Michigan State's Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, and Cassius Winston talk about preparing for the FInal Four. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — As Joshua Langford spoke, detailing how he nearly died from bacterial meningitis when he was 12 years old, and now about dealing with a broken bone in his left foot that shut down his basketball season after 13 games, his words resonated, clearly the result of someone who has dug deep in his soul searching.
It seems unfair to quickly point out that Langford is a junior Michigan State shooting guard, because there is so much more to him than being a basketball player who, with his surgically repaired left foot wrapped in a protective boot, will be unable to play in the upcoming Final Four. That is who Langford is for context, but the 6-foot-5 co-captain is spiritually in tune, a young man who has faced down a life-threatening disease and understands the flaws of the instant-gratification mania of which he sometimes is a part.
He is a wise man in a 22-year-old’s body that gave way this fall when he suffered a stress facture of the navicular bone, a mid-foot injury common for athletes, in late December. A screw was inserted during surgery and he figures by August he should be good to go and back on the court.
“You have to really take your time when it comes to recovering from a foot surgery or a foot injury,” Langford said, sitting on a training table after Michigan State finished practice Tuesday at the Breslin Center practice facility. “I have to make sure I focus and be really patient and enjoy the process. I’m learning a lot through the process.”
Enjoy the process? Learn from the process?
“For starters, I’m learning patience,” he said, smiling, which he often does. “But I’m also learning the power of prayer.”
How Langford approaches life and its adversities, like this broken foot, was shaped when he was just a kid in Hunstville, Ala. He learned about perspective. As a child. When his friends were out playing, he was forced to understand that life is finite. That’s what happens to people if they are dealt with the unthinkable, a life-threatening illness. His is faith-driven, spiritually driven, and believes there's a greater reason he's still here.
Now, he’s learning about patience.
“As people and the way society has portrayed the process of things, everything has to come quick,” Langford said. “We kind of live in a microwave society where everything is fast. You have fast food. Nobody ever really wants to wait to cook. Nobody ever wants to wait. I’m not taking away from any of the fast-food places, but everything is always trying to make things as convenient as possible instead of waiting on certain things.
“I believe in God. I believe God has a process and an order He works in. He didn’t create the world in one day, and this is God, so how can we expect to get the things we’ve been called to do or are meant to do, happen in a quick moment? I took it as, God is trying to make me into a Sunday’s dinner instead of a microwave meal.”
This is not to say Langford has it all figured out. He knows he is still evolving, but sitting with his teammates, unable to contribute on the court as he did last season when he won the Spartans’ top defensive player award, has been frustrating at times.
Langford also knows enough to cut himself some slack. He’s an old soul but he also knows he’s not an old man.
“I’m still in my 20s, so I’m young,” he said. “I have my days, but the majority of time I’m pretty understanding with the way things work and the processes you have to go through to get what you have to get. I learned that at an early age. When I was 12, I got sick and that gave me a better perspective on life. I really believe when God allows you to go through situations, along with those situations comes more knowledge and wisdom. I felt like I got a lot at an early age. From then on, I’ve always seen life a little bit differently than the average person my age. Not to say I’m removed from them, because I still do things a normal 20 year old does, but people have always told me I have an old soul. That’s how I am.”
His middle name is Labyron, the name of his cousin who died from meningitis when he was 19. It is Langford’s way to put others first, so it’s not surprising he thought about how, after he contracted the disease, that would affect his family members who had already endured a young man passing.
Langford hallucinated. He had a fever that hit 104 degrees, sometimes higher. He couldn’t eat. His mother later told him his skin began to discolor, and he remembers the constant migraines. His mother would rub his head as often so he could find a few moments of peace and rest. There was an information sheet his family received detailing some of the potential consequences of meningitis, like going deaf or blind.
“It’s a plethora of things that happened to me,” he said. “I remember being weak. I remember having to take a spinal tap. There’s a lot of stuff I could say, but we’d be here forever. Until that point. I never had anything but the common cold. I was never a person who got sick. For me to face that, it was shocking.
“I remember asking my mom, was I going to pass, because this is crazy. I didn’t know if I would live or die. It was a lot being thrown at me when I was 12 years old. I remember God giving me this feeling, kind of a voice I wasn’t going to die because He had things for me to do on this earth. After that point, I never questioned. I just knew I was going to overcome.”
After a week in the hospital, Langford made a gradual recovery. Remarkably, he was able to play basketball later that year for his school team.
“Sometimes God will give you things you can bear when it comes to blessings, too,” he said. “Sometimes you can get a blessing too fast and you can misuse it and lose it and don’t do what God meant for you to do with it. That’s where the process comes in. Everything has a process. Everything has steps you have to take. Part of the reason why we fail is because we try to skip those steps.”
Which is why he understands the process with this injury. He draws from his experiences when he was 12.
“It’s been what’s keeping me sane,” Langford said. “This situation doesn’t even compare to that situation. This is not a life or death situation. When I was 12, that was life or death. I believe if God can bring me through that situation of life and death, He can bring me through this situation of just being hurt, being injured. Not that I haven’t felt human emotions — of course I want to go out there and play. I’ve honestly cried about it. I’ve been hurt about it. I’ve been sad about it. I’m always able to go back to my foundation, and my foundation is my faith. It keeps me stable and really understanding that nothing can really stop me as long as I’m in God’s protection.”
Michigan State freshman Aaron Henry and Langford have talks. Long discussions about life, sometimes about basketball, but mostly about priorities.
“I always say Josh is one of the best people on this earth just how he handles everything, how he always sees the brighter side of things and how it’s never about him,” Henry said after practice. “It makes you feel for him that much more. He loves people, he’s a people person. He’s always thinking about the betterment of another person, which has made me better as a person. You realize the world is so much bigger than just yourself and your family, but how you impact and look at others.
“I feel for him. That (illness) shaped him as a man. And the most impactful thing and the best example you can make is, when you’re sick, you evaluate the priorities you have in life. What matters to you most? Spending time with family and friends. That always comes first. So why not put that first when even if you’re the healthiest? Why not put that first even if you’re living your best life? You should always keep things in perspective no matter what happens.”
With that in mind, Langford refuses to languish. He is excited to get to Minneapolis and step onto the Final Four court and experience the enormity of the crowd he has heard so much about. Langford wants everyone to remember that he is as much a part of this team now as he was when he was on the court. He pulls teammates aside to explain things he is seeing or to make clearer the message delivered by the coaches. His foot isn’t working yet, but his voice is just fine, and Langford wants everyone to hear what he has to say.
“Sometimes things happen in our life,” he said. “We lose one thing in our life to find something in us that we didn’t know we had. Had we not lost that thing we were really comfortable with, we would never have found the other gift that was inside of us. When you feel like you lose something in your life, eventually it will either come back to you or it will come back better, but you will get that thing back with something else with it.
“I think that’s what’s happening with me. I lost basketball for a short moment, but I gained something too, which was understanding my voice and the gift God has given me with my voice. That’s what I’ve been trying to use with the team and encouraging the guys and being there for them because I understand what it’s like to be a player on the court. I understand where they’re coming from so I can relate to them a little bit better than maybe a coach can. Sometimes people get this presumption that just because somebody isn’t in your shoes in the moment that they’ve never been in your shoes. I think it stops you from being able to maybe sometimes see what a coach is saying because he’s older than you. That’s natural for anybody, even kids with their parents. I’m able to relate to them. They instantly receive me because they know, ‘This is Josh he’s played.’”
And he’s still playing now, only in a different way, enriched by perspective.
At U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
►Virginia (33-3) vs. Auburn (30-9), 6:09 p.m. (CBS)
►Michigan State (32-6) vs. Texas Tech (30-6), 8:49 p.m. (CBS)
►Championship, 9 p.m. (CBS)