Two years ago, Henry Josey took a pitch and darted left toward the sideline. It would be the last time he’d carry a football in a game for 659 days.
Last Saturday, Henry Josey galloped 57 yards for a touchdown that put Missouri into the Southeastern Conference championship game one year after the Tigers finished 5-7.
“It made me tear up, I’m not going to lie,” said Rex Sharp, Missouri’s head athletic trainer. “You can’t hardly script it any better.”
It took three surgeries and up to 16 hours a day working with Mizzou’s training staff for Josey to recover from multiple ligament and meniscus tears in his left knee — an injury so bad that doctors told MU coach Gary Pinkel it was more likely to occur in a “car wreck” than in football.
Not only has Josey made a comeback after missing the entire 2012 season, so have the Tigers, who play Auburn for the SEC title on Saturday in Atlanta.
“Being where I am now I don’t feel like there’s anything that can break me,” said Josey, who still doesn’t wear a knee brace.
“I feel like if God wanted to take it from me again, he’d take it from me. I don’t think a knee brace could save me from that.”
After Josey was carted off the field on Nov. 12, 2011, Will Ebner spent the next five nights at Missouri Orthopedic Institute, sleeping in a chair next to his roommate’s hospital bed.
Ebner only left to attend classes or practice, becoming something like a nurse for Josey.
“After the first day or two, I was able to do some of the minor things, like help put him in bed,” Ebner said. “I fed him with the spoon in my hand, brought him his meals and actually helped get him dried off when he showered — anything I could do to help him feel more comfortable.”
Josey, then a sophomore, had ranked fifth in the nation with 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns in 145 carries. But now he faced the prospect he may never walk without a limp again, much less play football.
During the third quarter of Missouri’s 17-5 win against Texas on that November day, Josey said “he planted wrong” trying to cut upfield and felt the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee tear.
He staggered and was bent over backwards a half-second later as Longhorns cornerback Carrington Byndom arrived to make a tackle.
Several more ligaments — the lateral and medial menisci and medial collateral ligament — ripped and his patellar tendon was torn in two.
The next day, Missouri team physician and orthopedic surgeon Pat Smith reattached or stitched together all those shredded ligaments and tendons, except for the ACL, in the first of three procedures needed to fix Josey’s left knee.
The rehab process started slowly, but Josey found support from Ebner.
In 2009, Missouri’s coaches had paired Ebner, then a sophomore, with Josey, a quiet high school senior, during a recruiting visit. They’re both from “The Water,” an recruiting hotbed near Houston named for its location along the Gulf Coast.
“He was really hard to crack,” said Ebner, who’s from Friendswood, about 30 miles from Josey’s hometown of Angleton. “He wouldn’t talk much, wouldn’t say anything, but eventually we hit it off and opened up to each other a little bit that weekend.”
When Josey picked MU, they became friends and then roommates in May 2011. When Josey was discharged from the hospital, Ebner slept on the couch, giving Josey his bed in the master bedroom, which was closer to the bathroom. Ebner also brought Josey’s schoolwork to him. Ebner’s mom, Elaine, helped out too.
“Henry asked if I’d come up, and I was on the next flight out at 6 a.m. the next morning,” she said. “I was humbled that he asked.”
The first days of Josey’s rehab were about pain management, then restoring range of motion. But that was difficult given the severity of Josey’s injury.
“There had been enough scar tissue built up that we were having a very difficult having the knee bend like we needed to ” Sharp said. “Until you do, you really can’t do any strengthening work, so I was a little frustrated.”
Sharp and Smith decided a second surgery was needed, an arthroscopic procedure to break up the scar tissue.
Ebner believes the setback of needing another surgery four months after the injury was the hardest for Josey.
“He was kind of in the dumps, because he was in so much pain and it was such a long process,” Ebner said. “I think it just wore him out mentally, but it was always in the back of his mind that he was going to get back on the field, regardless of how low he got.”
Josey’s doctors weren’t as confident.
“There were some days that were pretty dark for a lot of us,” Sharp said. “I know it was for me, and I’ve dealt with injuries for 30 years. I care so much about these kids, and him in particular.
“Football was the farthest thing from my mind when he got hurt that day and after that initial surgery. My goal was just to get him to be able to walk and run football, if that came along, great, but that would be a bonus.”
As daunting as the second surgery was to Josey, it proved to be a turning point in his recovery. The menisci, MCL and patellar tendon had healed and Josey’s rehab accelerated after the scar tissue was removed.
One hurdle remained: the ACL repair, which took place in May 2012, six months after Josey was hurt.
“From that point on is when I knew we had a chance, a real good chance that he would play again,” Sharp said. “We’ve repaired a bunch of ACL injuries and had extremely good results and success with our rehab protocol.”
For Gary Pinkel, watching Josey take the field for spring football earlier this year was the hardest moment.
“The first time we had a scrimmage,” Pinkel said, “the first time he had pads on and all those little steps that he went through, I was emotionally going through it with him.”
For Sharp, preseason camp was the most difficult time. That’s when Josey started absorbing contact again.
For Ebner and his mom, the most daunting prospect was Josey’s first game, Aug. 31 against Murray State.
“That first game was nerve-racking,” Elaine said, “but you could see he was such a fan favorite and everybody wanted him to do well after two years of grueling rehab.”
Josey got his feet wet in the first half and started to get his mind right, too.
“There’s a mental part of me that was broken when I got hurt,” Josey said.
Such fears started to melt away when he ripped off a 68-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
“When he busted that long run, I had goose bumps like I’ve never had before,” Ebner said. “You could feel the crowd, the coaches, the team — everybody went crazy like it was the winning run of the national championship. That was a statement that Henry Josey was back.”
For this first time in his 23-year coaching career, Pinkel presented a game ball. He gave it to Josey, who has gone on to rush for 951 yards and 13 touchdowns this season.
“When Coach Pinkel walked into the locker room with the ball, I knew right away what he was going to do,” Ebner said. “Then, the team and everybody just went nuts after he gave him the game ball. It’s a moment unlike anything else. There was nothing like it.”
Of course, the Murray State touchdown was trumped by the scoring romp Josey made Saturday in Missouri’s SEC East-clinching victory against Texas A
“He’s kind of a microcosm of our team, the way he’s been down and he’s fought back and battled back,” first-year offensive coordinator Josh Henson said. “This is a special group of kids. They’ve got a strong belief.”
Fans seem to understand. When Josey broke free, they reached a fever pitch that didn’t end until well after the clock read 0:00 and fans stormed the field, basking in victory as Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” rang out through the Memorial Stadium speakers.
“It was fitting,” Pinkel said. “It was fitting of Henry Josey and the kind of year he’s had and what he’s about. He’s sacred to Mizzou fans.”
He’s sacred to his teammates, current and former, too.
“Henry doesn’t know it, but he has a huge impact on his teammates as far as leadership,” said Ebner, who graduated this spring. “He inspires them every day just by walking in the locker room, and they all just rally together. To see where he was at his lowest lows and to see where he is now, it’s a miracle.”
Of course, he drew strength from those same people to make it through his rehab. It was fans and coaches and teammates who helped him rediscover the easy, wide smile he is most known for away from the field, where Josey also drew inspiration from his 2-year-old son, Henry Jr.
“While he was going through two years of that grueling rehab, you knew that smile was always underneath there, underneath the pain that he was experiencing,” Elaine said. “He was doing what he needed to do to come back. Frankly, I just think his faith carried him through — his faith, and the support of the whole Missouri nation.”