”