It was the afternoon New Year's Eve in 2017, ESPN producers and announcers had finished talking with UCF head coach Scott Frost and then Frost and I recorded our pregame interview for our radio broadcast for next day's Peach Bowl against Auburn. UCF was trying to do the unthinkable. The Knights were trying to go from winless in 2015 to undefeated in 2017. But that December was anything but normal for UCF.
That month began with the dramatic 62-55 double overtime win at home against Memphis with the news that Frost was leaving Orlando to return home to Lincoln and coach Nebraska. The month saw coaches changing shirts from black and gold to red and white recruiting players to follow them while Milton and his teammates were trying to prepare for the game of their lives.
By the week of the game, Frost was exhausted and not feeling well. He looked worn out when we spoke and after the recording of the interview ended I then asked Frost, as I typically did, what he thought about the game. Auburn was ranked 7th and just came off games where Gus Malzahn's team beat number one Alabama before falling to 6th ranked Georgia at the SEC title game. Frost said they were bigger, stronger, deeper and fast-but not as fast as UCF. But he added "We have two things Auburn doesn't have and that's why we have a chance. We've got Shaquem Griffin and McKenzie Milton. If those two play big, everyone else will play big and that's how we will win. Great players have great moments and everyone around them rises up."
Griffin led the team with 12 tackles, 3.5 tackles for a loss and 1.5 sacks. Milton got off to a slow start but played like the star he was in the second half with big play after big play. UCF beat Auburn and finished the undefeated season. On that day, Griffin and Milton had that "it" thing.
McKenzie Milton has announced his retirement from football via a post on Instagram. The news is not surprising since he went undrafted in the recent NFL Draft and while other leagues may offer a chance to play, Milton knows the landscape and business of professional football. His career changing injury has brought this day closer and faster than KZ had wished. But it closes an incredible journey when it comes to playing but McKenzie Milton has so much more on his journey that he's just getting started. He is married and soon will be a dad. He is a businessman and may someday become a coach. But McKenzie Milton has been impacting people for years and he has decades left to do that.
It was August of 2016 when I was standing on the sidelines of the indoor practice facility at UCF when I asked first year head coach Scott Frost how he felt about his quarterbacks. He said it was a work in progress because they had to learn his system but to keep an eye on that guy. That guy was a skinny kid who looked like a student manager or walk-on that might help the scout team and hold a clipboard for the next few years. I asked Frost why we should watch him. He answered: "He has the "it" you look for." That little skinny kid was McKenzie Milton, the Hawaii quarterback who traveled across the globe to come to Orlando. That's nice, but what can he really do?
Milton didn't throw a pass in the first two games in 2016. But Frost turned to the kid in game three to start when UCF hosted Maryland. The Knights lost in double overtime but Milton showed you a little bit of what was to come. He ran around, extended plays, zipped a few passes, played with enthusiasm and dazzled fans. He went 21-36 for 260 yards 2 TD passes and 1 interception. At times he looked like Brett Favre running around and making plays and other times he looked like a lost freshman. But you could tell the kid had the "it".
But Milton's freshman year was not all highlights and smiles. He made big plays but he made mistakes. His line at times felt he was doing too much and maybe not taking any blame. A 6-7 season and a thought about going back home gave Milton a moment to mature quickly. Frost had said despite his talents, Milton had to win over his line, backs, receivers and his teammates and then he can lead them.
KZ returned to UCF and 2017 was a season to remember. He flicked passes with ease. He ran for 12 yards when they needed 11. He saw things before the snap that led to big plays. He now was improvising when it was needed and he became a leader his teammates respected and he won over UCF fans for life.
That is one of the greatest feats McKenzie Milton accomplished at UCF. He was one of the greatest football players in the program's history, but he touched the hearts of fans in the way he embraced UCF culture and the brand that was being built. He posed for every picture and had time to sign the autograph requested. His smile lit up a stadium and his coolness embodied what UCF is.
I have said many times that 2017 was a magical season for UCF, but the 2018 season was a grind that I'm not sure people respect as much as they should. With a new coach and staff, Milton and teammates found a way to make another run. The rally in the rain at Memphis. The GameDay game against Cincinnati. The streak was at 23 when UCF went to Tampa. The pressure to win every week and keep the verbal fight about where UCF should be in playoff discussions.
I will never forget the play. I can watch every second in slow motion and sat speechless in a radio booth where my job is to talk. When McKenzie Milton was carted off it wasn't about winning that game and a winning streak to extend, it was about a family member that hurt and therefore everyone wanted him to get help.
McKenzie Milton's biggest win was not on the playing field. Those victories were easy compared to his battle back from something few ever do. His ability to walk is amazing and to think he returned to play football is nothing short of remarkable.
I've said we can only wonder what could have been. Selfishly as fans we can wonder if Milton doesn't get hurt do they beat LSU in the Fiesta Bowl? My guess is yes. UCF starting quarterback Darriel Mack threw for 92 yards and UCF lost 40-32. If the streak reached 26 what would 2019 have been? Would Milton have returned for a senior season? Would he have been an NFL prospect taken in the early rounds? If he did return, how long would the streak have gone?
Life is full of unknowns. Just like Milton's future, there are unknowns but that's what makes the journey of life amazing. Now, McKenzie Milton will continue to impact people away from the playing field.
The memories and highlights will last forever. The sideline smiles after a touchdown drive. The Superman pose after diving into the end zone. The time for a selfie with an adoring fan.
McKenzie Milton always had "it" and always will. The little skinny kid from Hawaii came halfway across the world and became a story to never forget. He has many chapters in his journey that lie ahead. The football player in KZ may be ending, but the "it" part of his life has a long, long, long way to go...
Final note: McKenzie Milton threw for 9,458 yards and 75 touchdowns in his college career.