ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Gathered together in their hotel Friday evening, members of the Missouri football team watched a video meant to inspire them for a new season. They cheered at their clips of big hits and touchdowns. Then Henry Josey appeared on the screen, and the room erupted.
“Everyone was going crazy,” Missouri quarterback James Franklin said. “We were just ready for him to get back out there and do what he does.”
As the running back’s teammates roared around him, there was still a seed of doubt buried deep inside. His rehabilitation from a potentially career-ending left knee injury had long finished, and this year’s spring and fall camp had been a breeze. The joint that had been shredded — a torn patellar tendon, anterior cruciate and meniscus, along with torn medial collateral ligaments — now felt so good it required no brace, no tape. But practices and scrimmages are not a game, and Josey hadn’t played one of those since Nov. 12, 2011, the same night he was left crippled and screaming on the east sideline of Faurot Field.
“There is a little nervousness about getting back out there, wondering if you can actually do it again,” Josey said.
A football game is a series of small stories. Saturday night was no exception. The 58,038 who sweltered in their seats while watching the Tigers play FCS bottom dweller Murray State saw an embattled quarterback make a statement (James Franklin completed 26 of 38 passes for 318 yards and 3 touchdowns, distributing the ball to his stable of receivers as well as anyone could ask) and defense make a stand (the Tigers were thumped for 14 points and 196 total yards in the first quarter, but held the Racers scoreless through the final three). But those stories will fade away.
The redshirt junior earned the loudest cheers when he appeared, smiling, on the JumboTron during player introductions. The stadium held its breath … then exhaled when Josey took his first hand-off and ran straight into the face of the Murray State defense for a 12-yard gain. He got back to his feet before the two who tackled him, and more reaffirming carries followed. And then, after the Tigers’ defense had found its bite and Franklin had carved the Racers’ secondary enough to be pulled from the game, it happened.
“I was a little upset, because I told him I wanted him to score when I was in there — just like we would sophomore year,” Franklin said. “But I was really excited for him. Seeing him haul down the sideline, that was pretty cool.”
Missouri led 44-14 with 6:35 left to play in the third quarter when backup quarterback Maty Mauk took a snap and put the ball in Josey’s gut. Josey hit a wide open hole, blowing past a Murray State defensive lineman who spun off a block too late.
“We all thought the same thing,” Missouri guard Max Copeland said. “And it was two words: He’s back. Henry is back in the saddle, dude. And it’s awesome.”
Josey cut right, toward the east sideline. The first defender with a real chance, a corner, lunged and missed, as did a diving safety whose fingertips appeared to graze Josey’s jersey before clenching air. The running back hit a higher speed as he crossed the spot on the turf where he had fallen in 2011.
“It was amazing,” Missouri running back Russell Hansbrough said. “I didn’t realize he had that much speed on him.
The final burst kept him in front of the final corner, whose exhausted dive toward the back of Josey’s pumping knees caused the running back to jump. He flew headfirst into the end zone. The ball spurted out in front of him. It didn’t matter. He would get it back later. The referee signaled the 68-yard touchdown, and Josey raised his fists and yelled toward the stars.
“I looked up and I thanked God,” Josey said. “I was screaming at him. I hoped he heard me.”
His teammates were there in an instant. Jimmie Hunt hugged him first, before Marcus Lucas came and picked him up like a kid. An offensive lineman intercepted him near the sideline and carried him toward the gauntlet of handshakes and bear hugs that waited.
Even Gary Pinkel sounded kind of sappy as he recapped what he saw.
“When he scored that touchdown, I said no one is going to catch him,” Pinkel said. “And they didn’t. The whole football team went down there. Everybody. So, you don’t think this guy is important to my team?”
After the Tigers won 58-14, another room went crazy for Josey. Pinkel — for what he said was the first time in a coaching career that has now spanned 30-plus years — presented the game ball to an individual player.
This eruption was loud enough to be heard through cement walls. This time, as his teammates roared around him, Josey had no doubts about what he could do.
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.