TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – A rollicking crew of 78 of McKenzie Milton’s far-flung supporting cast wedged into Club Level 215 at Doak Campbell Stadium on Sunday night. There were his parents, brothers, his girlfriend, a doctor, a physical therapist, quarterbacks coach and even his barber. More than 20 came from his native Hawaii, and others from Minnesota, Atlanta and Orlando.
They came to support the Florida State quarterback, preparing to witness one of the most improbable comebacks in recent college football history in the wake of one of the most devastating injuries in the sport’s history. And after the first miraculous comeback spontaneously arrived, it nearly snowballed into another.
It’d been more than 1,000 days since Milton last played in a college football game after suffering a catastrophic knee injury. That’s the day his father, Mark, refers to as “Black Friday.” And merely his presence on the field would have been championed as one of the feel-good moments of this or any college football season.
The best place to appreciate the visceral power of the comeback of Milton was amid the sticky heat in Section 215, where nearly everyone had a No. 10 FSU game jersey on. That’s where the health care workers who cared for him, the family who nurtured him and the friends who inspired him all experienced a blender of emotion.
“It’s a miracle,” said his mother, Teresa, fighting back tears after the game.
But after starting quarterback Jordan Travis’ helmet got knocked off by blitzing Notre Dame safety Houston Griffith, Travis was forced to leave for a play with just over nine minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. With FSU trailing by 10, that’s when an impossible comeback to the field nearly intersected with an improbable one on it.
In the first game at Florida State after Bobby Bowden’s death, Milton’s return and the corresponding comeback suddenly felt cosmic. Social media was both thrilled and petrified, much like Milton’s family.
While FSU eventually fell in overtime, 41-38, Milton stayed in the game to lead a 10-point comeback in the final nine minutes to force OT and put his family, friends and health care workers who treated him through a gut twist of joy and fear.
“What are you doing out there?” Teresa Milton, his mother, said recalling the emotion of him stepping on the field. “No, no. I don’t even have any words.”
On Milton’s first snap, he threw a 22-yard dime to Ja’Khi Douglas, a bold play call by FSU head coach Mike Norvell. Then Norvell didn’t sub out Milton, as is customary after a starter’s helmet gets dislodged.
This appeared to surprise Milton’s family, who celebrated the completed pass and completed comeback to the field with so many hugs and tears and shrieks that they actually missed the next play.
“I was really happy for him, but I was scared,” Teresa Milton said, sitting in a seat that was engraved with her nickname and local area code: Mama T 808. She added: “His surgeon, his physical therapist, everyone, his trainers, were all in the aisles right here crying. We missed the next play.”
Suddenly, Milton wasn’t going anywhere. He took a sack, completed four more passes consecutively and then FSU capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run.
Florida State got the ball back trailing by three points with 4:15 remaining. Nearly four minutes from the possibility of a thunderclap of miracles, Milton calmly stepped up on a shovel pass on third-and-2 to complete a first down.
Seven plays later, including two quarterback rushes that had Doak Campbell Stadium holding its collective breath, Milton’s drive set up a 43-yard field goal with 40 seconds left that forced overtime.
No one was giddier than Travis, the quarterback Milton replaced.
“That makes me so happy,” he said. “I couldn’t get the smile off my face. Just being someone who’s been through so much. Just seeing him run out on the field gave me chills.”
The chill bumps ran out soon after. FSU’s offense sputtered in overtime, and Notre Dame countered with a field goal on its first possession to win the game.
“I don’t care if he plays another snap ever again,” said Michael Milton, one of his brothers. “Just seeing him play football again was just awesome. I came out here two months after his surgery, and from there to now is just incredible. I couldn’t do what he’s done.”
McKenzie Milton wasn’t excited to talk about “moral victories,” but he did know where to credit the strength for his comeback. “Nobody has ever come back from an injury like this,” he said. “It’s the answer of prayer. Thousands of people praying for me. Coaches believing in me. I’m not here without all the prayers and people believing in me.”
How far has he come back? For the uninitiated, Milton’s injury happened when he played for UCF in November of 2018. It’s the college football visual equivalent of the Joe Theismann injury, except with more dire long-term consequences. It’s so gruesome that you don’t want to watch it. And the reality turned out to be worse than the video, as there was talk of amputation in the immediate aftermath.
Milton was one of the most elite players in college football at the time of the injury, as he’d authored a College Football Hall of Fame caliber career by winning 25 consecutive starts.
The injury was so bad that UCF team doctor Mike Jablonski and athletic trainer Mary Vander Heiden are credited with saving his right leg. The knee dislocation was so severe that the thigh bone and lower leg bone were completely dislocated. That interrupted blood flow. He also had nerve issues because of the separation.
To put it in layman’s terms, Yahoo Sports asked Dr. Bruce Levy of the Mayo Clinic if Milton’s comeback and playing on Sunday night should be considered a medical miracle. “One-hundred percent,” he responded. “Of all the college and NFL athletes that have sustained a knee dislocation, none had specifically his ligament injuries, both the artery and the nerve damaged, and returned to play.”
Levy flew down from Minnesota for the game, and he couldn’t overcome the emotions. “Absolutely I cried,” he said. “It was impossible not to.”
Milton was reflective on the journey but still peeved with the result. Norvell has lauded his role on the team in helping establish the culture after FSU has endured three consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the mid-1970s.
That off-field aura came on the field Sunday night. And Milton departed his postgame interview with a sentiment that could have been directed to his throng of supporters in Section 215.
“A lot of people would’ve written me off, so thank you to everyone who has believed in me,” he said. “To me, we’re just starting.”
And that left everyone up in 215 wondering what’s next. “Tonight, was the first hurdle” Mark Milton said, “of whatever the next chapter is.”