A gruesome injury mutes the revelry of USF-UCF rivalry

The Knights stay perfect but lose their starting QB to an apparent season-ending injury.
UCF Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) gets hurt and carted off the field during the second quarter vs. USF. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
UCF Knights quarterback McKenzie Milton (10) gets hurt and carted off the field during the second quarter vs. USF. (MONICA HERNDON | Times)
Published November 23 2018
Updated November 23 2018

TAMPA — Suddenly, nothing else mattered.

Not the War on I-4. Not UCF's win streak. Not USF's losing streak. Not the talk of national championships, real or otherwise.

There was only one thing: the nauseating feeling that overwhelmed all of college football as one of the best players in the nation writhed in pain on the turf at Raymond James Stadium.

Moments before, early in the second quarter of Friday's much-anticipated UCF-USF game, Knights junior quarterback McKenzie Milton dashed around end with the football, a seemingly mundane play, especially compared to all the spectacular plays he had authored over the past two seasons. He went to the ground right in front of the USF bench as the result of what looked to be a normal, uneventful tackle.

But, in a flash, teammates turned away, obviously sickened by what they saw and heard. Players from both teams, USF coaches and officials immediately waved to the UCF bench for help. A cart raced onto the field.

Everyone instantly knew this was bad.

Unfortunately, they were right. Milton suffered a gruesome injury to his right leg. His season appears over.

RELATED: UCF, without Milton, throttles USF

Knights coach Josh Heupel was one of the first to reach him.

"I just told him that I loved him," Heupel said.

That's all Heupel could do.

Darriel Mack, who replaced Milton at quarterback, did the only thing he could do.

"I was just praying for him," Mack said. "Praying that he was okay. Praying that no matter what happens, God has his hand over him."

The rest of the game felt pointless. When it was over, it still felt meaningless.

"Your thoughts continue to be with the kid when he's going through something like he's going through," Heupel said.

Everyone's thoughts were with Milton. Players, former players, analysts and pretty much anyone who pays attention to college football started tweeting thoughts and prayers. It was a moment so revolting that it made everything else seem trivial.

USF's five-game losing streak to end the regular season? Who cares? Charlie Strong's future as USF's coach? Talk for another day. UCF's bowl destination? Hardly feels relevant.

Poor McKenzie Milton. That's all that seemed to matter.

"It's difficult just seeing him go down," Mack said. "He's our guy."

For UCF, this was terrible. The Knights' best player, the No. 1 reason they bragged how they were the true No. 1 team in the country, was gone, perhaps ending whatever slim playoff hopes UCF had. A dream season turned into a nightmare.

For college football, this was disastrous. A Heisman Trophy candidate, a quarterback who had thrown 62 touchdown passes the past two seasons, no longer entertaining us, no longer leading America's favorite little guy trying to prove it can play with the big boys of college football.

But most of all, of course, this was devastating for Milton. A good kid who plays the game well and plays the game right. A talent who made UCF relevant, exciting and fun.

To start the second half, Mack carried his fallen teammate's jersey out onto the field.

"It was very, very emotional for me," Mack said. "I'm always around him. Just seeing that kind of hurts my heart."

This is the awful part of football.

In moments like these, it doesn't matter what colors you wear and which teams you root for, you can't help but hate how unfair life can be. It doesn't matter how much we know that injuries simply happen in a sport this violent, it still comes as a shock when it's this bad to a player this good.

Give UCF credit. The Knights charged on without their leader. It wasn't their smoothest game of the season, the 38-10 victory, and you can understand why. But UCF found a way to win and win rather handily. It was its 24th victory in a row.

"Our players, they care about McKenzie," Heupel said. "They truly love him. And they care deeply about one another. At the same time, when he was carted off, our guys flipped the switch and said, 'We got a game to still go play, and we have a job to do and let's go do it at a high level.' I'm just really proud of them."

At one time, Milton led them on the field. Now, from off the field, he will be their inspiration.

The Knights will play for the American Athletic Conference championship next week against Memphis. If they can win that, they will play in a major bowl game. If things turn out just right, they might even find themselves in the college football playoffs.

But McKenzie Milton likely won't play in any of those games.

And that is heartbreaking.

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