From homeless shelters to Super Bowl, Bronco’s journey wasn’t easy

Coaches reflect on the road that brought Knowshon Moreno to the big game, just 40 miles from where he grew up

Knowshon Moreno took five years to find his groove with the Broncos, and it's paying off.
Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

DENVER — Super Bowl XLVIII is taking place just 40 miles from Knowshon Moreno’s childhood home, but for the Denver Broncos running back, the road to getting there was anything but short or easy.

When he was a child, his grandmother rescued him from a series of homeless shelters where he’d been living with his father, giving him a stable home and an opportunity to play sports in New Jersey schools. His college and pro career have been hampered by injuries, inconsistency and demotions.

Now Moreno is set to play the biggest game of his life, Super Bowl XLVIII, just down the road from where his Middletown South High School team went 36–0 and won three state championships.

It’s an emotional game for virtually any player, but one that has hit Moreno in a unique and public way, as he was famously caught with tears streaming down his face during the national anthem and later after scoring a touchdown against the Kansas City Chiefs this season. He knows the emotions will likely come again Sunday.

“Especially on game day, that’s when it will probably hit me the most,” he told reporters in the Broncos locker room last week.

The early years

Those who know him say Moreno brings a high level of enthusiasm to the game of football.

“Whenever you needed some kind of energy, some kind of pick-me-up, you just needed to look at him,” said Howard Barbieri, who played defensive tackle for three years in high school with Moreno. “He was always excited.”

Others who have grown up as Moreno did might not have displayed such energy. His parents were teenagers in the Bronx when he was born (Knowshon is a combination of his dad’s nickname, “Knowledge,” and the first name of his mother, Varashon). He ended up with his father for several years, eventually bouncing around among homeless shelters in New York City, according to a Sports Illustrated profile.

When he was 12, his maternal grandmother, Mildred McQueen, sued for custody of her grandson and moved him to New Jersey.

Mildred McQueen, Knowshon Moreno's grandmother, visits Middletown South High School football coach Steve Antonucci.
John Leyba/The Denver Post

“What changed him, what saved him, is when Miss Mildred came into his life,” said Tony Ball, Moreno’s running back coach at the University of Georgia. “He reflects back on those tough times and he appreciates that. It was those tough times that helped him understand, nothing is given to you.”

And it was in New Jersey, at Middletown South High School, that Moreno capitalized on what was given to him in the form of natural athletic ability.

Barbieri’s favorite memory from those years is winning those three championships. But after that, it’s the leap that became Moreno’s signature. It was the end of a long drive down the field for Middletown South, late in a game.

“Everyone’s tired, and he jumped over a kid,” Barbieri recalled. “He literally hurdled over someone. On both sides of the field, everyone got up and was cheering as soon as he landed.

“He’s superathletic,” Barbieri said.

That high school game wasn’t the last time Moreno made the leap. And it’s featured on Broncos orange-and-blue T-shirts sold on Moreno’s website.

On to Georgia

Moreno carries fond recollections of his high school years, and they aren’t simply focused on football.

“A lot of great people, a lot of great teachers,” he said when asked about his high school memories. “A tight-knit group of friends … and the success we had on the football team and baseball and track. It was just a cool place to be — you just always enjoyed going to school the next day.”

But it was football that got him a scholarship to Georgia when he graduated in 2006. He redshirted his freshman year, meaning he didn’t play in any games and preserved a year of eligibility, then made the Southeastern Conference first team two years in a row with a combined 2,734 rushing yards.

Ball said that even as a freshman, Moreno had a focus that was more intense than it appeared.

“The thing I remember very vividly about him as a freshman is, we would be sitting in the meeting room and talking about the fundamental things we were going to work on and practice, and there were times when you didn’t know if he was listening,” Ball said. “But when you went out on the field and you were working those fundamental things, he would do those things exactly the way we talked about in the meeting room.”

Off the field, Moreno channeled his energy in different ways.

“He was a jokester,” Ball said. “One of the things he would do is, I would come into my meeting room and he would be hiding somewhere, or he may hide all the erasers and markers in the drop ceiling. It was always something.”

Then there was the time the Bulldogs had a 31–20 lead over Auburn and Moreno led his teammates in dancing to Soulja Boy’s “Crank That.” It was another instant classic to be repeated, in college, at least.

In 2007, Georgia went 11–2 and defeated Hawaii in the Sugar Bowl. The following year the team went 10–3, defeating Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, in which Moreno caught the final touchdown of the game — and of his college career.

A rough Bronco ride

A first-round draft pick by the Broncos in 2009, the 12th pick that year overall, Moreno played in all 16 games as a rookie. He rushed for 947 yards and seven touchdowns for head coach Josh McDaniel, while scoring twice on receptions, but his numbers fell off considerably in the final month of the season.

Injuries took their toll, and Moreno’s rookie promise was wearing thin by 2011, when legendary quarterback John Elway took over football operations and hired coach John Fox. In the new milieu, Moreno’s numbers — and his body — continued to suffer. He started two games, played in seven and tore his ACL in mid-November, sitting out the rest of the season.

An off-season drunk driving arrest (complete with personalized license plates on his Bentley reading “SAUCED”) took more of the sheen off Moreno’s image to start 2012. He pleaded guilty that September to driving while impaired.

By that time, Fox had benched Moreno after a poor performance in the second game. He ended up on the scout team for eight weeks — a lowly relegation for a once-promising first-round draft pick.

In 2013, as they had in previous years — with Willis McGahee in 2011 and Ronnie Hillman in 2012 — the Broncos brought in more competition for Moreno in the form of second-round draft pick Montee Ball.

The turnaround

Broncos fans began the season wondering which Moreno would take the field in September: Knowshon, the energetic, leaping running back, or “No-Show,” the inconsistent, oft-injured disappointment.

But Moreno became a viable running threat next to Peyton Manning and his record-setting arm, and turned in the best regular season of his five-year career.

With 13 touchdowns, he’s one of five Denver players with 10 or more touchdowns on the season. He’s the first Broncos player to ever combine 1,000 yards rushing with 500 yards receiving (finishing with 1,038 rushing and 548 receiving).

Moreno reflected on the resurgence, saying he never let up and didn’t let obstacles and distractions divert him.

“Just working hard each day,” he said. “Coming into work with an open mind, and trying to get better each day and doing what I have to do to help this team out. It’s been a good journey.”

Coach Fox noted that the 26-year-old running back has grown up.

“You’ve got to have mental toughness,” Fox said when asked about Moreno. “You’ve got to be a tough-minded individual, and Knowshon is that. Like all young people, you mature and figure out things. What’s very gratifying as a coach, myself included, is to watch people grow up, not just in their football life but in their off-the-field life.”

As testament to his hard work, Moreno shared the Ed Block Courage Foundation award with running back coach Eric Studesville, whose parents died last June after being struck by a semi in Texas while on a cross-country motorcycle trip.

Moreno was among several Broncos who attended services for Studesville’s parents.

“He’s a part of this family, and me personally, part of my family,” Moreno said.

Now Moreno is playing the big game in his home state, New Jersey, surrounded by family and friends.

“It feels good to have family and friends come out to it,” Moreno said. ”It feels good to be back home, for sure.”

But adversity appears to be rearing its head again as news broke Wednesday that the Broncos are not likely to re-sign Moreno for next season, meaning Sunday is likely his final game with the team.

Nonetheless, at Middletown South High School, there’s plenty of excitement, said Barbieri, who lives in Leonardo, N.J.

“It’s pretty crazy,” he said. “You’d never think that in high school, some kid would be playing in the Super Bowl. Everyone’s really excited to see him play and hope they come out with a win.”

Being back near home won’t distract Moreno from the ultimate goal.

“They’ll probably come out to the hotel and laugh it up,” he said of his family and friends. “Once it gets closer to game time, they got to do their own thing.”

Ray Glier contributed to this report.

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