TAMPA — All it has taken is a few hints of possibility for hope and anticipation to grow enormous: Will UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton actually run onto the field at Raymond James Stadium on Friday afternoon and compete against the Knights’ arch rival, USF?
It would be a story nothing short of amazing.
Almost two years to the day at Raymond James Stadium against USF, Milton sustained a gruesome right knee injury. He was rushed to Tampa General Hospital where he had immediate surgery to repair damaged nerves and restore blood flow. The damage, however, was so severe doctors thought they might have to amputate part of his leg.
Milton pulled through with the leg intact, but what followed was just as tough: More surgeries, more worries about saving the leg because of the artery damage, then months of wheelchairs, crutches, leg braces and agonizing physical therapy.
Through it all, Milton, who at one time had quarterbacked UCF to 24 straight victories and evolved into a fringe Heisman Trophy candidate, continued believing he could one day play again.
He got stronger.
Against all odds, against all reason, doctors in August said he could return to practice.
Recently he began quarterbacking the scout team. Now there is speculation he might play again Friday in the “War on I-4.”
No matter what happens, it’s a story that has left teammates, coaches, fans and opponents awe inspired.
“You look back at where it started to the injury on the field, and at that point you were hoping he could keep his leg,” UCF coach Josh Heupel said. “Then you were hoping that he was going to be able to walk and live a normal life. And now you’re talking about getting back to the field and playing at the highest level.
“It’s a story of faith and the strength in the human spirit. … The best part of that story is that it’s not done yet. The complete story hasn’t been written. I have so much gratitude that I have had a chance to be around it and see him fight every day. I think it’s taught everybody in our program the strength of the human spirit.”
First-year USF coach Jeff Scott has a vivid memory of watching the game and Milton’s injury on television, a scene that made him “sick to my stomach. I felt so bad for him.”
Scott has since followed Milton’s progress.
“A lot of people would have said, ‘Hey my career is over and I have to move on,’” Scott said. “The fact he came back says so much about him as a person. I wish him the best and a safe return. … Even though they are your rival you have to tip your hat. When you see something special like that. That’s bigger than any rivalry.”
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A magical Milton moment could happen sometime Friday after UCF (5-3) and USF (1-7) kick off at 3:30 p.m.
No doubt UCF quarterback Dillon Gabriel (205 completions on 332 attempts for 3,017 yards and 26 touchdowns with three interceptions) will get the great bulk of playing time, but maybe, just maybe, Milton might get in a snap or two.
Which would be more than enough for a spectacular ending.