MSU's Jalen Watts-Jackson recounts momentous TD
East Lansing — It’s still hard for Jalen Watts-Jackson to process exactly what he’s been through over the past four days.
It’s not something he ever expected, but the result has cemented his place in the history of the Michigan State football program, and more specifically, the rivalry with Michigan.
It was Saturday night and 10 seconds were left in the game at Michigan Stadium. Michigan State trailed 23-21 when the Wolverines lined up for a punt. The loss seemed inevitable for the Spartans.
But with an 11-man block called from the “Rangers” unit, bedlam broke out the second Michigan punter Blake O’Neill fumbled the snap. He was hit by Grayson Miller and Matt Morrissey and the ball flew into the hands of Watts-Jackson. He raced 38 yard from there, scoring the winning touchdown as time expired and dislocating his hip in the process.
He is now the definition of Big Man on Campus.
“My teammates have been making jokes and stuff saying, ‘Bro, you’re about to get a statue made of you. You’re going to get your name put up in the stadium,’ ” Watts-Jackson said Wednesday in his first appearance since undergoing surgery on his left leg Sunday. “Really they’re just making fun of the situation.
“But still it’s crazy that 10 seconds that take you from just being on a team or people acknowledging that you guys won the game to people tweeting you and text messaging you, Facebooking, saying, ‘You’re a legend, you’re a hero.’ Like I saw on ESPN Le’Veon’s reaction, and I just was laughing. It was crazy.”
Former Michigan State running back Le’Veon Bell, now with the Pittsburgh Steelers, epitomized the reaction of most Michigan State fans. He posted a video of himself screaming after the Spartans’ last-second victory.
But for Watts-Jackson and his family, the celebration hardly lasted. In fact, it never really began. He knew instantly he was in trouble.
“As soon as I hit the ground I could feel it,” Watts-Jackson said, reiterating the injury occurred on the tackle, not the celebration. “I was yelling like, ‘Get them off of me. Get them off of me.’ It felt like I was under there for an hour. But after watching, I guess I wasn’t under there that long, there were just a lot of people on top of me.
“Definitely being under the pile of all those people, being about 190 pounds, it’s not that fun of an experience.”
For his mother, Terra Walker, it was the beginning of an emotional few days. She was at home in Detroit watching the game and didn’t realize at first her son was hurt.
“My daughter started screaming, ‘Ma, that’s J,’ ” Walker recalled. “So we started dancing around and celebrating. And then I got the call.”
That call told her that her son was hurt and on his way to the University of Michigan Hospital. Mom was quickly on her way, joining Jalen Watts-Jackson’s father, Rick Jackson, who was at the game.
It was at the hospital on Sunday that Watts-Jackson started to understand the magnitude of what he had done the night before.
“I would say it first really hit me — besides when I got my phone, because I didn’t have my phone all weekend — so besides when I got my phone, it first hit me after I got surgery,” Watts-Jackson said. “My family came and I was just in my room, the hospital room by myself, looking at ESPN. And they just kept playing it back and kept playing it back. I’m like, ‘Wow, like that really happened.’”
Watts-Jackson remembers the play vividly. The plan was for him to block the man of teammate T.J. Harrell in order to free Harrell to go after the punter.
What actually happened after the snap was a blur to Watts-Jackson. Miller and Morrissey closed in and created the turnover and the ball was in the hands of Watts-Jackson.
“Everything it led up to me grabbing the ball, I had no idea what was going on, because the guy I was blocking was like 6-foot-6 and I couldn’t even see through him,” Watts-Jackson said. “Once I finally got past him I just saw the ball and I grabbed it. I looked up at the clock to see how much time we had left. At that point I knew I couldn’t be tackled or didn’t have time to kick a field goal or whatnot, and I started running.
“Jermaine (Edmondson) was actually running towards me, and like my mouth guard, I was biting on my mouth guard so hard I couldn’t even tell him to turn around, but he turned around and started blocking. I dipped my head and I was actually going to dive into the end zone before I got tackled because I didn’t know if I was going to make it or not and who was behind me. After that it was pretty much pure pain.”
Pain and jubilation.
The pain will linger. Watts-Jackson said he will have to stay off the hip for three months and likely won’t be running again for at least another six. But he hopes to beat the odds and be back sooner.
He was quick to thank the staff at U-M Hospital, including Dr. Mark Hake and Dr. James Goulet. He was especially grateful for his nurse, Kristina.
“She was actually a pretty cool lady,” Watts-Jackson said. “She was a fan, a U of M fan. I guess she really put it aside because she kept good conversation. I remember one time we were talking 15 minutes just about random stuff.”
He’s still uncomfortable with the term hero or legend, especially considering the physical pain he endured. But Watts-Jackson is still glad he was there when the ball came loose.
“If I had to do it all over again,” he said. “I definitely would.”