Mazzi Wilkins was just trying to make a routine tackle.
It was the second quarter of a showdown between the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida. Quarterback McKenzie Milton had already led the undefeated UCF Knights to one touchdown, and they were on their way to a second when Milton, a Heisman Trophy candidate, bootlegged out toward the right sideline.
Wilkins went in low, swept Milton’s legs for the tackle, and for a second everything seemed routine. Then the cameras found it: Milton lying on his side, his right leg at an angle the human leg isn’t made to bend. As Milton writhed in pain, Wilkins put his hands to both sides of his helmet, in shock at what just happened.
It would get worse.
Milton’s leg was nearly amputated due to severe nerve damage and life-threatening blood flow obstruction. Wilkins’ hit was deemed dirty by some fans, and a deluge of racial slurs and death threats against him and his family flooded his social media accounts.
Doctors were able to save Milton’s leg. Wilkins went undrafted but was signed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 90-man roster.
And Milton, who had seen the abuse Wilkins was receiving, reached out to him on Instagram, writing:
I have no ill will toward you. Don’t listen to that noise, it’s just stupid. Between you and I, as long as we’re good, it doesn’t matter what other people say.
Milton and Wilkins were both invited in April to speak at the Better Man Event, a Christian organization located in Central Florida, and met backstage for the first time since the injury.
“I really felt for him because he had a lot going [on],” Wilkins told Nicholson Student Media. “He still has a lot of potential and a lot of stuff going for him, but you don’t ever want to block somebody’s blessings. I just wanted to meet him and be genuine with my guy. I’ve got a friend now. I can finally say I’ve got a UCF friend.”
Milton, for his part, still plans to play football again, though it is uncertain if he will ever be the same player he was before the injury. Throughout the rehabilitation process, Milton has made it clear that both the speed of his recovery and his future are in God’s hands.
“I’m a lot further along than any doctor would anticipate or predict, and that’s by the grace of God and a lot of prayers and a lot of support by close friends and people I don’t even know,” Milton said in an interview with ESPN’s Maria Taylor.
“It may sound crazy, but I’m grateful for this injury,” Milton said. “So I could lean on my faith in hard times.”
No. 17 UCF opens its 2019 season on Thursday at home against Florida A&M.
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