As a teenager growing up and playing football in Mililani, Hawaii, McKenzie Milton was being anointed as the next great gunslinger from the Aloha State as early as his junior year. Fans latched on to the electric playmaker who in his sophomore and junior seasons led the Mililani High Trojans to the state title game, winning it all in 2014.
He was entrusted with the ability to call plays on his own starting that year, a privilege that carried over into his senior year.
“My sophomore year, I couldn’t read a defense even if it was a picture book,” Milton said in a 2015 interview. “Last year, I realized watching films are a big part of being a quarterback. This part is continuing the same thing. You have to be smarter than the defense and know what is going to be open.”
That senior year, however, was when Milton got his first taste of dealing with a long-term injury. He missed six games in the middle of the season with a separated shoulder, returning to lead his team to a win in the first round of the playoffs. The next week, against a Tua Tagovailoa-quarterbacked team, Milton was knocked out of the game after a hit reaggravated his shoulder, spending the final half of his high school career on the sideline in a sling.
“I think (the injury) made me a better young man, a better leader, a better person,” Milton said in a separate 2015 interview. “It sucks that it happened, but I think that had to happen for my career to blossom like it has.”
He finished his career with 7,303 passing yards, 81 passing touchdowns, 1,810 rushing yards and 18 rushing touchdowns — his only offers coming from UCF, Hawaii (his original commitment before switching to the Knights), and the service academies (Navy, Army and Air Force.)
At UCF, as the first quarterback to commit and sign under new head coach Scott Frost, Milton earned the starting role as a true freshman, snagging the position in week three of the season and never looking back as the Knights amassed a 6-7 record just a year removed from going 0-12. He set a freshman record for completions, along with 1983 yards passing and 10 touchdowns.
Just as his sophomore year experience in high school begat his junior year success, the lessons learned from a hard-fought six-win season helped manifest into a Heisman-worthy season for Milton in 2017, as UCF blazed through its schedule to put up an undefeated regular season just two years removed from not winning a single game.
A brief summary of accolades that season:
American Athletic Conference Offensive Player of the Year
Selected to The American All-Conference First Team
Finished eighth in the Heisman Trophy voting•
Finalist for the Manning National Quarterback of the Year Award
Semifinalist for Davey O’Brien National Quarterback of the Year
Also a Maxwell National Player of the Year Award semifinalist
Broke the program record for passing yards in a season with 4,037 yards through the air
Also set a new school record with 37 passing touchdowns
Passing efficiency of 179.29 set a new single-season program record•
Had seven 300-yard passing games, tying Daunte Culpepper and Ryan Schneider for the school record
Recorded two 400-yard passing games, also tied for the most in school history
Threw for 15.2 yards per completion, which ranks third in a single-season in program history
Also recorded 10.2 passing yards per attempt, which easily set a new school record, besting Blake Bortles’ 9.4 in 2013
Ran for 613 yards, a new single-season record for a UCF quarterback
Topped the single-season record for total offense with 4,650
His junior season at UCF seemed like a platform to replicate the success seen in the year previous — once again, Milton was lighting up the stat sheets and scoreboards as the Knights racked up the wins.
Against rival USF in the season finale, Milton suffered a catastrophic leg injury, nearly losing it as he was rushed to a Tampa hospital.
From a 2019 piece that Milton authored on ESPN:
I took one look at it for a split second, and I put my head back down, thinking, “Wow, this doesn’t really feel real.” I knew it was bad, but I didn’t really feel too much pain, I guess from the adrenaline and shock.
We got in the locker room, and they checked for a pulse again. There was no pulse in the leg, so we knew that was an issue. Blood flow was not getting to the bottom of my leg.
The mere violence of the hit caused the ligaments to tear and the knee to dislocate and tore the artery and stretched the nerve. Sometimes, the nerve can rip. If it does, you’re not going to have feeling in your leg the rest of your life. If it stretches, the nerve heals gradually over time, about a millimeter a day, which is not a lot at all. If you have no function in the nerve, you have to cut off your leg because it’ll just sag. It’ll swell up.
The prognosis: You may never play again. You may be able to play again. We don’t know.
It’s tough hearing that, but I didn’t cry or anything. I said, “Forget that. I believe I’m going to play again.” I really do.
It probably won’t be this season, but I don’t think that would be fair to put a set date on it. I don’t want to disappoint myself. I’m trying to have mini goals. I want to be an even better player, and I think I can be. I’m going to be better as a teammate. I’m going to be better as a leader. That’s where it starts. That will make the guys around me better.
Milton did make that progress, advancing to the point where in 2020, he ran the scout team offense for UCF, being a veteran voice for current starter Dillion Gabriel, himself a former Miliani Trojan. It was a year of relief for Milton, who made sure to share clips of himself moving about freely at practice, but one that also weighed on his mind. As he got to the point where he felt comfortable enough to once again head under pocket, he began to realize that it wouldn’t be in Orlando.
“I’m trying to think of it more logically than emotionally,” he said at the time. “I bleed black and gold and it’s where my heart is, but this is D.G.’s team now. I feel like the torch has been passed.”
Milton entered the transfer portal and instantly, the Florida State Seminoles and the gunslinger were connected, almost willed into existence by a fanbase desperate for consistency at quarterback. As it turned out, the connection was a legitimate one, coming from the respect that Milton had for Mike Norvell as both a coach and a human.
In 2017, after Milton’s injury, he received a present in the form of a football signed by every member of the Memphis Tiger’s football team, Norvell’s then-program. Memphis and UCF had faced off in a multitude of high profile games, with AAC title implications involved in just about all of them. For Norvell to make that gesture, a week before playing UCF, was something that resonated with Milton at one of his lowest points.
“Just doing something like that when I was down bad and they were our opponent the upcoming week after I got hurt,” Milton said. “Him and his whole team, they signed a ball as a gesture of respect, I guess, for the battles.”
“I knew what he was about as a coach and his program. He ran a great program at Memphis. I’m confident that he’ll have a similar if not better success here at Florida State in just creating a winning culture.”
“Going against him, you know, I had a lot of respect for him, just for who he was, the way he went about his business, in all aspects,” Norvell said in an interview with Tomahawk Nation earlier this year. “We’d played against him, I think, was three times, up until that point, and the week prior to the championship games, when he got injured, my heart went out to them.
“We wanted to him to know that we’re with them, even though we’re competitors on the field, you know, we believed in him and who he was. It was a sign of respect from our program and, and players, coaches, everybody involved just for the person and the player that he is.”
Seven years after that Hawaii state title game victory, four years after quarterbacking an undefeated team that at least technically can claim a national title, McKenzie Milton sits in Tallahassee, prepping for his first run at a starting role since his freshman season in Orlando.
This spring will be his first since the injury that nearly cost him his leg, and he enters it as the sole new face in the quarterback room. Each other player around him all have at least one game of starting experience in Mike Norvell’s offense — Jordan Travis last year showcasing his then-untapped athletic potential especially — and so, accolades aside, he’s the outsider.
In his career, Milton has navigated high and low expectations, bounced back from failure, learned from success, and taken each bit of his journey in stride. Now, on the precipice of returning to the field that he’s longed for since a November day in 2018, it’s time to take all of that experience and put it into action.