McKenzie Milton, UCF and the connection that launched Dillon Gabriel’s college career

McKenzie Milton, UCF and the connection that launched Dillon Gabriel’s college career

As Oklahoma quarterback Dillon Gabriel prepares to face his former team Saturday, the friend and the family who gave him a home connection and nurtured his early college career remain close to his heart.

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

| Oct 20, 2023, 6:00am CDT

Eli Lederman

By Eli Lederman

Oct 20, 2023, 6:00am CDT

NORMAN — Eighteen years old and 4,475 miles away from home, Dillon Gabriel would glide down hospital hallways in Orlando on a mission. 

It was early in 2019, and only months prior, on Nov. 23, 2018, McKenzie Milton’s life had changed forever. 

Milton was the face of the most famous team in UCF’s Division I history by the 2018 regular season finale. The Knights were 10-0. Milton was on his way to a sixth-place finish in the Heisman Trophy vote. UCF sat ninth in the College Football Playoff rankings when it kicked off with South Florida at Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.

The Knights led 7-0 on a Milton touchdown pass early in the second quarter when he ran a play called Sling Push, kept the ball on the zone-read option and took a helmet straight to his right leg. 

The hit dislocated Milton’s right knee from the thigh bone and lower leg bone completely. It also produced a torn popliteal artery that hindered blood flow to Milton’s right leg. The catastrophic injury required nearly six hours of emergency surgery to avoid an amputation and left Milton with nerve damage.

Another four surgeries and a lengthy recovery process followed. 

Milton, the Knights’ star who won 23 straight games under Scott Frost and Josh Heupel from 2017-18, suddenly found himself spending the second half of his senior year laid up in a hospital bed. Some days in the recovery process were better than others. 

“He had some very serious bottoms,” said Milton’s mother, Teresa.

That’s when Gabriel’s regular hospital visits to his former Mililani High School teammate were sweetest. 

He’d typically show up with another friend from home in Hawaii, Ryan Kaneshiro. They’d usually show up late at night. Together, the trio of college friends would spend hours making jokes about the nurses and laughing until security arrived to tell them to quiet down.

“I just wanted to bring laughter. Love. Comfort in a time where you’re maybe uncomfortable,” Gabriel said.

Gabriel showed up for Milton in the spring of 2019. Later that year, when Gabriel became UCF’s starting quarterback two games into his freshman season, it was Milton — and his parents — who showed up for him.

As the Sooners’ passer prepares to face his former team Saturday when the Knights visit Owen Field (11 a.m., ABC), the quarterback and the family who gave Gabriel a home connection and nurtured his early college career remain close to his heart. 

“Those were tough moments, but also moments where we showed our brotherhood,” Gabriel said of Milton. “It’s weird how God put us in the right spot at the right time.”

Full circle 

Six weeks into his second season at Oklahoma, Gabriel has the Sooners unbeaten and ranked sixth in the AP Top 25. But his emergence on the national stage of major college football came on the campus of UCF, where Gabriel spent his first three seasons from 2019-21 before arriving in Norman.

He still ranks fifth in program history in career passing yards and touchdowns. Only three Knights quarterbacks have thrown for more yards in a season than Gabriel’s 3,653. The 650 yards Gabriel totaled against Memphis on Oct. 17, 2020, remain a school record.

Gabriel will take the field with UCF again this weekend. Only this time he’ll do so in another uniform with Heisman Trophy buzz and the Sooners’ College Football Playoff aspirations on his shoulders. 

“I think it’s interesting how college football brings it all full circle,” Gabriel said this week. “I’m excited for it. I’m excited for every opportunity. Grateful that I get to run out with these guys. It’ll be a great time.”

Part of the story that brought Gabriel to this moment revolves around Jeff Lebby. The Sooners’ offensive coordinator is also facing his former team Saturday; he recruited Gabriel to UCF in 2019, then brought him to OU out of the transfer portal in 2022.

If Lebby was Gabriel’s conduit to Norman, it was the pull of his deep connection with Milton that brought the Sooners’ quarterback to UCF and gave Gabriel his introduction formal to college football in 2019.

“I think if McKenzie’s not there (at UCF), we don’t get Dillon,” said Anthony Tucker, UCF’s passing game coordinator in 2019. “He’s going somewhere else to be amazing. But if McKenzie isn’t there I think you might not be writing this story.”

Dillon Gabriel with two friends on a bench smiling.

McKenzie Milton, left, Dillon Gabriel and Ryan Kaneshiro (right), three friends from Hawaii, reunited in Orlando during Gabriel’s three seasons with the Knights. (Provided by Teresa Milton)

‘That’s when I could see the bond’

Gabriel was a freshman at Mililani when Milton was a senior in 2015, closing out his high school career and setting the passing records Gabriel would later break. 

There was an age gap. But Milani, with its student population around 2,600, is a small enough high school for the junior varsity quarterback and varsity quarterback to know each other. 

Gabriel and Milton forged a fast connection. The young passer looked up to the upperclassman quarterback. Milton saw bits of himself in Gabriel, saw the way he could sling a football and let him tag along, sometimes too often.  

Kaneshiro’s family threw a birthday party at the Aulani Disney Hotel that year. Milton showed up to the hotel room with an additional guest. The families still laugh about it today.

“McKenzie shows up with this extra kid — it was Dillon,” Teresa Milton said. “‘Do his parents know he’s here? You just can’t bring somebody to a birthday party that’s not ours.’ That’s when I could see the bond.”

Milton left for UCF as an undersized quarterback from Mililani and turned into a two-time American Athletic Conference Player of the Year. In 2017, he led the Knights to a 13-0 finish and the national title UCF still claims.

Gabriel, meanwhile, became the varsity starter and turned into the next undersized quarterback from Mililani chasing college football. 

Army coach Jeff Monken was on staff at Hawaii when Gabriel’s father Garrett played there in the late 1980s. Prior to his senior year, Gabriel took his only offer at the time and committed to West Point. Then Gabriel torched Tua Tagovailoa’s state passing record in his final season and Power 5 interest blew up. He decommitted from Army on Nov. 11, 2018.

That’s about when Milton began prodding Heupel to give Gabriel a scholarship. Heupel compromised and brought Gabriel in for an official visit and offered a grayshirt that would have pushed Gabriel’s enrollment to 2020. The grayshirt turned into a full scholarship offer after Gabriel took official visits to Georgia and USC in early December.

Ultimately, the same hometown environment that enticed Milton to UCF pulled Gabriel there, too. He committed to the Knights on Dec. 19, 2018, 26 days after Milton’s leg injury. 

“He told his parents that he felt the environment at UCF was more like Hawaii and I think he wanted to be mentored by McKenzie,” said Teresa. “He just knew it would be a perfect fit for him.”

Dillon Gabriel (left), Ryan Kaneshiro and McKenzie Milton (right), spent hours together laughing together in 2019 during Milton’s recovery from a catastrophic knee injury. (Provided by Teresa Milton)

‘I knew what he needed’

To the uninitiated many, the jokes that kept Gabriel, Milton and Kaneshiro cackling around a hospital bed were unintelligible. Only occasionally irritated by the noise, all Teresa could do was smile.

“Dillon was good medicine for my son,” she said. “Of that, I’m positive. It was a really rough time. They just never stopped laughing.”

Those were the early flashes of the sense of humor Gabriel has that teammates from UCF and OU alike tell stories of. And those were Gabriel’s early days at UCF after he arrived as a mid-year enrollee in 2019. 

Gabriel skipped prom and graduation and jumped right into a spring camp quarterback battle. Milton was still recovering, unsure if he’d ever play again. His old starting job was up for grabs.

Among the veterans in the Knights’ quarterback room that spring were Darriel Mack Jr., a third-year passer, and Notre Dame transfer Brandon Wimbush. Gabriel stepped into the depth chart behind them. Mack started the spring game; Gabriel threw for 56 yards and added 30 on the ground. 

It was an under-the-radar spring, but Gabriel’s confidence was bubbling and he’d already begun to catch the attention of key teammates and decision-makers like Heupel and Lebby by the time it closed.

“You could tell Dillon was going to be a really great player,” said former UCF wide receiver Marlon Williams. “He was still really young when he came in but the talent was always there”.

Gabriel’s command sharpened over the summer and a two-man competition opened when Mack suffered a broken ankle in fall camp. Wimbush started the Aug. 29 opener against Florida A&M before Gabriel entered to complete nine of his 13 passes for 127 yards with three touchdown passes.

“I think it’s spectacular what he did,” Wimbush said afterward.

Gabriel was named the starter a week later at Florida Atlantic. Wimbush attempted only one more pass the rest of the season.

Home connections from Hawaii reached Florida for Dillon Gabriel and McKenzie Milton. They were together with their mothers Dori (left) and Teresa before UCF played Florida Atlantic in Sept. 2019. (Provided by Teresa Milton)

“When Dillon stepped in and he was the starter, there was nobody else,” said Tucker, who now coaches at Indiana. “He wasn’t going to let that go.”

Two games into his college career, four months shy of his 19th birthday, a 12-hour flight from home, Gabriel was a Division I starting quarterback. 

“You’re 18 (years old) taking your first snap,” Gabriel said. “There’s a lot going through your head.” 

Instead of learning on the practice field, he learned in front of many. Gabriel burned Stanford for 347 yards and four touchdowns in his second career start with Tiger Woods on the sideline and 45,008 in the stands. A week later, he got sacked six times in a 35-34 road loss at Pitt.

As life moved at warp-speed, Gabriel found a home away from home with the Miltons.

Mark and Teresa Milton rented a few different places during their son’s playing career. 

At the time of Milton’s 2018 injury, they had an apartment off the UCF campus in nearby Oviedo, Florida. In the fall of 2019, it’s where Milton based his recovery and where Gabriel often landed as he navigated life as a first-year starter.

Teresa had already looked after an undersized passer from Mililani and knew the script. When Gabriel visited, Teresa fed him home delights like Loco Moco and Hawaiian Fried Rice, and set him up with a recovery machine on the leather, living room recliner.

“I knew what he needed,” she said. “I can remember his bruises. He didn’t understand yet all he had to do to get ready for the next game.”

While Teresa kept plates full and ice on the ready in Oviedo, her son became a guiding light for Gabriel around the team facility.

‘External things’

Ten months after his injury, Milton was mobile and back spending time with the Knights. That meant he got to watch Gabriel settle in and attack opposing secondaries that fall. 

Twenty-five completions and 338 yards against Pitt. Two more 300-plus yard performances against East Carolina and Tulane. Eight three-touchdown games on the way to a 10-3 finish and a Gasparilla Bowl win over Marshall in the nation’s fifth-highest scoring offense.

“By the time we got to the latter parts of the season, Dillon was a legitimate, high-level Division I quarterback,” Tucker said.

Five falls later, Gabriel remembers that season as much for the offensive fireworks as the ways he had to grow into the status of being a starting quarterback. Gabriel calls them the “external things.”

There’s football. But then there’s being a quarterback,” Gabriel said. “Being a leader. Being a great teammate. Representing a university or something bigger than yourself. It all comes with the position.”

All of those external things? Gabriel picked them up from Milton in 2019. 

From Milton, Gabriel learned how to approach the day-to-day. He figured out how to prepare like a high-level college quarterback. He understood how to watch film. He studied Milton’s body language and how he handled setbacks. He saw what it meant to grow into a man. 

“Dillon was always around McKenzie like a little puppy,” said Williams, who caught 122 passes for 1,756 yards in two seasons with Gabriel. “They were really tight that year.”

In the team facility, Gabriel could spend all day around Milton. At night, if he needed it, he always had a place to for tastes of home and extra recovery treatment. 

That’s how Gabriel became a college quarterback.

“When you have people from home you feel comfortable,” Gabriel said. “Having McKenzie and his family was huge. But also just McKenzie in the building, too. He was a big brother to me.”

Paying it forward

The 2019 season would have been Milton’s fifth in college football. He would have returned under center as a Heisman Candidate leading a CFP dark-horse at UCF. 

Instead, he spent it sidelined, rehabbing his leg and mentoring a young quarterback from Mililani.

On Saturday, as Gabriel meets his old team in the driver’s seat of the Big 12 with the second-best Heisman odds in the country, the parallels are too plain to ignore. 

“He gave me so many things that I don’t take for granted now because I know how much growth there’s been and how beneficial it was for me,” Gabriel said of Milton, who now works as an offensive analyst on Heupel’s staff at Tennessee. 

As Gabriel lives out the sort of dream he only might have imagined back in his freshman fall, the impact of Milton’s guidance remains with him, particularly as he spends his days around Jackson Arnold, the Sooners’ quarterback of the future. 

He doesn’t take the responsibility lightly. 

“I try to be that leader — pay it forward because I had that,” Gabriel said. “Having a big brother like McKenzie — that’s probably one of the biggest reasons I was able to become comfortable and find who I was.” 

 

 

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Eli Lederman reports on the University of Oklahoma for Sellout Crowd. He began his professional career covering the University of Missouri with the Columbia Missourian and later worked at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette before two years writing on the Sooners and Cowboys at the Tulsa World. Born and raised in Mamaroneck, New York, Lederman grew up a rabid consumer of the New York sports pages and an avid fan of the New York Mets. He entered sportswriting at 14 years old and later graduated from the University of Missouri. Away from the keyboard, he can usually be found exploring the Oklahoma City food scene or watching/playing fútbol (read: soccer). He can be reached at [email protected].

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