COLUMBIA — Henry Josey was never told how good he was, and he never asked anyone for the answer. He was raised to not talk back.
When college football recruiters expressed their doubts, Finis Vanover had to be the one to talk some sense.
Henry Josey has rushed for 1,149 yards this season. Already, that is the sixth-best individual season at Missouri. Josey needs 429 yards to break Devin West's 1998 record of 1,578 yards. The Tigers have three remaining games, and if it wins two of them, it will be eligible for a bowl game. If Josey continues to rush for at least his average of 127.7 yards a game, he has a chance.
"This kid is the most natural running back you'll ever see in your life," Josey's head coach at Angleton (Texas) High School would say. "Just wait."
This season, the Missouri sophomore tailback has averaged 8.6 yards per carry and 127.7 a game, tops in the Big 12 Conference and fifth in the nation — all of this after starting the season third on the Missouri depth chart and being practically invisible during preseason practices.
To some, Josey has come out of nowhere. Maybe that has something to do with his reserved personality. He's the first to admit he is quiet and likes to keep to himself.
Eventually, his talents would do the talking. He is, after all, the closest one can get to a natural.
In 1990, Josey's father, Henry Neal, broke the national high school record in the 100-meter dash with a time of 10.15 seconds in the Class 5A Texas championship. According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, the record still stands. Neal also ran the 200-meter dash in 20.20 seconds, which remains the second-best time in the country.
At Blinn College in Brenham, Texas, where he met Yolanda Josey, Neal won seven junior college national championships. The New York Times wrote a profile on him in 1995, and Neal made the Miami Dolphins roster in 1996.
His professional football career never worked out, but in Texas, he is still well-known for his track feats.
“Goodness gracious,” Vanover said in a phone interview. “Henry Neal, he was something.”
When Yolanda Josey got pregnant, her parents, Thomas and Eula Josey, offered to take care of their grandson while their daughter continued to go to school. Though his mother moved back to Angleton and is by all accounts close to her son, Henry Josey grew up in his grandparents’ household.
Neal was also around, coming to his son's football games and track meets. Henry Josey inherited his speed, but he never focused on track because he did not want the attention of being his father’s son.
“All I heard about was track all my life,” he said.
Henry Josey described his childhood as "old school," but when he had to pick a sport, it was on his terms.
“I wanted him to play baseball, and everybody else (in the family) wanted him to go with basketball,” said Thomas Josey in a phone interview. “So he ended up playing football.”
Henry Josey said that Thomas Josey, a retired electrician at Dow Chemical Company, and Eula Josey, a customer service manager at Kroger, do not treat him any differently now.
Their grandson is not beyond reproach. Thomas Josey noted that while his grandson will never complain about injuries and will always give “100 percent” in games, he hinted that probably wasn't always the case with all of Josey's work with the team.
“In practice, I can’t say the same,” Thomas Josey joked.
The two bonded over saltwater fishing at nearby spots at Surfside Beach, Quintana and Brazosport in Texas along the Gulf Coast, sometimes spending the night by the water. It became one of Henry Josey’s favorite hobbies. And when he wasn’t playing team sports in high school, he would drag friends D.J. Monroe and Quandre Diggs down to the coast with him before inevitably staying the night at the Joseys'.
“Every night it seemed like one or the other was over here,” Thomas Josey said.
Josey will be reunited with his two friends this week. Monroe is now a junior tailback at the University of Texas, and Diggs is a freshman starting cornerback. In high school, they won state track championships in the 4x100 and 4x200 relays together and gave the Angleton football team a formidable backfield. They often decided themselves who would get carries.
“I didn’t care as long as someone didn’t get tired,” Vanover said. “It was quite the deal.”
Vanover said that, usually, “thoroughbreds” are high-strung and dramatic. Josey, Monroe and Diggs never fought and each displayed even-keeled personalities.
“All they talked about was catching red fish and trout,” Vanover said. “They were good country boys. That’s what made them all so special.”
Vanover, now at Tomball Memorial (Texas) High School, became Angleton’s head coach Josey’s freshman year and almost immediately pulled him up to the varsity team. With Monroe already established at tailback and the defense decimated by injuries, Vanover put Josey in at linebacker.
Josey is listed as 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds now, but as a 14-year-old he remembers being about 160 pounds. Nevertheless, Vanover said Josey was already powerful across the shoulders and described him as a heavy hitter.
Josey continued to use that physicality when he began to get carries at tailback. Today, he rarely jukes, instead relying on what Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Yost calls his "second-level vision" to run vertically.
He might not be quite as fast as his father was, but Josey has run the 100-meter dash in less than 10.5 seconds. Calling him really fast would not be an exaggeration. And like his father, Josey has complemented his speed with a muscular frame by the time he came to Missouri.
"He looks like a freaking statue, like something Michelangelo carved," Vanover said.
Many schools were concerned Josey would be too small to play tailback in college. With more than a hint of exasperation, Vanover told anyone who would listen that the coach who signed Josey and then handed him the ball would look like a genius.
"Look, y'all must be from Mars," Vanover would say. "You always want the finished product. How about y'all do a little bit of work?"
The Missouri staff saw that he was a powerful running back for a smaller player and that he could do damage in the open field.
They didn't expect the numbers Josey is putting up, however — especially not this early in his career.
"I don't know if I ever thought, as a second-year player, he'd be leading the conference in rushing yards," Yost said. "As he's carried the ball more and had more opportunities inside. Guess what? He's good at that, too."
"There's times when we don't (block) the frontside linebacker, and he makes the guy look sad and silly. All of a sudden, it's a 14-yard play."
Thomas and Eula Josey were at Missouri's past two games in College Station and Waco, Texas, and they usually make the 14-hour drive from Angleton to Columbia for home games. After driving their grandson around to one sport after another, the trip doesn't seem too bad.
This weekend, about 10 of Josey's other relatives, including his mother, will come to Columbia, so his grandparents will wait until next weekend so they don't overwhelm him.
They, as well as Vanover and perhaps Neal, will watch the guy who turned away track, baseball and basketball to play the sport at which he is, well, most natural.
"We're very proud of what he's done so far," Thomas Josey said.