This is the latest in a series of stories highlighting the top 30 Mizzou athletes Dave Matter has covered in his time writing about the Tigers since the late 1990s. The series will run every day Monday through Friday.
Everybody loves a good comeback story, and when it comes to Mizzou sports history, name one better than what Henry Josey pulled off in 2013.
Got a better one?
We have plenty of time on our hands with this whole isolation thing.
Time’s up. Answer: There is no better comeback story. The only thing close is colon cancer taking out Norm Stewart in 1989, only for Norm to storm back a season later to win the Big Eight.
Josey, once rated just the 164th-best football recruit in the state of Texas, broke through in 2011 when he (finally) became Mizzou’s primary running back and logged six 100-yard games in a seven-week stretch. From a 94-yard game at Arizona State to his 132-yard game against Baylor, Josey put together one of the most impressive runs of any Mizzou offensive skill player — ever. In those eight games, seven against Power 5 teams, he averaged 8.6 yards per carry. During his injury-shortened year, Josey ran the ball 145 times, with 54 of those runs moving the first-down marker. More than 37 percent of his carries moved the sticks. Of his runs, 43 covered 10 yards or more. For the season, Josey averaged 8.1 yards per carry.
In the last nine years of college football, you know how many Power 5 running backs carried the ball at least 100 times and averaged 8 yards per carry? All of five.
Josey, 2011: 8.1
Maryland’s Ty Johnson, 2016: 9.1
Stanford’s Bryce Love, 2017: 8.5
Illinois’ Reggie Corbin, 2018: 8.5
Clemson’s Travis Etienne, 2018: 8.1
That’s the list.
Of course, what makes Josey’s story so compelling is the injury. When Josey went down along the sideline against Texas on Nov. 12, 2011, Mizzou surgeon Pat Smith described the injury as something you see in a violent car accident. It was the most severe knee injury Smith had ever seen in more than three decades on the job. If Josey’s knee was an automobile it would have been totaled. Torn anterior cruciate ligament, torn medial collateral ligament, torn lateral and medial menisci and, the worst, a ruptured patellar tendon.
Smith operated in stages, first repairing the tendon, then the meniscus, finally the MCL — all in a six-hour procedure. Josey’s lateral meniscus was completely separated. That fix, Smith later said, was “a Hail Mary.” He’d open up the knee months later to repair the ACL.
All along, Smith and the team of doctors and trainers on the case never once suggested to Josey that his playing career was over. Faith and hope were every bit as important as Smith’s tools in the operating room.
“We never said to Henry Josey, ‘You’ll never play again,’” said Smith. “I’m a positive person, and I always feel I can fix most things.”
Josey sat out the entire 2012 season, Mizzou’s debut year in the SEC, a mostly dismal season plagued by more injuries. Maybe the best thing to happen on Faurot Field came midway through the season along the sideline during a fall practice. Josey ran for the first time since that horrific injury. Trainers were monitoring him closely during the rehab session. But he ran — stronger and faster than anyone could have imagined.
Tigers coach Gary Pinkel caught Josey out of the corner of his eye and caught himself wiping away tears.
The best was yet to come.
If you were at Memorial Stadium on Aug. 31, 2013 and you believe in miracles, then you witnessed one that night. It was easily the most memorable moment of any game I’ve covered where the score and the opponent were completely meaningless. (For the record, the Tigers were playing Murray State and clobbered the visiting Racers 58-17.) It had been 22 months since Josey’s last game. He broke 100 yards on the night thanks to a 68-yard dash down the sideline. He zoomed past the exact spot where he collapsed two years earlier against Texas.
After the game, I tracked down former MU linebacker Will Ebner, one of Josey’s best friends, the guy who stayed overnight in Josey’s hospital room so he’d wake up to a friendly face after surgery. Ebner’s playing career was over, but that night seemed to mean as much to him than any game that came before.
“It looked like he stomped right on that spot (on the sideline), like he was reclaiming it,” Ebner said outside Memorial Stadium that night. “It was really moving.”
Josey was just getting started. He’d never have another 20-carry game but he eclipsed 1,000 yards for the season (1,166) and remained a big-play threat out of the backfield, averaging 6.7 yards per carry. Only one SEC running back averaged more than 10 carries per game with a better yards-per-carry average, LSU’s Jeremy Hill.
Josey thrived in Mizzou’s spread attack, becoming the rushing complement to a high-powered passing game. The Tigers won the SEC East and tied a school record with 12 victories behind an offense that averaged a school-record 490 yards per game.
Josey provided two of the biggest plays of the season: Go-ahead touchdown runs against Texas A&M to clinch the SEC East and against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl, his final carry in a college uniform.
Josey could have returned to Mizzou for his senior year, challenged Brad Smith’s career rushing record — he finished 1,518 yards behind the all-time leader — and stated his case as the best running back in school history. Instead, he surprised Pinkel and Mizzou’s staff when he entered the 2014 NFL draft. At the time his draft grade was fourth round or lower.
Ultimately, Josey’s knee injury convinced him he couldn’t risk another setback before he could capitalize financially at the next level. (In Pinkel’s 2017 book that I co-authored, Pinkel said he was disappointed Josey didn’t consult him before announcing his plans to enter the draft. He thought he should have stayed in school for another year, but after talking to him following the January announcement Pinkel understood and supported Josey.)
“I was thinking about all the relationships I had at Mizzou and all the support I have there,” Josey said at the time. “Why not come back and do it all again? And I thought about my injury. In the end I wanted to do what makes me happy.”
“I know people are looking at me as a damaged player,” he said. “They’ll look at me and say, ‘He’s been hurt before.’ Being in that (draft range) was kind of a surprise to me, but I know I can improve. I’m not too worried about it. At the end of the day, it’s just a guess.”
After Mizzou …
The guess was wrong, but not in a good way. Josey went undrafted. He signed with Philadelphia and had a standout preseason but didn’t survive the final cut before the regular season. He’d join a few more NFL practice squads but never stuck in the league. He played some in Canada but never made it back to the NFL.
Josey, now 28, lives in Houston and works at the Dow Chemical Company as a site supervisor. I asked Josey this week about his favorite memories at Mizzou. He mentioned the 2010 homecoming win over Oklahoma, scoring the game-winning touchdown against Texas A&M, and, of course, his first game back in 2013 and “sharing those comeback moments with my teammates.”
On that magical night in 2013, Pinkel gave Josey the game ball in the locker room. Pinkel said it was the first time he ever gave a player a post-game game ball. “Nobody knows what he went through except you guys,” Pinkel said that night. “He had a lot of people help him and he’s a hell of a guy. I’m just so proud to give this to … Henry Josey!”
What did Josey learn most from his time at Mizzou: “Family, accountability, consistency, preparation … made us all successful for the long run even after football."
Coming Thursday: The Renaissance Man with the sweet lefty stroke.
No. 26: Justin Gage
No. 27: Derrick Peterson
No. 28: Martin Rucker
No. 29: Molly Kreklow
No. 30: Arthur Johnson