When McKenzie Milton first visited the Mayo Clinic a few weeks after his horrific right leg injury at USF in 2018, Dr. Bruce Levy set two goals for the former UCF star.
He wanted Milton to get through a three-team surgery without losing his leg, and he hoped Milton would be able to walk again without pain.
“Anything above that would be a bonus,” Levy said.
Milton surpassed bonus a long time ago. He isn’t merely playing football again. He’s one of two contenders to start at quarterback in Florida State’s Sept. 5 opener against Notre Dame.
It’s a comeback so remarkable that even Levy — a professor of orthopedic surgery with 22 years in practice —calls it “nothing short of miraculous.”
“I never anticipated in a million years,” Levy said, “that he’d be able to get back to this level.”
Milton and his knee had already been through a lot before they got to Levy in Minnesota.
A hit from USF cornerback Mazzi Wilkins’ helmet dislocated his knee, damaged a nerve and tore an artery and ligaments. Milton needed emergency surgery at Tampa General Hospital to restore blood flow to his leg and two more surgeries soon after.
Within a few days, UCF’s Dr. Michael Jablonski reached out to Levy, whom he knew from a knee dislocation surgical skills course they took together. Their second-opinion conversations turned into a visit from Milton, his family and UCF medical staff.
Milton’s knee was swollen, stiff and sore, Levy said, “as you can imagine with a devastating injury like that.” And the injury was devastating, even by Levy’s standards. Of the 10,000 operations Levy has performed, only a few hundred are comparable.
Levy told his patient as much when Milton asked about playing football again. If any athlete has ever returned to the field from that kind of damage, Levy wasn’t aware of it.
Levy compared Milton’s odds of playing again to a rookie making his MLB debut hitting a grand slam in his first at-bat … and then doing it three more times in the same game.
“So you think there’s a chance?” Milton asked.
Levy answered: “There’s always a chance.”
Four-team Mayo Clinic operation
The next step was a four-team, seven-hour operation at one of the nation’s premier medical facilities.
A vascular team led by Dr. Gustavo Oderich moved Milton’s blood vessels out of the way so Levy and his team could start reconstructing the ligaments. Dr. Robert Spinner’s neurological team mobilized the damaged nerve so Levy could operate on the ligaments more. A radiology team stopped by periodically to check Milton’s blood flow.
The surgery accomplished Levy’s first goal — no amputation. Milton met the second goal months later through grueling rehab.
Then Milton and Levy could start thinking about the bonuses. First it was running. When Milton sent Levy a video of him sprinting across a field, Levy had to watch a handful of times to believe it.
Milton told Levy during one visit that he needed his heel to be able to touch his butt so his leg wouldn’t snap during a tackle. Levy said none of his previous patients were able to regain that much flexibility.
A few months later, Milton sent Levy a picture of his heel tucked all the way back.
When Milton returned to Minnesota for his two-year checkup, Levy sent him through the same kind of return-to-play tests he uses on patients recovering from torn ACLs: running, jumping, cutting, strength.
Milton passed every one.
Levy had no medical reason to hold him back, so he said the decision to play again was between Milton and his soul. Milton answered without hesitation:
‘He certainly defies all odds’
Thirty-three months after being carted off the Raymond James Stadium field, Milton is finally set to play again. He transferred from UCF to FSU in the offseason and continues to battle Jordan Travis for the Seminoles’ starting spot.
Milton has practiced enough — first on UCF’s scout team last fall and then through spring and fall camp with the ‘Noles — that he’s no longer thinking about his knee. But Levy is.
“As excited as I am,” Levy said, “I’m nervous, too.”
Levy worries about every patient, but his concern usually eases once he clears them. Not with Milton. Not with an injury like his. Not after seeing him grind for two-plus years for the chance to play again. Not when another bad hit could jeopardize Milton’s leg — again.
The worry will not, however, keep Levy from the Doak Campbell Stadium sideline next Sunday.
Levy will be there, in an FSU polo shirt, to watch Milton make his Seminoles debut. Even if he still doesn’t know how it’s possible.
“There are some things we can’t always understand and can’t always explain,” Levy said, “but he certainly defies all odds — just his pure will and drive and belief in himself that he can do it.
“I’ve never met any patient like that.”
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