Cotton Bowl 2014: Henry Josey's Incredible Road Back to Superstardom

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Cotton Bowl 2014: Henry Josey's Incredible Road Back to Superstardom
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Rex Sharp, Missouri’s head athletic trainer, called it the most devastating knee injury he had seen in athletics. 

The moment Missouri running back Henry Josey curled up in a ball of pain back in the fall of 2011, he was leading the conference in rushing and was fifth in the nation. In an instant, however, the concern turned from rushing yards and the NFL to the notion of simply being able to walk.

On Friday in the Cotton Bowl, Josey walked into the end zone three times, capping off a magnificent season with a 41-31 victory over Oklahoma State. His touchdown with three minutes left in the fourth quarter was the go-ahead score.

From that point on, the Tigers didn't look back.

In doing so, he helped Missouri close out an unexpected campaign in thrilling fashion, and he also gave the NFL scouts something to think about.

Josey’s return to the football field took 659 days, three surgeries and an unfathomable amount of rehab to rebuild his left knee. 

The injury came on an unassuming play, a fall backward after an awkward tackle down the sideline. A helmet didn't smash into his lower body, and it wasn't a juke gone horribly wrong. This was a matter of timing and body positioning, and his knee immediately gave in.

By his reaction, you knew immediately it was serious.

After missing much of 2011 and sitting out the entire 2012 season, Josey returned in 2013 after rehabbing. He wasted little time returning to form. 

In Missouri’s first game against Murray State this year, Josey finished with 113 yards rushing, 68 of which came on one delightful touchdown scamper. With that, he was officially back, and his return was celebrated by head coach Gary Pinkel in the locker room.

It was a moment that will (and should) be played on season-ending montages, and it will be remembered by the Mizzou faithful for years to come. It's the only individual game ball Pinkel has ever given.

Fast-forward four months. Josey is still a good story—a great story, in fact—but he’s more than that. The initial return was touching and fun, but this all gave way for production on one of the SEC’s best teams.

On Friday night, Josey padded his touchdown total, upping his season mark to 17. He also finished with 1,166 rushing yards on 174 carries, good for a 6.7 average. Along the way, the season had its scares. 

Against Florida this year, he went down and grabbed his knee in pain to the panic of the Missouri sideline and football fans everywhere. He got up, though, and even returned to the game. And then, of course, there was the SEC Championship against Auburn. After a long run, Josey was tossed violently out of bounds and into a cart in the worst possible place on the sidelines.

Again, after a scary scene, he got up. He kept getting up and the team kept producing. His comeback paralleled that of his team’s, a long joyful ride that didn’t require substance.

Now, Josey has a decision to make. He was one more year of eligibility remaining at his school, although NFL teams will be interested in No. 20. Yes, there are concerns over the rebuilt left knee, but it looked fine over the course of the regular season.

Josey talked about the decision to stay at school—a place he clearly loves—or take his talents to the next level with David Morrison of the Columbia Tribune:

It’s always a dream as a kid. You want to be able to get to the next level and further your career as a football player. I’ve probably thought about it a whole lot. But I can’t just sit here and say, ‘Yes, I’m leaving’ or ‘I’m staying.’ I haven’t made a decision about any of that. My main focus is on playing and having fun with my teammates. 

Yes, I want to come back and yes, I want to graduate. That’s something I’ve made a promise to my grandma and a couple other people in my life. It’s a big decision. But I’m just staying in the moment right now and focusing on the football game. 

Following the bowl victory, Josey was asked about the NFL draft by Morrison. At this point, at least publicly, he's unclear of his next move.

Regardless of what decision he makes, he’s made it.

He completed his first season, and the long road back to health—and in turn to stardom—has been traveled.

College football would love to have him back if he decides it’s the route he wants to take. Josey, quarterback Maty Mauk and wideout Dorial Green-Beckham would give the Tigers one of the most dynamic trios in the country next season.

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

He’d have a chance to improve his draft stock and only add to his legacy at the school, one that is approaching rock star levels whether this was the end or not. And quite simply, and somewhat selfishly, it’d be a joy to watch him run at this level a little longer.

But if he hears enough positive things from those involved in the draft process and his family and head coach believe it's time, then he should go. That is, if he wants to. This is all on Josey, of course, and he’s put himself in a position to have a decision over the NFL.

That’s the most important and impressive thing, and it all culminated in one last thrilling performance in the Cotton Bowl. If this was the end, it was quite an ending.

I can’t wait to see what he does next.

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