Florida State coach Mike Norvell doesn’t need a reminder of how special McKenzie Milton is.
He’s seen it up close and personal when he was the coach at Memphis. Milton, as the starting quarterback at UCF, would torment Norvell and the Tigers.
“We try not to talk about it because it didn’t go my way,” Norvell joked during the ACC’s football kickoff media sessions.
“We talked about it a little last night. Coach gets a little sensitive to those subjects sometimes,” Milton said with a smile.
It’s easy to see why it might be a touchy point of conversation between the two.
There was the time Milton passed for 494 yards and five touchdowns in leading the Knights to a 62-55 thrilling overtime victory against the Tigers in the American Athletic Conference title game in 2017.
Or the time Milton rallied his team from a 13-point halftime deficit on the road in Memphis, capping a 31-30 victory with a dynamic seven-yard touchdown scramble highlighted by an end-over-end tumble into the end zone.
Norvell could only watch as Milton played the role of a heartbreaker.
But as the expression goes, if you can’t beat them, recruit them. So that’s what Norvell did, convincing Milton to join him at Florida State as a graduate transfer this offseason.
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“I got a chance to compete against McKenzie for a couple of years and to watch who he was on the field. But to get to know who he is off the field, he’s willing to invest in other people,” Norvell said. “McKenzie is the ultimate competitor. We had some of the greatest games in college football history going against each other.”
For Milton, it’s one more chance to prove himself.
It’s been 33 months since Milton last stepped on the football field for a game. During that time, it’s been an uphill battle as the fleet-footed quarterback worked his way back from a gruesome knee injury that nearly cost him his right leg.
There were multiple surgeries followed by countless hours of grueling rehabilitation that Milton poured into the process of his return.
One doctor told him that 50% of people who suffer the same injury usually must have their leg amputated because the artery is severed or too damaged, and it’s too late to get the blood flow back to the leg.
Milton spent the first five months after the injury in a wheelchair or on crutches and it wasn’t until last year that doctors cleared him to ditch a restrictive brace for a less bulky one that allowed him more mobility.
But there were also setbacks along the way.
Milton told ESPN he suffered an infection in his left knee in 2019 that required another surgery, setting back his rehabilitation six months. It was a disheartening blow to even the most unflappable of characters.
“There were definitely dark days where I didn’t know; the setbacks that I had. Maybe, you know, it’s not meant to be,” said Milton, who reportedly lost 35 pounds in the process.
Undeterred, Milton ramped up his efforts in earnest and after receiving clearance from his doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, he returned to practice last August, leading the scout team.
“I feel like the biggest moment for me, where I saw a light at the end of the tunnel, was being able to go out there and practice again last year,” Milton explained. “That was probably the most fun I had in college football. Getting back out there with the guys is something I won’t take for granted again.
“Being able to get out there and run the scout team last year at UCF, being able to practice, get my feet wet, feel comfortable running, cutting, throwing, getting the live bullets at me, the defense rushing me and whatnot. Those are big pillars for me; those are big steps for me.”
His next step in the comeback would be another tough one.
Milton made the difficult decision to transfer from UCF following last season, choosing not to compete against his best friend Dillon Gabriel as he pushed to play his final year of college football.
It was shortly thereafter that Norvell reached out to Milton about joining him in Tallahassee. There were no guarantees, just a promise of an opportunity to compete. It’s a decision that’s paid immediate dividends for both parties.
“He’s won his last 23 games as a starting quarterback in college football,” Norvell said. “I mean, it’s remarkable and then you get to see how he does it. The way he prepares. The investment he makes while helping build others up around him.
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“It’s done great things for our program already, here in the short time he’s been here.”
For his part, Milton has embraced a leadership role on the team but he’s careful not to be a detriment toward his new teammates, particularly in the quarterback room.
“Anytime you go into a QB room, only one guy is typically going to be the guy, so you never want any animosity in there,” Milton said. “I kind of went through the same thing my freshman year going to UCF. There’s always going to be that sometimes.”
“I feel like we’re all helping each other get better and that’s what it’s all about. If one of us eats, we’re all going to eat.”
Jordan Travis, who started six games for the Seminoles last season, lauded his new teammate.
“I want to see him succeed. He’s a great person, great dude, great player,” said Travis, who joined Milton at the ACC football kickoff event in Charlotte. “So, whatever happens, happens. I’m just going to give it 100% every single day. I just want to win football games.”
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Milton remains steadfast he’ll be ready when FSU hosts Notre Dame on Sept. 5.
“I already feel like I’m at 100%. I’m ready,” Milton said.
While the physical scars have long since hardened, the emotional ones developed during his journey back could still be fresh when he takes the field for the first time.
“I think they will be high,” Milton added. “Stepping out on the football field, in a live game setting for the first time in a while but at the same time, once those shoulder pads are strapped up, it’s time to go. I can’t get too emotional, can’t get caught up in the moment.”