Even now, more than two months after his starring role in one of the most incredible endings in college football history, it's difficult for Jalen Watts-Jackson to describe the gamut of emotions.
He thinks about it for a few seconds. He starts to speak, mutters something, and then says very clearly, "Bittersweet."
Watts-Jackson just started walking again on his own last week. He has ditched the walker and the crutches. But he's still months away from being able to play football again after dislocating and fracturing his left hip on Oct. 17 in the Spartans' stunning 27-23 win over Michigan. His 38-yard fumble return for a touchdown on the final play of the game after Michigan punter Blake O'Neill mishandled the snap turned a sure loss into the kind of win they will be talking about for ages in East Lansing, particularly if Michigan State goes on to win the national championship.
The Spartans are in the College Football Playoff, in large part, because of that play, but all Watts-Jackson will be able to do against Alabama at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic on New Year's Eve is watch from the sideline. So, yes, it will be a bittersweet moment for him. But that doesn't mean he regrets a thing.
"I'd do it all over again, just as long as I knew it would get us to the playoff and keep our goals alive," said Watts-Jackson, a redshirt freshman from Dearborn, Michigan. "For this group of seniors and what they've meant to the team, I'd go through the pain again, the surgery, the rehab, the disappointment of not getting to play. I'd go through all of it.
"We're a family. That's what the Michigan State program is built on. Coach D [Mark Dantonio] talks about it all the time, and it's not just talk here. We play for each other, and we sacrifice for each other."
As crazy as it sounds, Watts-Jackson doesn't remember a lot about the immediate aftermath of the play. He lay in the north end zone of Michigan Stadium writhing in pain as delirious teammates piled on top of him.
"I was in shock. I really was," Watts-Jackson said. "I'd never felt pain like that. Some of it might have been the adrenalin from the play. It happened so fast. I couldn't even acknowledge the people who were telling me that I'd just won the game. LJ Scott walked up and said, 'Bro, you just won the game. You shocked everybody.' I was like, 'I'm in shock,' and I do remember that he just started laughing."
The injury definitely occurred on the tackle, Watts-Jackson said, and he could feel his hip pop out instantly as his leg was driven into the ground by Michigan's Jake Butt, who came racing in from behind to try to save the game for the Wolverines.
"The force of it pushed my hip out of place, and it fractured," Watts-Jackson said.
There's no way to know if the fracture was made worse by all of his teammates diving on top of him. Frozen by the pain, Watts-Jackson swung his arms wildly as a couple of them tried to lift him up off the turf.
"They didn't know I was hurt," he said. "I would have done the same thing, the way that game ended and with it being Michigan. When the pile started happening, I was saying, 'My hip, my hip! Get off me,' but nobody could hear anything. It was way too loud for anybody to hear anything."
Once in the ambulance, and once his hip was successfully reset, Watts-Jackson began to realize the gravity of what had just happened. Michigan State's orthopedist, Dr. Mike Shingles, looked down at Watts-Jackson on the bumpy ambulance ride to the hospital and said, "I know you're hurting, but you just won the game."
That's when it all began to register with Watts-Jackson. Shingles tried to find the replay on his phone to show Watts-Jackson, but the signal wasn't strong enough.
"Everything was happening so fast on the field. It was so crazy with the noise and just dealing with the pain," Watts-Jackson said. "But that's when it really set in, there in the ambulance, what we'd just done."
He's careful to say "we" because there's no way in his mind that he would have ever reached the end zone without the help of his teammates. And while those minutes right after the play might be a bit foggy for Watts-Jackson, he remembers everything about the play itself, in particular the way Jermaine Edmondson cleared the way those last few yards.
"There were so many people around me, and I really didn't know who was coming in behind me," Watts-Jackson recalled. "I honestly didn't know what the chances were of me scoring when I got the ball. But I knew I had to score when I looked up at the clock and saw there were just six seconds left. I knew if I got tackled, the game was over.
"Jermaine did a great job. At first, he was running toward me, but he turned at the perfect time because the guy from Michigan [Wayne Lyons] was running toward me, too. Jermaine turned and picked up the block, and I cut inside. All I could see was the yellow 'M' in the end zone. I was like, 'Just make it to the end zone.'"
Watts-Jackson's cellphone literally froze in the days after because he received so many text messages. The cards and well-wishes flowed in just as rapidly as he began the long road back to recovery. He won't be able to participate in spring practice, but hopes to be ready by the start of preseason camp in August.
"I read everything everybody sent me and want to thank everybody for lifting me up the way they did," he said. "My teammates have been great. Some of them still call me 'Legend' and tell me we wouldn't be going to the playoff if it wasn't for me.
"It hurts not to be out there with your brothers continuing this ride. But I'm not the only one. We had so many injuries this season and faced a lot of adversity. I just feel like it will all be better at the end when we win and that it all paid off."