COLUMBIA — Gary Pinkel brought his diminutive running back to the middle of the locker room Saturday night as his teammates gathered close.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
Missouri had just completed a 58-14 victory over Murray State, and the joy and electricity that filled the room was largely because of that. The 61-year old Pinkel has been around long enough to know that wins never get old, and you never take them for granted.
But at that moment, considering everything Henry Josey has been through the last 22 months, he also knew that this was no ordinary victory, and he was going to make sure everyone knew it.
"I've been coaching 35 years, and it's a team game, it's all team, we all know that," Pinkel began, stretching a football high in the air with his right hand. "But we have a teammate here who battled his self back. Nobody knows, except you guys, what he went through to do this. He had a lot of people helping….he's a hell a guy, I'm just so proud to give this to your teammate, Henry Josey!"
With that, the room exploded with a loud "heeeeey!" as teammates swarmed a grinning Josey, the football tucked under his arm. Pinkel said it was the first game ball he has ever given out — a special moment for a special person. Here Josey was, rushing for a team-high 113 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries against the Racers, when 22 months ago, in a game against Texas, he'd shredded his knee so badly many wondered whether he'd ever play again.
"His courage, his determination, his guts and heart and will to come back when so many people said he probably couldn't do it, it was great to see him do those things," Pinkel said.
The fact the injury happened toward the end of Josey's breakout sophomore campaign was particularly devastating. He'd rushed for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns and seemed to establish himself as a potential NFL prospect, only to see it potentially stolen away on a running play down the sideline in which he took an awkward fall and somehow tore his left anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and patellar tendon.
When something like that happens, Josey said, fighting the doubt that lingers mentally is almost as tough as fighting your way back physically.
"There’s a little nerves about getting out there and wondering if you can actually do it again," Josey said. "But I kept having fun the whole game. That made everything go smoother."
On a night full of highs for Josey — who received a warm round of applause during his pregame introduction and after his first carry — perhaps nothing was as satisfying as the moment he finally showed everyone, perhaps even himself, that the injury didn't rob him of his juice.
It was the third quarter, and Missouri led comfortably 44-14. On first-and-ten, Josey took a handoff from quarterback Maty Mauk and raced 68 yards down the sideline for a touchdown that put the Tigers ahead by 37. Josey even eluded a pair of defenders near the same spot he got injured.
"No, I didn't think about it at all — I was running for my life," Josey said with a grin. "I knew I had a guy coming, and one behind me. I just had to get the angle."
Pinkel, for one, knew there was no way Josey was going down when he broke into the second level.
"When he scored that touchdown, I said there's no one that would catch him, and they didn't," Pinkel said. "And the whole football team went down there" to celebrate. "Everybody. So you don't think this guy is important to my team? It's a really cool thing to see. It was neat because they embraced him in there and honored him for all he's done."
Indeed. After Josey reached the end zone, he pointed to the heavens — he said he was simply thanking God — and was swarmed by teammates congratulating him.
"I was a little upset, because I told him I wanted him to score when I was in there, just like sophomore year," senior quarterback James Franklin said with a laugh. "But I was really excited for him, seeing him run down the sideline. That was really cool."
It was clear how much the moment — not to mention the reaction he got when he received the game ball — meant to Josey, too.
"I love all those guys, I love Coach Pinkel to death," Josey said. "It just shows how much support I have. It just shows how close of a family we are."
If the smile on his face and the words he spoke didn't hammer that point home, the game ball he'd just gotten - which was safely tucked under his arm while he patiently answered reporters' questions after the game — did.