University of Central Florida quarterback McKenzie Milton was motionless on the turf at Raymond James Stadium as the Knights’ training staff tended to his right knee. A medical cart was making its way to the scene and eventually the junior was transported to Tampa General Hospital for emergency surgery that would save his leg.
A thousand miles away, D’Eriq King watched the sequence unfold on national television. He picked up his cell phone and sent a text message to Milton, offering a kind word of encouragement and prayer. The Houston quarterback knew the pain Milton, a Mililani High graduate, must have been going through at that moment.
King suffered a torn meniscus in his right knee a week earlier during a win against Tulane, an injury that suddenly put an end to what was otherwise a career breakout season for the talented junior.
“I was actually at home and just had surgery on my knee and I had seen it and I texted him as soon as it happened,” King told the Orlando Sentinel Tuesday during American Athletic Conference football media day. “I knew his phone was probably blowing up, but he got back to me a day or two later. I told him I was praying for him and wishing him well in his recovery and he’ll be back better than ever.”
In the eight months since the Nov. 23 injury, Milton continues to make his way back from a devastating injury. With a handful of surgeries behind him, he’s been rehabilitating the leg with hopes of returning to the football field in 2020.
King has also been going through rehab for his knee following surgery and is expected to be back on the field when the Cougars start preseason training camp in a few weeks.
Throughout the pain, sweat and tears, both men have become kindred spirits connected by the understanding of what the other is enduring, pushing each other via text messages, phone calls and comments on each others’ social media posts.
“We pretty much talk every week,” King said. “I ask him how his leg is and he asks me how my knee is. We’re both quarterbacks and we’ve both suffered season-ending injuries last year, although his was way worse than mine.”
When Milton claimed the AAC Conference Player of the Year honors last season, he quickly pointed out on social media that King deserved to share the award. The Cougars star scored set a league record with 50 total touchdowns last season, breaking the previous mark of 45 set by Milton in 2017.
King said Milton even extended a special offer to the leader of a Houston team that hopes to battle UCF for a conference title.
“He actually invited me to Hawaii this year,” King said. “I’ll try and get down there eventually, but I couldn’t make it this time.”
UCF coach Josh Heupel said Milton’s been a constant positive influence throughout the Knights’ football complex.
“He’s doing phenomenal in rehab. He looks really, really good right now. … It was great just to see him looking like himself and acting like himself,” Heupel said. “This is his season to become a coach for six months and then move back into the player role. We joke with him about that.”
King meanwhile is healthy and set to start camp with his third new coach of his college career, with Dana Holgorsen taking over at Houston.
“I had to back him off a little bit,” Holgorsen said. “He’s a guy that wants to pull the trigger. He’s a football player. He’s not a prima donna kind of guy. He’s made comments to me that sometimes he feels like he needs to run a guy over to juice the team up. I was like, ‘No, you don’t need to do that. You need to get a first down and get out of bounds.’”