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Clemson’s Justyn Ross named ACC Piccolo Award winner

Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross (8) celebrates his touchdown catch in front of Notre Dame...
Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross (8) celebrates his touchdown catch in front of Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott (21) in the first half of the NCAA Cotton Bowl semi-final playoff football game, Saturday, Dec. 29, 2018, in Arlington, Texas. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)
Published: Nov. 30, 2021 at 12:54 PM EST
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GREENSBORO, N.C. (theACC.com) – Florida State senior quarterback McKenzie Milton and Clemson junior wide receiver Justyn Ross have been named joint recipients of the Atlantic Coast Conference’s 2021 Brian Piccolo Award, the league announced on Monday.

The Piccolo Award has been given annually since 1970 in memory of the late Brian Piccolo to the “most courageous” football player in the ACC. As a standout running back at Wake Forest, Piccolo was the ACC Athlete of the Year in 1965 and played for the Chicago Bears before his career was cut short when he was diagnosed with cancer. His courageous fight against the disease was an inspiration to the Bears and the entire football community.

Milton, who hails from Kapolei, Hawai’i, joined Florida State this season as a graduate transfer from UCF, where he suffered a catastrophic knee injury in the 2018 regular-season finale. A two-time Heisman Trophy candidate, Milton suffered artery and nerve damage to his leg, a dislocated knee and multiple torn ligaments and tendons. He nearly had his right leg amputated after the helmet-to-knee hit caused a lack of blood flow to his leg.

Doctors removed a vein from his left leg to help create a new artery for his right leg to restore blood flow and successfully save this leg. The main goal from the surgeons who operated on him was for him to hopefully one day walk without a limp and without pain. After eight surgical procedures, he persevered through more than 1,000 days of rehabilitation, and in December 2020, transferred to Florida State.

Milton appeared in six games for the Seminoles this season, completing 81 of 139 passes (58.3%) for 775 yards and three touchdowns.

“I am incredibly happy for McKenzie to be recognized with the Piccolo Award,” said Florida State head coach Mike Norvell. “He has displayed a tremendous amount of resilience, drive and competitive spirit throughout his long process of returning to play football. McKenzie made an unbelievable investment to reach his goal even when the odds were firmly against him.

“He is a great teammate, and his character and leadership have made a profound impact on our program. We are so proud McKenzie is part of our Seminole Family.”

Clemson’s Ross caught 112 passes for nearly 1,900 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first two collegiate seasons, but he was diagnosed in March 2020 with a congenital fusion condition of his neck and spine, plus a disc protrusion that ultimately required surgery. The Phenix City, Alabama, native missed the entire 2020 season and began rehab amidst doubts he would ever play football again.

Ross battled his way back to again become an integral part of the Tigers’ offensive attack this season. Despite a foot injury that sidelined him for the final two regular-season games, Ross leads the team with 46 receptions for 514 yards and three touchdowns and regained his status as a probable early-round NFL Draft pick.

“Justyn Ross is the epitome of the Brian Piccolo Award,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. “This is a great, great player who went from being told he was never going to play football again, to maybe there is a 50 percent chance and facing a 17-19 month grueling process. To see him come back and play 10 games and do the things that he did, I am so grateful.

“One of the worst days I’ve experienced as a coach was being there when the doctors told him what was going on and telling him that he may never play again. And one of the best days I’ve had as a coach was seeing him take the field again for the Tigers and seeing him get that first diving catch. I’m really proud of him and thankful that I had a chance to be part of his journey.”

Milton becomes the seventh Florida State student-athlete to be honored with the Brian Piccolo Award and the first since running back Chris Thompson in 2012. Ross becomes the fifth recipient from Clemson and the first since defensive tackle Warren Forney in 1995.