Chris Hays / Orlando Sentinel
USF's Mazzi Wilkins and UCF's McKenzie Milton met for the first time face-to-face Saturday nigth at the Better Man Event at UCF. It ws their first meeting since Wilkins tackled Milton during a game in November. Milton was injured on the play and missed the rest of the season. (Chris Hays / Orlando Sentinel)
McKenzie Milton and Mazzi Wilkins had not seen each other since Nov. 23, on Black Friday of Thanksgiving weekend, but there was little for the two college football rivals to be thankful about on that holiday.
Wilkins delivered a tackle during which Milton suffered a catastrophic knee injury that nearly forced doctors to amputate his leg.
Saturday night at the Better Man Event in UCF’s Additions Financial Arena, the two came face-to-face for the first time since their lives were changed forever.
“It was neat, man. I was a little shell-shocked, but it was something very cool and a cool experience, for sure,” Milton said after meeting Wilkins on stage.
Milton said he did not know about the meeting beforehand.
“It’s come full circle and there’s no ill will there and our fans shouldn’t have any ill will toward Mazzi, either,” he said.
“He goes to USF, I go to UCF, we battle out on the field, but off it, we’re like brothers … we’re friends now and it just goes to show what football can do. It can bring people together, like a USF Bull and a UCF Knight together, which is something special.”
Coordinator of the Better Man Event, Brian Buckley came up with the idea to bring the two together at the event under the theme of forgiveness, but Milton didn’t really see any need for forgiveness in this case.
Wilkins jumped at the chance to meet with Milton when he was approached by Buckley.
“I felt like it was a great opportunity just to finally meet McKenzie because honestly, I have no reason to be in Orlando. I’m a Bull,” Wilkins laughed. “It was just a great opportunity to put a face with a face outside of the helmet, in the pads and the colors and the stadium and all that stuff.
“I really felt for him. He had a lot going … 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, so I just wanted to meet him and be genuine with my guy. I got a friend now. I can finally say I got a UCF friend now.”
In their first meeting, UCF quarterback Milton and USF defensive back Wilkins were involved in a collision on the football field that rocked college football last season. Wilkins tackled Milton as he ran up the field at Raymond James Stadium and Milton’s knee buckled awkwardly underneath him.
A hush went over the stadium, the teams gathered around Milton as doctors tended to him. Everyone knew the news would be bad. Sure enough, Milton missed the rest of the season, endured multiple surgeries and faces a tough fight trying to play football again.
UCF Nation was crushed. The Knights' quarterback would not be available for the rest of the year, including the Fiesta Bowl matchup with LSU. The UCF football team would not be the same.
But in the shadows, Wilkins, also, would never be the same. He was devastated to be part of such a horrific moment. He made the tackle. He blamed himself, but he knew it was football. It happens. Anonymous fans in the social media universe were not so forgiving. He received death threats and horrible messages about his mother and family. Vicious trollers of the internet hurled hatred at the former Tampa Plant star just because he made a tackle.
“Excuse my language, but it was some BS what our fans were doing or just people ... giving death threats, talking about his family. I mean, it’s football. Injuries happen,” Milton said. “Like I said, there’s no ill will there and in all honesty, I’m a little disappointed in people.”
Both Milton and Wilkins knew the risks of playing the sport of football. They both knew that anything can happen, especially season- and career-ending injuries. They just never imagined it would happen to them. The backlash was devastating for Wilkins.
“I look on Twitter [after the game] and my name is trending and I’m like, ‘Whoa, what?’ .. And before you know it I’m getting message after message,” Wilkins said. “I showed my mom. … I said, ‘Look mom, they’re talking about you.’ And my mom was like, ‘Don’t worry about it,’ so at first I played it like, ‘You know what, it happens. I’m not going to worry about it.’
“But you can’t help but to look at it. So when you look at it, I really felt myself getting irritated. … Little do they know as soon as it happened, I got on a knee and I prayed for him. … We play the sport, but we don’t play it to injure anybody.”
Buckley was thrilled with the opportunity to get the two players together.
“I was reading the Orlando Sentinel … and it talked about that Mazzi was getting death threats and Mazzi was going through social media bullying,” Buckley said. “So I thought what would it look like if we can bring these two together at the Better Man Event and show reconciliation. .. I reached out to Mazzi and he said, ‘I’m in,’ from the start.”
Wilkins wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to engage with Milton. He could have let things play out the way they already had. The senior is now preparing for the NFL opportunity and hoping to get his shot. Milton will continue to rehab in an effort to get back on the field.
For a moment Saturday night, however, Wilkins and Milton shared a moment they never imagined was possible.
As Milton said, now he has a friend forever. A USF Bull friend.
Chris Hays covers college football and recruiting for the Sentinel. Reach him at email@example.com.