Andrea AdelsonESPN Staff Writer
ORLANDO, Fla. — The lasting image from the devastating injury that threatens McKenzie Milton‘s career is not the way he got hurt.
It is the way his team responded.
Every player, coach and support staff member rushed onto the field. They knelt, some with heads bent, others praying, all collectively embracing Milton with their presence alone. It was easy to feel the way they felt, to understand the shock, the hurt, but also the love.
UCF has won 24 straight games because Milton led the Knights with his competitive fire, his passion, his toughness and his determination. He never backed down, and neither did UCF, his personality slowly becoming the team’s personality.
Just like Milton, the two-star recruit with something to prove, UCF has had something of its own to prove. Unabashedly unapologetic and confident, neither Milton nor UCF shied away from bold proclamations. Self-proclaimed national championships? Sure. Talking trash about UCF being better than Notre Dame? Check.
“You look at the [Pitt] film against us and Notre Dame,” Milton told Bleacher Report before his injury. “You can’t tell me Notre Dame is a better team than us.”
So there’s no difference?
“Oh, I see a difference,” Milton said. “We’re better.”
Once again, UCF will have to show that on Saturday, without Milton at quarterback.
No. 8 UCF (11-0) knows it must beat Memphis (8-4) in the American Athletic Conference championship to secure its spot in another New Year’s Six game. That should be motivation enough, but with Milton unable to play, the Knights have even more — winning for him.
“We’re playing for 10,” center Jordan Johnson said, referencing Milton’s jersey number. “We’re going to go out there and put it all out there for McKenzie, because we know that’s what he’d want.”
Ask anyone on the team why Milton means so much to them, why it is so important to win for him, and the stories come easily.
For receiver Tre Nixon, it started his first day on campus as a transfer student, when Milton offered to help with the playbook and then took him out to the practice field to run routes.
“All the players around this team will tell you the same thing: What he stands for off the field, the leadership, pushing you in the offseason, keeping everybody up, the positivity — that’s why everybody likes McKenzie so much,” Nixon said.
For receiver Michael Colubiale, it is the way Milton responded after getting booed off the field following the Cure Bowl in 2016 as a true freshman.
“He took it personally,” Colubiale said. “He gathered everyone up and told them he’s here for us and we told him we had his back. It’s the trust factor with him. He would lay his life on the line for us to get a win.”
— Michael Colubiale (@michael_colub) November 24, 2018
For senior offensive lineman Wyatt Miller, it is the way Milton helped transform a team that went 0-12 in 2015 to a team that has not lost since Dec. 17, 2016 — the night Milton was booed.
“Since he’s been here, a lot of people in that football building have changed, and their love for the game has changed, and their outlook on life,” Miller said. “When you see someone playing with that effort, it’s contagious. It’s hard not to try to match that, and I think it’s driven us to be better people and better players.”
For Johnson, it is the bond they formed during freshman student-athlete orientation, when they were paired together. As soon as Johnson learned Milton grew up in Hawaii, he wanted to go back home with him. It finally happened last May, when Milton took his center to his brother’s wedding as his plus-one. Johnson describes the reception as “the most fun I’ve had in my life.” When it came time to catch the garter, Johnson and Milton led the mad scramble to be the lucky winner. Johnson dove for it and reached it first. But like any good center, he handed it off to Milton so the quarterback could get the glory.
“From the moment we got on the airplane together, spending 12 hours watching movies, laughing about stuff on the airplane, it made us closer and I feel like it’s helped our play together,” Johnson said. “I got to crash in his room. I got to see what he lives like back home. We still reminisce on that experience to this day.”
For linebacker Nate Evans, it is the way their families have grown close, especially since Milton’s mother, Teresa, moved to Orlando last year to be closer to her son. Evans always stops by for good Hawaiian cooking — especially Spam musubi, a sushi-like dish made with canned meat.
“We’re like blood brothers,” Evans said.
For quarterback Darriel Mack Jr., it is the way Milton has been a mentor since Mack arrived on campus last season. The two are roommates for all away games, watch film together and are usually inseparable around the football facility.
When Milton injured his right knee against South Florida last week, Mack made sure to go to him on the cart. Mack bowed his head with Milton and told him everything would be all right. Then Mack led UCF to a 38-10 win. After the game, Mack took a No. 10 jersey and held it up in victory. Subdued and emotional afterward, Mack simply said, “I’m always around him, so, just seeing that, it hurts my heart.”
— Darriel Mack Jr ™ (@DJMactastic1) November 26, 2018
“I think a lot has rubbed off from McKenzie to DJ,” Colubiale said of Mack. “I think DJ’s going to be just fine. He’s going to show that toughness and that resiliency that KZ brings to the field every day, and he’s going to make KZ really proud.”
Even though Milton remains at Tampa General Hospital, recovering from surgery to repair blood flow issues and a nerve injury, he FaceTimed into the quarterback meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday to help Mack and the quarterbacks with the game plan.
“McKenzie’s all about helping who’s under him, and I know he’s going to give all his knowledge to DJ to help him,” receiver Gabe Davis said. “McKenzie would love to see DJ do better than him in this game, because that’s the type of person he is.”
UCF plans to distribute 40,000 leis to fans attending the championship game Saturday. Johnson said he will wear his own lei, a special one given to him by Milton’s mother. It features the kukui nut from Hawaii.
“This game isn’t going to be sad, head held down because McKenzie’s not playing,” Evans said. “We’re going to be energetic. We’re going to be throwing up the 10.
“McKenzie, whenever you see this: I’ve got you.”