ARLINGTON, Texas — Josh Henson doodled like most kids when he was in elementary school.
What he drew, though, was unique.
“When I was bored in class,” he said, “I sat there and drew up football plays.”
Back home in Tuttle, his mom and dad still have notebooks full of those early doodles.
“I need to go back and look at some of them maybe,” said Henson, now the offensive coordinator at Missouri.
“I didn't know anything then.”
Even though his understanding of offenses wasn't nearly what it is now, Henson knew even as a child that he loved the strategy of the game. He thought about schemes all the time. He mused about football at every opportunity.
Now, Henson is getting a chance to live out that passion.
In his first season as an offensive coordinator, he helped Missouri to a big-time turnaround that brought it within a quarter of playing for the national title. Friday night, the Tigers hope to put an exclamation mark on this season with a win against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.
OSU happens to be Henson's alma mater, the team he cheered as a boy, the place where he got his first job as a college coach.
Henson has told his OSU-season-ticket-holding family to go ahead and cheer for the Cowboys.
Not a chance.
“Blood being thicker than water,” his dad said, “I'm going to have to root for Missouri.”
The road to this wild intersection took Henson to Stillwater for more than a decade, then to the Louisiana bayou and eventually to the middle of Missouri. But even as the 38-year-old's journey wound around the college football world, Josh Henson's roots always reached back to the passion he developed in his hometown of Tuttle.
He's where he is because of where he started.
Rick and Mary Henson decided that if they were going to have kids, they wanted them to be raised in Tuttle.
Having grown up in the area, they knew many of the teachers, men and women who had the same values they did. Work hard Monday through Saturday. Go to church Sunday. Do right every day.
So, Rick and Mary returned to Tuttle.
And when they had Josh, the first of four children, Rick and Mary realized what a perfect fit the sport-crazy town just southwest of Oklahoma City would be for their son.
“Within two or three years, if you couldn't catch it or kick it or throw it,” Rick said, “he didn't want to fool with it.”
And once the father explained football formations and schemes, the son was captivated. If there was a scrap of paper lying around the Henson house, it had one of Josh's plays scribbled on it.
Rick and Mary once replaced some end tables that they'd had for years in their living room, and when they turned them over to throw them away, they found plays drawn on the underside.
Lying on his back under those tables, Josh had apparently realized he had a blank canvas and did what he always did — he doodled plays.
But it took a little encouragement to turn passion into action.
Even though Josh's parents always told him that he could be whatever he wanted to be if he worked hard enough — they modeled that work ethic, Rick as a firefighter and Mary as a super-involved, stay-at-home mom — it wasn't until the summer before Josh's freshman year of high school that he realized the work he had to put into football.
Tuttle football coach Phil Koons had seen potential in Josh and told him as much. Josh bought in and started going to Koons' 6 a.m. weight lifting sessions. But then after a late night spent on the phone — Henson jokes now that he was probably talking to his girlfriend — he decided not to go to weights the next morning.
His phone rang at 6:05.
In no uncertain terms, Koons let him know that missing weights wasn't an option.
“After that conversation,” Josh said, “I didn't ever miss again.”
Koons pushed and cajoled and taught and inspired.
“I really think without Coach Koons, I wouldn't be where I am today,” Josh said. “I firmly believe that.”
With lessons learned in Tuttle, Henson has tackled every football opportunity that has come his way.
Josh Henson became an all-stater at Tuttle, but he got no Division I offers. Too small. Too slow. Most coaches told him to go to junior college, and they'd check in on him in two years.
Josh had other ideas.
“I don't know if I was just not very smart or what ... ” he said, “but I had it in my head that I could play at the Division I level.”
With the encouragement of his parents and his coach, he went to OSU as a walk-on linebacker.
Five years later, he left Stillwater as a team captain and a three-year starter on the offensive line.
Over those last three seasons, he also built a rapport with his position coach, who was also working as an offensive coordinator for the first time. Guy by the name of Les Miles.
Because the Cowboys played redshirt freshman Tony Lindsay at quarterback during Josh's senior season, Miles put some extra responsibility on his veteran lineman. The coach had Josh call out checks, and so every Thursday night, Josh would spend about an hour and a half in Miles' office going through the reads and calls.
After Josh graduated and spent a year at Kingfisher High, then a year as a grad assistant at OSU, Miles returned as the Cowboys' head coach and hired Josh as his tight ends coach.
A few years later, Josh went with Miles to LSU.
Josh lamented over leaving or staying and helping turn around his alma mater. But in the end, he decided he had to go.
“I just kind of realized if I was going to grow as a coach ... I needed to move out and expand and experience different people and ideas,” he said.
Josh spent four seasons at LSU and was part of the Tigers' national title in 2007.
Two years later, he moved to Missouri when he got a chance to coach the offensive line and return to what was then Big 12 country. Then when longtime Missouri offensive coordinator Dave Yost resigned after last season for personal reasons, Tigers head coach Gary Pinkel approached Henson about the job.
“Do you feel like you're ready?” Pinkel asked.
“I am,” Josh assured him.
The results have backed him up.
Running a spread offense powered by quarterback James Franklin, tailback Henry Josey and a stable of big, talented receivers, Missouri has averaged 492.9 yards a game this season, ranking as the 16th best offense in the nation. That's better than Georgia or Wisconsin or Boise State or a host of other schools, and the Tigers rolled up those numbers largely against SEC defenses.
“Even though he's young,” Pinkel said, “he's got a real good football mind.”
Missouri offensive lineman Max Copeland said, “Here's the thing — this is his first year with the title offensive coordinator, but I think he's had an offensive coordinator mentality for probably his whole football life. He understands the game on a wave length that most don't.”
“It's like ‘A Beautiful Mind' when that guy's seeing numbers in his head. I feel like that's what's happening when he's in the booth.”
The folks back in Tuttle know exactly what he's talking about.
“As bright as Josh is and outgoing and just a student of the game,” Koons said, “it always seemed like the sky was the limit.”
Who knows where the path might lead Josh Henson next? He talks about every stop along the way helping him learn and grow and get to where he wants to be, but he isn't willing to say where he ultimately wants to go.
Becoming a college head coach? Returning to his alma mater? Going to the NFL, perhaps?
Those who know him best say they could absolutely see him becoming a head coach, but as far as he is concerned, he's exactly where he wants to be.
He's still doodling plays, but now, he's got a team to run them.
“If you'd have told me 13 years ago that this was going to be my career path ... ” Josh said, smiling, “I'd have said, ‘Sign me up.'”
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at (405) 475-4125. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.