Nearly two days had passed since Stanford's field goal wobbled wide left, Oklahoma State's sailed true and the Cowboys celebrated a season — and a Fiesta Bowl — like no other, but Colton Chelf was still having trouble wrapping his head around all of it.
“It still doesn't really feel real,” he said midday Wednesday.
Rest assured, Colton, it was.
And what's more, the reserve receiver was a very real part of it. This was a game with plenty of orange-clad stars, but none was more surprising than Chelf.
None was more deserving.
The former walk-on had career highs in catches and yards receiving, including a huge play in overtime that set up the Cowboys' game-winning kick. On a night when plenty of subplots got lost in the craziness of the game, Chelf's story is worth rewinding.
This tale started not in the Arizona desert on Monday night but in Miami, OK. That's where Chelf went after graduating from Enid High. There were no big-time offers for the 5-foot-9, 155-pound receiver, so he went the junior-college route to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.
After two solid seasons, he walked on at OSU without the promise of a scholarship.
For two seasons, he played without one. He practiced and conditioned and studied and lifted just like everyone else. He added nearly 25 pounds to his frame. He even started five games a year ago. But he did it on his own dime.
Welcome to the life of a walk-on.
Then before the start of this season, he finally earned that scholarship.
He had some nice games during the regular season — three catches for 70 yards against Kansas, for example — but nothing came close to the Fiesta Bowl. In no other game did he have so many meaningful snaps.
Part of it was necessity. Cowboy starting receiver Tracy Moore was limited due to a disciplinary action, and Chelf helped pick up the slack.
Part of it, too, was opportunity. In scouting the Stanford defense, the Cowboys realized that the Cardinal was likely to leave the middle of the field open when it double covered Justin Blackmon.
“They were going to play man-to-man,” Chelf said, “and if you could beat your man, then the middle was going to be open.”
The scout was spot on.
Cowboy quarterback Brandon Weeden connected with Chelf three times before halftime, and all of them were for big yards. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight. Eleven.
But the biggest play was still to come.
After Stanford missed a field-goal attempt in overtime, OSU faced a second and 10 from the 25-yard line. Chelf lined up on the right side with Blackmon, but as Blackmon beelined for the end zone, Chelf crossed toward the middle of the field.
“We actually ran that play earlier, and it was one I caught for a pretty good gain down the middle,” Chelf said. “When Weeden signaled me the play, I thought, ‘There's a possibility I could get a big play here.'
“I knew it could possibly be a touchdown.”
Chelf caught the ball around the 13-yard line. He was behind the Stanford secondary and had a step on the Cardinal's safety, who reached for Chelf and brought him down at the goal line. But the officials signaled a touchdown.
Chelf popped up and ripped off his helmet in celebration.
His teammates were on him in an instant. Everyone on the field. Everyone from the bench. Everyone sprinted to Chelf in the end zone, smacking him on the helmet, pounding him on the shoulder pads.
Somehow in the madness, younger brother and Cowboy quarterback Clint found him.
“I don't know how he did because there were so many people down there,” Chelf said. “It was really special that he got in there.”
Roll all of it together, and it was the storybook ending.
And then, it wasn't.
An official review revealed that Chelf's knee was down just before the football crossed the goal line. No touchdown. Ball at the half-yard line.
You know the rest. Weeden kneel down. Sharp field goal. Cowboy win.
“I mean, I wish I would've got in the end zone for sure,” Chelf said, “but we won so it doesn't matter.”
The phone calls and text messages have poured in since then. Chelf has heard from so many friends who just wanted to let him know how well he played and how proud they are of him. He marvels at all of it.
He finished the game with five catches for 97 yards.
He'd only had 16 for 194 this season before that.
This Fiesta Bowl was a night to remember for the entire Cowboy Nation, but no one will remember it any more fondly than Chelf. Every determined and diligent walk-on deserves a night like that.
“It's been a long journey,” Chelf said, “and I wouldn't change any of it.”
Including the last chapter.
“It was the perfect ending.”