The moment felt like a punch in the stomach.
A fierce blow that took the air right out of the press box and for that matter all of Raymond James Stadium.
UCF fans have seen that type of play what feels like hundreds of times.
McKenzie Milton using his legs to evade the defense in an effort to pick up a third-down conversion.
Like he has many times before, he took a hit from multiple defenders. Usually, he pops back up, flashes a smile and gives a little first-down signal with his arm.
However, this time he stayed on the ground for what seemed like an eternity. Without replays, it was hard to tell just what exactly happened.
But once both teams in this heated rivalry converged around Milton, it was clear that the junior quarterback had suffered a severe knee injury.
“A traumatic injury and all of our thoughts and prayers are with him,” said UCF head coach Josh Heupel post-game.
From the moment McKenzie Milton took the field for the first time in a surprise start against Maryland, it’s always felt like the stage was never too big for him.
His innately tranquil demeanor certainly stems from his native Hawaii.
Whenever doubt has crept into the minds of Knights’ fans jaded by prior disappointments, reassurance was there in the form of the 5’11, 185-pound signal-caller.
Injuries are part of sports. Players and fans alike know this.
But Milton’s injury stings for more than just his elite level of play that’s made him one of college football’s top quarterbacks. He’s endeared himself to UCF as a whole with his attitude on and off the field. Social media is riddled with numerous posts of Milton being hospitable, taking the time to sign autographs and take pictures with fans whenever asked.
The same way he conducted himself entering last season as an unknown commodity was the same way he did after becoming a Heisman trophy candidate entering this year.
Milton is the heart and soul of this Knights’ team because he embodies what the now back-to-back undefeated regular season program is about.
From the time UCF embarked on their current 24-game winning streak, much of the talk surrounding the team was that eventually, they would meet their match.
It was a cute story but nothing more.
When faced with seemingly bigger and “more-talented” opposition, the Knights were supposed to eventually fall back to earth.
This year’s team picked up where last year’s left off and refused to let that happen, led by the undersized quarterback.
Quite frankly, what he’s been able to do is make people care about UCF football. Has there always been a UCF football fanbase? Yes, without question.
But not in the way that the entire UCF community cares about the program now. Not in a way that produced an outpouring of concern for Milton where fans are planning on wearing black and gold Hawaiian leis this Saturday in honor of his Hawaiian roots.
It’s unknown if he’ll be able to return to the playing field. The injury is one believed to be similar to those suffered by Chicago Bears’ tight end Zach Miller and Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Cecil Shorts III. Neither has played since suffering the injury.
“Prayers for McKenzie Milton! I’ll definitely reach out to him. I’ve been where he’s at,” said Shorts on Twitter after learning of the injury.
Indicative of the type player he is, Milton and his backup Darriel Mack Jr. shared a moment as he was being carted off the field and his concern was squarely with Mack entering the game.
If Friday was the final hurrah for Milton, he’ll finish with numerous UCF passing records and go down as arguably the greatest Knight ever to put on the black and gold.
But most importantly, thank-yous are in order.
Thank you for helping bring the program back to relevance.
Thank you for bringing back fans who had stepped away.
Thank you for helping usher in a new fanbase that’s presumably here to stay.
Lastly, thank you for leaving it all out on the field and playing with a warrior’s mentality.
Charge On and Ohana.