McKenzie Milton scans the football field at Spectrum Stadium from an all-new vantage point for him: a 6th-story suite high above the bowled-in grass. On Dec. 13, the Hawaiian-born UCF quarterback will graduate with a degree in sport and exercise science. Milton says he’s excited to walk in his cap and gown. He plans to use his education and playing experience to coach football. Not yet, though. “Someday,” he says. At the moment he’s craning his neck to get a full view of the field where he led the Knights to national prominence and blossomed into a Heisman Trophy candidate before suffering a devastating leg injury against South Florida on November 23, 2018. “I miss it,” he says of the game that he sees as prominently in his future as it has been in his past.

“I’m so grateful God led me to UCF. My story here is not finished.”

— McKenzie Milton

“You might have a hard time understanding this. But as chaotic as football can be, it’s actually calming to me. My time away from the game has made me realize that it really is an escape. All of your day-to-day problems go away on the field. It’s another reason I’m putting in so much work to play again.”

“I see the scar on my leg every day. It reminds me of how far I’ve come. All the surgeries. All the rehab. My leg went from looking terrible to looking better … to looking terrible again and then better. So when I look at where I am today, I’m excited to think of the plan God has for me a year from now.”

“January could be a big month. Hopefully, the doctors will let me get out of my brace and clear me to start running. If it happens, great. If not, I’ve learned to just bite my lip and keep working.”

“There are three big motivators for me. My family will always be a motivation. There’s also the fact that the struggle to come back is just you against you — it’s asking yourself, “How badly do you want this?” And third, (defensive back) Brandon Moore is also recovering from a bad knee injury. We keep each other going.”

“My situation has put a lot of everyday details into perspective. I don’t take walking for granted. Or being able to put shoes on. Some people are never able to do those things. I’m blessed to do whatever I can do and especially to have the people who have supported me.”

McKenzie Milton walks onto the field arm and arm with his mom and dad
McKenzie Milton walked onto the field to a standing ovation with his dad and mom during senior night. (Photo by Kevin Macia ’18)

“My mom has been living with me since the injury. When I go back to my apartment at the end of the day I see Mili (his Maltese named after Mililani, the town where he grew up in Hawaii) and I smell mom’s food. It makes me feel like a kid again, like everything is OK.”

“Family is really important in Hawaii. It was hard to leave after my senior year of high school, but I needed to spread my wings. Anywhere on the mainland is a long way from home. I visited UCF’s campus in February and saw the beauty and the green all around. It reminded me of home at that time of year — except with no mountains.”

“I wanted to go back home after my freshman year. My dad said, “Going to UCF was your first grown-man decision, so don’t quit.” I literally thank God that I stuck it out.”

“The most memorable moment so far? Mike Hughes returning that kickoff for the touchdown to beat USF in 2017. A week later we won the conference championship and then the Peach Bowl against Auburn. Just two years out from being 0-12, we went 12-0 and became a household brand nationwide. You can go to a school accustomed to winning, but it’s incredible to be here while something special is being built.”

McKenzie Milton embraces Brandon Moore
Milton hugs fellow defensive back and graduating senior Brandon Moore during senior night. (Photo by Conor Kvatek)

“Senior Night was not goodbye. I saw it as an opportunity to share a moment with the guys I came into UCF with, to walk out with them in front of my family and their families.”

“People might always ask me about the injury. And that’s OK. It’s now a part of me and my story. I’ll do everything possible to play in the NFL, but I’m at peace knowing God is the author and that He has my story written. I look forward to living it out, however it goes.”

“A lot of my teammates come from places where they don’t have much. For them to make it at a major D-1 program is way bigger than me coming back from my injury.”

“I’ll be a better coach because of this. The adversity will allow me to empathize with others. I recognize that physical pain is one thing, but mental and spiritual pain is even tougher. A lot of my teammates come from places where they don’t have much. For them to make it at a major D-1 program is way bigger than me coming back from my injury.”

“One quote about coaching has always stuck with me. Billy Graham said, “A coach will affect more people in one year than most people will affect in a lifetime.” At a certain age, boys can go one of two ways. That’s why I’m taking post-graduate classes in educational leadership. I want to develop boys the right way — into grown men.”

“Look at those kids on the field. That’s Dillon (Gabriel) showing a youth team from Hawaii around. How cool is that? UCF has become a favorite college team on Oahu. After I came, then it was Dillon, Lokahi (Pauole), and Canton [Kaumatule]. It’s an honor to have started a little pipeline from Hawaii to UCF.”

“There are a lot of memories down there. But being carted off the field isn’t the way I want to end my career. The triumphs and tragedies you share with your guys … there’s nothing quite like it. I’ll work my butt off until I’m ready to roll with them again. I’m so grateful God led me to UCF. My story here is not finished.”

Milton marks his favorite memory so far as the time defensive back Mike Hughes ran 95 yards for a touchdown with 1:28 remaining in the game to defeat USF, 49-42, which helped secure UCF’s chance to play in the Peach Bowl.