Column: With each step in journey, Milton wins – and influences Noles

Before he even stepped on the field, McKenzie Milton won over the hearts of football fans from coast to coast. From his native Hawaii to Florida, even those who casually follow college football saw his determination and love for the game.

Milton won with his positivity and a work ethic in his rehabilitation. He won before he even stepped on the field in a game this fall. And when he jogged on to the field midway through the fourth quarter on Sunday night, a frenetic crowd grew even more electric.

“God is real,” Milton said. “Nobody has ever come back from an injury like this. Thousands of people praying for me. I’m not here without all the support. All the prayers. … This is just a testimony. That’s my belief and why I think I was able to step back on the football field tonight.”

Milton’s story is in many ways miraculous. He could have lost his leg, which had a dislocated knee as well as artery, nerve and ligament damage. He worked through rehab with a determination to play football when doctors were telling him walking would be an achievement.

But Milton kept pushing. Walking became jogging and before too long he was running UCF’s scout team in 2020. And not long after he transferred to Florida State to complete his comeback, to play football. And to lead, to impact others with his character, with words and his story.

There are plenty of words that will be written about Milton. But a few things are fairly obvious. It’s hard for anyone to understand what he’s been through. And this is just the next step in Milton’s journey. He’s frequently said how grateful he is for the support of so many people encouraging him. But when it was time to get on the field, when Jordan Travis’ helmet popped off and FSU coach Mike Norvell had to send in another quarterback, Milton wasn’t thinking about any of it.

“It was one of those bang-bang moments where the helmet pops off and you have to be engaged on the sideline,” Milton said. “The job had to be done to give us a chance to win the game. It was time to roll. I didn’t have time to process any emotions. It felt like it was three years ago and I was just playing ball.”

While Milton was trying to remain businesslike, fans were overwhelmed with emotions as they cheered. Milton fired a 22-yard pass to Ja’Khi Douglas and in a matter of minutes, the drive ends with Treshaun Ward’s 2-yard touchdown.

It wasn’t just fans at Doak Campbell Stadium who were excited for Milton.

“I couldn’t keep the smile off my face,” Travis said. “Just seeing someone who has been through that much come back and be able to perform that way, to see him run out on the field, gave me chills. Through thick and thin, he’s been pushing me every single day. Every time I came to the sideline after a bad play today, he was always there picking me up. He’s a great dude and I’m so happy to see him on the field performing. I’m blessed to have him on my team.”

Milton is easy to cheer for because of the comeback but his character and how he talks to teammates has earned him widespread respect. Norvell was coy for months about the quarterback competition and clearly had no intention of announcing a starter before players were introduced pregame.

Travis had the best preseason practices of those that were open to the media. Norvell favored “load management” in resting some players, including Milton. But it was clear Milton brings decision-making, a valuable skill set and intangibles. The consensus among media was FSU would need to use Travis and Milton.

“McKenzie is a great competitor,” Norvell said. “As he went into this week he just continued to say, ‘Coach, I’ll be ready. I’ll be ready.’ You never know when that opportunity is going to present itself. Jordan had a couple things happen there late, McKenzie came in and he was ready, prepared well. Such a wonderful competitor. It was great to see him go out there, have the opportunity to compete.”

Milton’s numbers are a minor part of what he did Sunday night, but he officially was 5 of 7 for 48 yards. His stats almost seem inconsequential looking back. Because he is officially back. 

He took the first hit on a scramble and there was a moment of concern, but Milton brushed it off. “I did get rolled up a little and I was good,” Milton said. “I’m always ready to roll.”

Just as Milton reminded Norvell that he will be ready, those conversations will take on a new life this week. Now that we’ve seen Milton return there will be questions. Is Milton ready to take on a bigger role as a starter or No. 2 quarterback? Is he ready to start over Travis? Or is Travis’ escapability a major factor in the decision given the persistent pass-rush issues on Sunday?

Big questions with no easy answers. But Milton’s journey continues to impress. His return to the field prompted mixed emotions from him — happiness to have cleared one hurdle but also acknowledging “there’s no moral victories in football.”

There may not be moral victories in sports. At times though it’s worth taking the time to appreciate everything Milton has done to even be in position to play on Sunday night. Nobody can see what is in store next for Milton or for FSU but the Seminoles are undoubtedly better (and growing) along with him.

“I got to meet Derrick Brooks before the game,” Milton said. “I wear his number. Getting to walk around these hallowed grounds, I don’t take it for granted.”

McKenzie Milton scrambled a few times, took a few hits but popped back up. (photo by Steve Chase)