ST. LOUIS — Gary Pinkel chose his words carefully.
The Missouri football coach has never been one to heap too much praise on a player, especially a young, unproven and impressionable young man who still has so much to learn. But the media wanted to know about the breakout star and needed a satisfactory response.
"He’s got some speed," the coach said. "He’s got some quickness. He can accelerate. He’ll get better. We need him to run a little tougher. He’ll learn that at this level that you have to do that and he’ll get nothing but better and better."
So much time has passed since Henry Josey’s breakthrough performance, which came way back on Sept. 11, 2010, when the redshirt freshman running back scored three touchdowns and tallied 112 yards against McNeese State in his second game in a Mizzou uniform.
When Pinkel uttered those words, he never could have imagined what would come next over three years. No, never in a million years.
The sensational sophomore season cut short by a devastating knee injury that left many wondering whether the former high school sprinter who clocked a 4.38 40-yard dash would ever run again.
The agonizing rehab process that claimed his entire 2012 season.
Then the comeback that has been one of the more remarkable stories in college sports this year. The comeback that earned Josey a permanent place in the hearts of the black-and-gold faithful.
The comeback that helped propel the No. 9 Tigers on this hard-to-believe journey during a 2013 season that concluded with an improbable 41-31 come-from-behind win over No. 13 Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl late Saturday night at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Josey, the small-town kid who grew up a couple hundred miles south in Angleton, Texas, ran for a game-high 92 yards and scored three touchdowns, the last of which, a 16-yarder with 3:08 remaining, helped the Tigers overcome their first deficit and take the lead for the final time, a lead their defense would make sure not to relinquish.
The redshirt junior running back was selected as the game’s Offensive Most Valuable Player as Missouri finished its bounce back season with a 12-2 record and a lifetime of memories.
It may be the last time Josey suits up for the Tigers. He told reporters afterward that he has yet to make a decision about whether or not he will leave school early to enter the NFL Draft.
After everything he has been through, who could blame him? Josey has accomplished just about everything he can at Missouri.
He’s only the second running back in school history with multiple 1,000-yard seasons, following Tony Temple, who was the Offensive Most Valuable Player of the Cotton Bowl in 2008 after rushing for 281 yards and scoring four touchdowns in a win over Arkansas.
Josey rushed for 1,168 yards and scored nine touchdowns in 10 games during his injury-shortened sophomore season. This year, in 14 games, he racked up 1,166 yards and 17 total touchdowns.
His 2,771 career rushing yards rank fifth in school history, behind only Brad Smith, Zack Abron, Brock Olivo and Devin West. But Josey will be fondly remembered forever for what he has meant to Missouri this season and, just maybe, what could have been.
It was his go-ahead 57-yard touchdown run with 3:34 remaining against Texas A&M that secured the 28-21 win in the final regular season game, wrapped up the Southeastern Conference East division championship and clinched a spot in the SEC title game.
And it was in that game against Auburn in Atlanta when Josey was pushed out of bounds at the end of a 65-yard run late in the third quarter and slid into a motorized cart on the sidelines, slamming into the edge of the vehicle back first.
Josey, who finished with a team-high 123 yards rushing on nine carries, returned to the game later but wasn’t the same and neither was Mizzou, which couldn’t keep pace in the fourth quarter and lost 59-42.
When Michigan State upset Ohio State later in the day, helping push Auburn into the BCS Championship Game, many Mizzou fans were left to wonder what might have been if the stars had aligned.
The Cotton Bowl was a nice consolation prize for Josey and his 31 teammates who played their high school football in the Lone Star State. Of course Josey, playing his first game in Texas since a loss to Baylor on Nov. 5, 2011, was going to make his mark.
He opened the scoring with a 3-yard touchdown run late in the first quarter and then scored twice in the fourth. His 25-yard touchdown run with 11:32 remaining gave the Tigers a short-lived 24-17 lead.
Then Josey’s 16-yard scamper with 3:08 turned the tables on the Cowboys (10-3), who allowed a season-high 256 yards on the ground.
It was a fitting conclusion to a season in which Josey beat the odds, helped bring the Tigers back to respectability and secured his legacy.
"It’s just a blessing to be able to do this," Josey told Mizzou Networkafter the game. "I’m so happy. I’m happy for my teammates. I’m happy that I was able to help them out this way. Just this whole year has been crazy and just to finish it like this, there’s nothing more I can ask for in life."
You can follow Nate Latsch on Twitter (@natelatsch) or email him at email@example.com.