Henry Josey returns to the field.
Ask Henry Josey what he’s learned in the past year and a half, and he takes his time answering. He grins and laughs, as he does often during conversation.
In this instance, however, it’s as though he’s remembering a bad joke or a memory so surreal, confusing and painful that all he can do is smile. It’s better than the alternative.
“Patience,” Josey says. “The whole thing was a learning experience. But mostly, I have so much patience now.”
The lesson began Nov. 12, 2011, on Faurot Field. The Tigers had a 17-3 lead over No. 21 Texas, the state from which Mizzou Coach Gary Pinkel had recruited the sparkplug tailback in 2010. It would be the last time the two schools met as conference foes, and chants of “M-I-Z, S-E-C!” periodically filled Memorial Stadium.
Josey had been looking forward to the matchup because his Angleton High School teammates — Quandre Diggs and D.J. Monroe — were visiting Columbia as Longhorns. The running back was also standing tall as the Big 12’s leading rusher with 1,149 yards through nine games, already the fifth-best season in team history with four games left to play. He knew the folks back home would be tuned in.
Then, in the third quarter, he took a pitch from quarterback James Franklin on a typical sweep toward the Mizzou sideline. He turned the corner upfield, and when he planted his foot, his left knee shuddered. Josey later learned it was his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tearing. But at the time, adrenaline and momentum propelled him forward.
Half a step later, Texas cornerback Carrington Byndom caught the 5-foot-10-inch Tiger from behind and dragged him to the ground as Josey’s knee completely collapsed. His patellar tendon had shredded in two, and he let out a horrific wail.
“On a scale of 1 to 10?” he says, his face suddenly serious when asked to describe the pain. “It was higher than 10.”
Coaches, teammates and personnel witnessed the grisly injury up close. Rex Sharp, Mizzou’s head athletic trainer, and Pat Smith, head team physician and orthopedic surgeon, leapt to the player’s side. They knew it was bad, but they needed X-rays to determine just how bad.
The 61,323 fans fell nearly silent. This sudden sophomore star, the NCAA’s fifth-leading rusher who was churning the Tigers toward what would be a school-record seventh consecutive bowl game, rode helplessly on a golf cart into the locker room.
Nearly two years after the injury, Josey is scheduled to return for the regular season opener against Murray State Aug. 31, 2013, at the ’Zou. His ACL, medial collateral ligament, bilateral menisci and patellar tendon have been surgically repaired. His muscles, which had atrophied from disuse during recovery, have been rebuilt.
Now he enters the Southeastern Conference to try and resurrect his athletic reputation.
Gary Pinkel might seem tough when he’s motivating his players or disputing a flag but not when it comes to injury footage.
“I saw it once, and I only need to see it once,” Pinkel says, grimacing at the memory.
In an era of high-definition TV, DVR and YouTube, fans can see the worst injuries backward and forward, repeatedly. Pat Smith has seen them inside and out. But on that November weekend at the Missouri Orthopaedic Institute, he witnessed the worst he has seen in his 27 years at Mizzou.
“The difference with Henry’s knee is, if the patellar tendon had pulled off the bone from one end or the other, it’s a lot easier to repair,” Smith says. “He had a midsubstance tear. Think of it like a rope tearing right in the middle. So immediately, when I saw that, I thought, ‘How am I going to fix this?’ ”
Smith and his team decided to stage the surgeries. The three-part saga would start with Josey’s MCL, menisci and patellar tendon — a tenuous operation that would involve stitching the tissue together while constantly comparing the length and tension to his healthy right knee. Too loose and he would experience weakness in his quadriceps. Too tight and it would compromise his range of motion.
The first surgery took place immediately, Nov. 13, one day after the injury. When Josey awoke, his knee was affixed to a continuous passive motion machine that reduces the formation of scar tissue.
With his athletic career in jeopardy, his spirits plummeted. Enter former roommate, teammate, linebacker and best friend, Will Ebner. The two Texans had become nearly inseparable since Josey’s 2009 recruiting visit.
“He’s like a brother to me, so I did what I would do if this had happened to a blood brother,” Ebner says. “I packed up my bags and stayed with him [in the hospital] for five or six days.”
Ebner slept in the chair next to Josey, peppering his food, changing the TV channel and even shooing away visitors when the patient was too tired. He could alert a nurse quickly if Josey so much as breathed funny. After Josey was strong enough to move out of the hospital, Ebner gave up his bed for Josey while he crashed on the couch.
Josey made modest progress during the following weeks, wrestling with seemingly simple challenges such as going to the bathroom and showering. In a way, it was the first phase of rehab.
Rex Sharp, another multidecade veteran of Mizzou’s athletics staff, guided Josey through the rest of rehabilitation. Sharp had helped heal many Mizzou stars, including Jeremy Maclin and Laurence Bowers, so he had seen players recover from knee injuries and thrive.
“I was bummed out because Henry had gotten hurt so significantly, and I’m sure that despite my happy face, he still knew it,” Sharp says. “I told him, ‘If you do everything I ask you to do when I ask you to do it, I’ll give you every opportunity to play football again.’ ”
Before Smith could perform the remaining surgeries, he required that Josey’s knee have full range of motion. Sharp’s rehab regimen included daily exercises with achievable goals.
“The most challenging part was letting Casey [Hairston, assistant athletic trainer] hang on my leg during prone hangs,” Josey says. “Rex would lay on my back, and Casey would be pushing my leg down to get it straight.”
During a knee scope to debride scar tissue in March 2012, Smith determined the knee was progressing. Josey underwent the final surgery to repair his ACL that May.
“Before [the scope], I still wasn’t sure that Henry was going to be able to play again,” Smith says. “When I saw that healthy lateral meniscus, I knew if I could get a good ACL on him, there was a good chance he could come back.”
The next several months were spent primarily with strength and conditioning Coach Pat Ivey and his staff of trainers. Josey was now regularly working out with teammates, and by August he was dressing out for practice. He ran personal drills on the sidelines, bounded up the stadium steps and regained his trademark smile.
Josey’s shining moment came during winter conditioning in late February 2013 when the team participated in individual 40-yard dashes. It was the tailback’s first chance at an all-out sprint in more than a year, and the atmosphere inside the Devine Pavillion was electric. He ran a scorching 4.46-second time, and his teammates went berserk.
“You feel like you’re fast, but you don’t know,” Josey says. “I was worried, but everyone was jumping around screaming, ‘He’s back!’ ”
During Josey’s two-year rehabilitation, there have been some horrific televised college sports injuries: Kentucky basketball center Nerlens Noel, Louisville guard Kevin Ware and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, to name a few. The team doctors say that the complexity of Josey’s injury makes his worse.
He says it still “throws him” when he sees a knee injury on TV, but he knows the adversity has made him physically, mentally and spiritually stronger. When Mizzou softball outfielder Kayla Kingsley had a season-ending knee injury April 14, he had some words of wisdom.
“I told her not to give in to what you can’t do,” Josey says. “Not to let her mind control what you can believe. Your recovery is up to you. [The trainers] have it laid out for you, but that doesn’t mean just because you come in and do it that it’s going to go well. You have to attack it like you own it.”
Josey did just that in the Black and Gold Game April 20 when he took a handoff up the gut for seven yards. It was his biggest gain of the day — if you don’t count the Memorial Stadium cheers that rained down.
“Pause the screen here,” Pinkel says. “Here’s a kid who has had extensive knee damage. For the first time, people are flying at him, hitting that knee. We’ll see him at his best this August when he’s worked all summer.”
Josey’s doctors and trainers are “cautiously optimistic” about his potential. After all, he was All-Big 12 in 2011 despite missing nearly a third of the season. The bar is high, but no one’s expectations are higher than Josey’s.
And why not. His patience — not to mention faith, hard work and perseverance — has paid off.
“My left knee actually feels stronger than my right knee now,” Josey says. “A lot of people ask me why I don’t wear a brace. I don’t think God put me through all that just to put me through it again. I’m not worried about it. I have a second chance to do one of the most important things in my life.”