COLUMBIA — Months of planning, more than four weeks of preseason practicing and one restless night of thinking — in the end, it all boiled down to about five seconds for Henry Josey.
He was relaxing in his hotel room in St. Louis with friend and fellow freshman tailback Marcus Murphy last Friday night when Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel informed him and Murphy that they might get a chance to play in last Saturday’s game against Illinois. For Josey, the news came not as a surprise, but rather as a reward for his hard work during the preseason, and he made the most of his playing time.
“We were just trying to get a real good focus together coming out for our first game,” Murphy said. “Coach came in and told us we might get some plays, and you know we’ve just got to come out with a good mindset."
The years of football training that led up to that night had prepared Josey physically to play against the Illini. His mental preparation, however, occurred mostly in the hours leading up to the game. He said he spent a lot of time thinking and reflecting once the possibility of playing became real.
“We were in a hotel, talking about it,” Josey said. “We were just trying to boost each other's confidence, really, asking each other what we’re going to do when we get in.”
Imagination only goes so far, and Josey knew that when he woke up and boarded the bus to the Edward Jones Dome, everything would become more real. He said that he tried not to think about what would happen the next day because he did not know if reality would be better or worse than his expectations. His mind, however, got the best of him.
“I was thinking about the game a lot,” Josey said. “OK, actually I thought about it all night.”
All the thinking and analyzing did not translate into nerves, though, just an intense awareness of the challenge that was to come.
“I don’t really know if he was nervous, but I know coming out on the field for the first time in a college atmosphere, it was going to be hard,” Murphy said.
It only got worse when Josey woke up the next morning. Getting up and going to breakfast was a blur for Josey, but he said the minute he got on the bus, everything became more familiar. He lapsed into his normal pregame rituals, slipping his iPod headphones into his ears and blasting the medley of Lil Wayne songs that has always jolted him into preparedness.
“As soon as I got out on the field, it was like I’m back again, I’m ready,” Josey said. "I was ready.”
Josey warmed up on the unfamiliar turf, taking in the expanse of seats and crowds of people as they streamed into the stadium. Still unsure about whether he would play, Josey said that he was unusually aware of what was going on around him. He spent the first quarter watching his mentors Kendial Lawrence and De’Vion Moore split time at tailback and thinking about the advice they had given him: that he should just go out there and do his thing.
In the second quarter, Pinkel interrupted Josey’s observations, and with a jolt his thoughts began to focus not on what he should do, but on what he was actually going to do just a few seconds later.
“Coach called my name, and I was like, ‘Oh, whoa, OK. It’s my turn,’” Josey said. “And I was just ready to get out there.”
Pinkel, who has applauded Josey for his speed and hard work for most of preseason, was ready to give him his first test. It was early in the second quarter, and the team was losing 3-0. On a second down, Josey carried the ball for 10 yards and a first down, advancing the Tigers to the Illinois 28-yard line. He remembers the play as if it lasted for minutes and can recount not only his movements, but also the other players who darted in and out of his peripheral vision.
“First of all, I was back on the field, and so that was a really exciting thing,” Josey said. “And then I got the ball and it was like, OK, just go again. I’m ready to do this. I had a big block from one of my receivers, and it was downhill from there.”
Pinkel, though nervous about handing the ball to an untested player while the team trailed, said he was happy with Josey’s efforts.
“It was good, right down there in the red zone,” he said. “I’m watching a freshman take the handoff, and you know things weren’t going real well anyway. But he did a good job.”
Although the drive ended in a missed field goal, Josey said that he’s still happy with how he performed. In those few seconds, he proved to himself that he can begin to hold his own in college football. Convincing his team of this comes next.
“I hope to get in," he said, "and I’m going to do whatever my team needs me to, that’s it.”