Florida State QB McKenzie Milton is finally ready for the talk to be about football, not his career-altering leg injury

TALLAHASSEE (Fla.) -- McKenzie Milton is back to business talking football. He ticks off all the ways he feels at ease with Florida State's new playbook, his new coaches, and his new teammates.
Milton hasn't mentioned his knee even ten minutes into the conversation. Although he still thinks about the terrible injury that ended his career nearly three years ago, the conversation has changed around Milton. It's not about Milton being able to play again. It's not about whether Milton can play again. What everyone wants to know, however, is whether he will be playing Sunday against Notre Dame (7:30 p.m.). ET, ABC/ESPN App

Coach Mike Norvell did not announce whether Milton or Jordan Travis would start, but it only increased the anticipation for kickoff.

It is an amazing miracle of medical science and humankind that Milton has a legitimate chance to play. No one could have imagined what would happen Sunday when Milton ran onto Tampa's turf on Nov. 23rd, 2018. Milton was surrounded by 79,000 Tomahawk Chop-loving fans, welcoming a new season.

Doctors hoped that Milton would one day be able to walk again after he suffered nerve and artery damage to his leg. He also had a dislocated and torn ligaments. Milton persevered, despite setbacks and surgeries, and trips back to Minnesota to see a specialist -- pushing the limits to reach today.

It has not been easy. He didn't want to stay in his comfort zone at UCF as a backup, but he decided to leave searching for a chance to start over. He chose to go to a larger school than he would have liked, and he turned to a Power 5 school in desperate search of a quarterback savior who could help the school turn around its program. Milton doesn't see himself as a savior but he does know he can play at an elite level and help Florida State. Milton wants to prove that he is still a good quarterback, regardless of whether he plays as a starter or a role player against Notre Dame.

Milton stated in an interview with ESPN that "If I'm playing, I'm going full-go. I'm going be better than I was or as good." "You don’t get what your deserve, you get what it’s worth so get out there and get it!"

It was clear that Milton could play again after he started leading the UCF scout teams last season. Josh Heupel, then-coach of UCF, asked Milton if it was okay to play against USF in Tampa in November. This is two years after the injury that almost cost him his leg. Milton replied no.

Milton began to think about leaving UCF in order to get a start. Florida State was the best choice because it was located in the same state that UCF, and needed quarterback help after four years of inconsistent play.

Although Norvell did not make any promises regarding the job at the start, he assured Milton that he would be available to compete. It was an easy decision to sign Milton, even though there were three experienced Seminoles quarterbacks, including Travis who played in 12 games during his FSU career. Norvell spoke candidly with Travis, explaining why he wanted Milton to be signed. With his leadership qualities and work ethic, Milton was a strong choice for the team.

Nobody knew how Milton would react to being in a competition as a quarterback, especially after he had his knee reconstructed. Norvell nearly wept when he saw Milton in practice.

Norvell stated, "You can see the effort, but you also see the investment. To be able go out and play freely and not have to worry, it brought a smile to my face." It's special to have the opportunity to do that.

McKenzie Milton, a transfer to FSU from UCF could play Sunday against Notre Dame. Melina Myers USA TODAY Sports

Norvell was the Memphis coach when Milton was throwing it for UCF in 2017-2018. Norvell was the head coach at Memphis when Milton was slinging it for UCF in 2017 and 2018. Norvell and Memphis faced UCF in Orlando for their conference championship title, but this time, Milton was not there. The stadium's entire attention was focused on the quarterback who had died. The team dedicated UCF's win over Memphis to Milton.

It is important to remember the long and difficult journey Milton took to get there. He did this with every ounce faith and commitment he could muster. After the helmet-to knee hit caused blood flow problems, he almost had to have his right leg amputated. He was so scared that he wouldn't be able to wake up after surgery, the first thing he did was check his legs.

Instead, he discovered a huge gash on his left leg. Doctors had to remove a vein from the leg to create a new artery to his right leg. This would restore blood flow and help save his leg. He saw two large gashes on his right leg. There was a metal device holding everything together and blood tubes sticking out. He didn't stop asking when he could return to football.

However, this could only happen if the nerve healed completely. There was no medical procedure to help. Time would tell. Milton went back to work believing that he would be able to play again. Imagine the uncertainty of working each hour to get back to normal without knowing if a nerve in your leg will ever work properly again.

Milton didn't want to get out the bed every day there were. There were days when Milton felt like he was wasting time or just wanted to get rid of it all. He quit football and moved on with his life. Yes. Milton was determined not to let his emotions win. Did he face obstacles that test his resolve? Yes. In the fall of 2019, a serious infection threatened to stop his comeback. He lost weight and required a PICC line in both his arm and hand for antibiotics. His nerve was restored and his knee felt much better. He could also run and throw again. However, he knew that he wouldn't be the UCF starter once more after the return of his best friend, Dillon Gabriel, a quarterback from Hawaii.

He would give himself a pep-talk on the days when he was feeling down. His family might have given him one. Or his trainers. Milton didn't take a single day off, despite all the doubts.

Florida State provided him with a fresh start, new perspective and a chance to make a difference. This was a change that he had never anticipated.

Milton stated, "Being in Orlando so long, it is easy to make the decision to stay there where you are comfortable, where your expectations are met every day." That was the most difficult part. It's been great fun, from spring ball to summer exercises to fall camp. Florida State has given me a lot of new brothers."

"I don't care about what happened to him. I only look at where he is now. He is fully free. He is comfortable. It's as simple as that. It's that simple. He doesn't fear. He is fearless because he is 1,000% at ease with his surroundings. Florida State offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham discusses FSU QB McKenzie Milton

Milton made it a priority for his teammates to get to know him on a deeper level than just the weight room or practice field. Although Travis and Milton were initially uncomfortable, they have developed a strong relationship that Travis considers to be his coach.

Travis stated, "I'm learning every day from him, taking little bits from him and trying to apply it," He said, "I am a quiet man so he has forced me to be a leader." We had the entire offense at a meeting and he asked me to go up on the board with the clicker and teach some of the guys how to do it. He has taught me the most important aspects of being a quarterback.

Milton had to learn a new playbook and integrate himself into the locker room. While there are some similarities between what he did offensively in Orlando under Scott Frost, the most difficult part of his transition was learning new terminology and signals. Milton stated, "But I feel like a coach is finally speaking the same language."

His knee is what is unique about him, compared to other quarterbacks. The Florida State coaches were very careful about how many reps they gave Milton during fall training camp so that he wasn't overtaxed. They gave Travis and Milton the same amount of reps when they could, but Milton was allowed more time to rest.

To prepare for practice, Milton must do more than his team. Milton spends two hours every morning in the training room, where he does what he calls "prehab" at 6:15 am. To loosen up his hips, he spends a lot of time in the pool. Milton also does stretching exercises to keep his body loose when he goes upstairs to attend pre-practice meetings. This is something he did before the injury. He continues to do the same routine because it worked so well. He does the same for his right knee as he does his left. His shoulders are equally important to ensure that he can perform at an elite level. He is acutely aware that it has been three years since his shoulders were last used as a quarterback.

McKenzie Milton had multiple complex operations to save his right leg so he could return to playing on the field. Laura Heald, ESPN

All of these factors make it remarkable that Milton is competing to get a job as a starter. It took almost three years to get there. Milton prefers to put it this way: "The years are short, but the days are long."

Kenny Dillingham, Florida State's offensive coordinator, stated that he doesn't care about what happened to him. He only cares about what he is right now. He's completely cleared. He is comfortable. It's as simple as that. The outsiders looked at the injury, and then they looked at what happens for the person with the same injury.

He's different. He is a special person. He feels good in his knee. He feels good and his instincts take control. He thinks about his life and it's what keeps him at ease. He doesn't fear. He is fearless because he is 1,000% at ease with his surroundings."

The question is, ultimately, whether Milton has done enough practice to win the job. On the Notre Dame depth chart, he and Travis are both listed with an "or" next their names.

"I have a lot of faith in McKenzie's ability to accomplish his goals. When Norvell was asked what his decision would be, Norvell stated that he has a lot of confidence in McKenzie's preparation. It's not about him getting a rep. It's about him doing the same thing he has done all his life and earning that rep. That's what I told my son when he arrived here, and that's exactly what it will be. He wouldn't have it any other way, I can assure you. This is what makes him unique."

Milton insists that he doesn't want sympathy snaps. He said, "If you're in there, you're legit there." I don't want anyone to feel sorry for me."

Milton says that summer workouts, being more active and feeling normal are all contributing to my confidence.

It's back to normal. Milton did he just go there?

Milton said that "I feel like what my mindset is," but "because of scars and other such things, I don't believe it will ever go back to normal." I feel normal in terms of movement, fluidity, and being comfortable on the football field. In terms of mental understanding of the offense and defense, I feel more confident than before I was hurt. It feels really good."

He can picture how it will feel to wait in the tunnel before he runs onto the field. It will be a more exciting game than he ever imagined. Milton will have one job once that moment is over. This is the same job that he held when he was UCF's starting quarterback for 25 consecutive wins between 2017-2018.

It's all about winning. It would make everything feel normal again.

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