COLUMBIA, Mo. -- When Henry Josey burst through the line of scrimmage and sped toward the south end zone at Faurot Field like a heat-seeking missile headed for its target, he didn't stop to think about everything he had been through.
He didn't take the moment to reflect on all the heartache from the three major knee surgeries, the pain he suffered when the injury occurred two years ago or the doubts he had on the road to recovery of whether he'd ever come back. As the capacity crowd exploded in jubilation, sensing history for the soon-to-be SEC East Division champion Missouri Tigers, Josey could only think one thing after scoring his 57-yard, go-ahead touchdown run, which eventually proved to be the game-winner against Texas A&M and the points that secured Missouri's spot in Atlanta this weekend.
"Oh man, I thought, 'Defense, just stop them so we can get out of here [with a win]," Josey said of his thought process at the moment. "Everybody was just jumping up and down and I was excited about it, but I tried to stay focused because I knew I'd have to go back in and bleed the clock out some more."
Always the focused, determined, hard-working back, the 5-foot-10, 190-pound Josey was simply thinking about finishing the job. But if there was ever a fitting ending to Missouri's historic 11-1 regular season, one in which the Tigers shocked the nation by claiming the SEC East championship and earning a spot in Saturday's SEC championship game against another unlikely foe, Auburn, it was Josey scoring the game-winning points.
By now, many people who follow college football know the story. On Nov. 12, 2011 when the Tigers hosted Texas, Josey suffered a gruesome knee injury. The severity of it was cause for concern; some wondered if the Angleton, Texas, product would play again. The eventual surgeries would repair his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), meniscus and patellar tendon. It ended a stellar sophomore season for Josey, one in which he rushed for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games.
The road to recovery was long. He sat out the entire 2012 season, made even tougher by the fact that many of his teammates were bit by the injury bug and Missouri struggled to a 5-7 campaign in its first SEC season. Josey admitted he had doubts along the way as to whether he would play again.
"There was a lot of doubt," Josey said. "Asking, 'Why am I here?' There are so many things that go through your head. 'Am I going to be the same guy that I was?'"
Finis Vanover, his head coach at Angleton High School, knew that if Josey decided to commit himself to return, he would do so triumphantly. Having coached Josey for four years at Angleton, Vanover knows as well as anybody the type of character and determination the running back possesses. It's partially why Vanover moved a 14-year-old Josey up to Angleton's varsity squad as a freshman. Vanover knew he had something special.
"There was no doubt in my mind, that if he chose to do so, he would find a way to come back," Vanover said. "No question at all. He is a warrior in the truest sense of the word. ... His character is impeccable. I can't say enough good things about him."
Throughout his rehabilitation, Josey said he relied on his faith to carry him through. Tangibly, he said it's his 2-year-old son, Henry Jr., he turns to every day for comfort. Fatherhood has changed him, he admits, and on Saturday after his 96-yard rushing performance and etched-in-Missouri-history touchdown run, it was Henry Jr. whom Josey was spending his quality time with post game in the Tigers' locker room.
"He understands every single thing that I'm going through," Josey said of his son. "He was excited, he was clapping and he probably gave me the biggest hug he's ever given me after the game."
His teammates have seen Josey go through it all. Senior quarterback James Franklin said Josey, a junior, "feels like a senior" and that he was happy to see Josey have the opportunity for such a moment. Many teammates echoed that sentiment, as did coach Gary Pinkel.
"It was fitting," Pinkel said. "It's fitting of Henry Josey, the kind of year he has had, who he is and what he's about. He's sacred to our Mizzou fans."
Josey's return has certainly been a productive one. This season has offered no major setbacks for him physically, he has played in every game and he is closing in on the 1,000-yard mark again (he has 951 yards and 13 touchdowns). He'll help lead the No. 5 Tigers into the Georgia Dome when they meet No. 3 Auburn for the SEC title Saturday.
Vanover, who is now a head coach at Tomball Memorial High School just north of Houston, was at home with about 20 family members and friends watching Missouri's 28-21 win over Texas A&M on Saturday with great interest. He's had several of his former players go on to college and have success (current Texas defensive back Quandre Diggs is another Angleton product Vanover coached), so he takes joy in watching them on perform on Saturdays.
When the Tigers had third-and-1 and handed the ball to Josey, Vanover knew as soon as his former back hit the line of scrimmage that he was taking it to the house.
"The minute he hit the line of scrimmage I said 'He's gone, they're not going to catch him,'" Vanover said. "He hit that other gear and it was over with. It was a great, great moment. It really was."