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Even in defeat, Milton out-Rudys the Irish

  • Florida State Seminoles quarterback McKenzie Milton sets up to throw a pass in the fourth quarter of the Notre Dame-FSU game Sunday night.

It only seemed appropriate that Florida State was playing Notre Dame on Sunday night because this was an even more inspirational story than “Rudy.”

Except, unlike the famously enhanced and dramatized version of the movie about former Notre Dame walk-on Rudy Ruettiger, the story of FSU transfer quarterback McKenzie Milton is 100 percent true.

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No, really.

It’s true.

You couldn’t even begin to make this stuff up.

Think about it:

A kid from Hawaii comes to play quarterback half-a-world away at UCF, leads the Knights to an undefeated season, a self-proclaimed national championship and a national-best 24-game winning streak. … Then, after suffering a gruesome knee injury against the team’s biggest rival in the final regular-season game of his junior season, he nearly has his leg amputated. … But spurred on by his intense faith and incredible perseverance, he is able to endure 33 months of countless surgeries and painful rehab sessions to get himself in position to play again. … But wait, he then chooses to leave the school he loves because his best friend and Hawaiian blood brother Dillon Gabriel had become entrenched as the starting quarterback. He transfers to Florida State and nearly leads the underdog Seminoles to a come-from-behind victory against storied Notre Dame.

The fact that Notre Dame won the game 41-38 in overtime Sunday night is mostly irrelevant.

This still goes down as one of the most remarkable comeback stories we’ve ever seen.

“God is real,” Milton said afterward. “I’m not tooting my horn, but nobody’s ever come back from an injury like this. This is the answer to prayers; thousands of people praying for me, coaches believing in me. I’m not here without all of the support, all of the prayers and the healing hands of God.”

When Milton — known by family, friends and adoring UCF fans as “KZ” — trotted onto the field in the fourth quarter Sunday night after FSU starting quarterback Jordan Travis got knocked out of the game, I’m not going to lie to you; I got misty-eyed. There is a long-standing rule that says members of the media are forbidden from cheering up in the press box, but thankfully there is no rule against tearing-up in the press box.

For those of us who were in Raymond James Stadium in 2018 when KZ went down with that ghastly injury, it was surreal seeing him back to his magical self Sunday night, dropping back and throwing darts as he led FSU down the field on two fourth-quarter scoring drives to tie the game 38-38 with 40 seconds left in regulation.

Said FSU coach Mike Norvell: “As we went into this week, McKenzie kept saying, ‘Coach, I’ll be ready. I’ll be ready.’ You never know when the opportunity is going to present itself and McKenzie was ready. He’s such a competitor. Everybody knows his story and what’s gone into it. He’s somebody you cheer for.”

Even Travis, the redshirt freshman who has been battling Milton for the starting quarterback job, was cheering for him loudly and proudly.

“I couldn’t get the smile off my face,” Travis said afterward. “It gave me chills seeing somebody who’s been through so much come back and be able to perform that way.”

Milton’s first pass of the night was threaded down the middle 22 yards to Ja’Khi Douglas. Then on 3rd-and-11, he hit Keyshawn Helton for 15 to set up the touchdown that pulled the ‘Noles within 3. On the next drive, he executed a nifty shovel pass to Darion Williams for 12 yards to set up the game-tying field goal.

And all the while he was taking shots from the hard-charging Notre Dame defense and even got sacked and dragged down by the leg that was nearly amputated in 2018.

Who will ever forget the sick feeling an entire stadium and national television audience had three years ago after KZ scrambled right to try to get a first down and USF cornerback Mazzi Wilkins came in low for the tackle. Unfortunately, Wilkins’ helmet slammed directly into Milton’s right knee and destroyed it.

Milton’s leg bent in a way legs are not meant to be bent. His lower leg was contorted and hanging limply from the knee. ESPN did not replay the injury because of its graphic, grisly nature. Players from both teams encircled Milton and prayed together. UCF head trainer Mary Vander Heiden sprinted onto the field and told him not to look at his leg, but he already had.

When it was quickly determined that Milton’s lower leg had just a faint pulse and blood flow to the lower leg was minimal at best, he was rushed to Tampa General Hospital, which just so happened to have the only Level 1 Trauma Center in west Florida with specialty surgeons onsite 24 hours a day.

If Milton’s traumatic injury had happened in some small college town, he might be wearing a prosthetic leg today. However, surgeons at Tampa General successfully performed emergency arterial bypass surgery that restored blood flow to his lower leg. When Milton woke up from the surgery, he pulled the sheet back just to make sure his leg had not been amputated. He saw a big metal external fixator attached to his leg but, thank God, his leg was still there.

What ensued were dozens of surgeries and excruciating rehab sessions in which the physical therapist bent and flexed the reconstructed knee, painfully popping and breaking up the excessive scar tissue that has formed around his knee joint.

Still, it was a longshot that he would ever play football again. In fact, when Milton kept badgering his renowned orthopedic surgeon — Bruce Levy of the Mayo Clinic — about his chances of playing football again, Levy finally told Milton: “Imagine you’re a rookie and it’s your first at-bat in the major leagues. The bases are loaded and you hit a grand slam home run. Then you do it three more times in the same game. That would be what I think are the odds of you being able to play football. I’m not saying it’s impossible, but I’m not aware of anyone that’s done it.”

Well, guess what? Here we are three years and four grand slams later and KZ was on the field looking as magical as ever on a night when the Seminoles honored the late, great Bobby Bowden, who, had he been alive Sunday, would have said about Milton, “Dad-gum, that boy has more guts than a long-tailed cat in room full of rocking chairs.”

Guts and grit personified.

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One of the most motivational, inspirational stories in sports history.

Bianchi writes for the Orlando Sentinel

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