Nearly five months after a play that affected both their lives in profound, painful ways, the paths of McKenzie Milton and Mazzi Wilkins crossed again Saturday night.
This time, excruciation was supplanted by an embrace.
“I feel like I’ve made a new friend,” said Wilkins, former USF cornerback whose tackle of Milton last November ended the UCF quarterback’s season and jeopardized his career. “It was a great experience. It felt great, it felt lovely.”
The two conversed Saturday during the Better Man Event (BME), which drew an announced crowd of 7,500 to CFE Arena on UCF’s campus.
A three-hour, faith-based program that also featured former heavyweight boxing champ Evander Holyfield and Journey keyboardist Jonathan Cain, the BME is designed to “equip, encourage and engage men to become ‘better,’” according to the Orlando-based ministry’s web site.
Wilkins said he and Milton had communicated via social media and texts prior to Saturday’s meeting, but hadn’t spoken in person.
“Tonight really brought the whole situation full-circle,” Wilkins said.
The journey for both has been far more jagged than circular.
Milton dislocated his right knee, tore ligaments and sustained artery damage on the play. He has undergone several surgeries, and told an Orlando radio station in March he nearly had to have the leg amputated. He initially was on blood thinners and had to receive daily stomach injections.
Wilkins, meantime, was the subject of a social media crucifixion, though no penalty was whistled on his tackle of Milton below the waist. Hours after the game, he tweeted that he was praying for Milton and wished him a speedy recovery.
He said BME president and founder Brian Buckley reached out to him about attending Saturday’s event. Buckley had read about the social media vitriol to which Wilkins had been exposed following the game.
“I just felt like something within me saying, what would it look like if we could bring these two together at the Better Man Event and show reconciliation and forgiveness on the stage,'" Buckley said.
Wilkins and Milton both acknowledged there was nothing to forgive, indicating they hoped Saturday’s meeting will bring closure.
“It doesn’t need to be a thing anymore," Milton said. "It’s just cool to have a USF Bull here and a UCF Knight coming together and becoming friends. That’s the kind of stuff football can do.”