- Alyssa Roenigk, ESPN The Magazine senior writer
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Fate has brought him here. At least that's what the Georgia football faithful buzzing around Transmetropolitan, a bar and pizzeria in downtown Athens, believe. Knowshon Moreno, the running back who many Bulldogs fans think might be the second coming of Herschel Walker, is seated at a long, rectangular table smack-dab in the center of the joint. If his party weren't so big, if Moreno didn't have to sit at the biggest table in the restaurant, he'd likely be near the back, maybe by the kitchen or in a corner. Someplace he could celebrate his 21st birthday in peace, which he gets less and less of these days.
Moreno is trying hard to focus on a conversation between his girlfriend, former Georgia gymnast Nikki Childs, and his aunt Michelle. He is also trying to catch up with his high school buddy Mark Longo, who drove 14 hours from Cornell to celebrate. A steady stream of students stop by to pat Moreno on the shoulder and wish him luck this season. Moreno returns the admiration graciously, all handshakes and grins. He beams youthful charisma.
But when it comes to the reporter sitting next to his grandma Mildred, he is ill at ease. The moment she walked in, he pressed the pause button on the free-flowing personality he reserves for those who know him as more than Knowshon Moreno, Georgia football star. In the past year, he's become pretty good at filtering out the humble kid who says he "doesn't take anything too serious," who loves to bowl, golf and may supplement his consumer econ major with an acting class this year. He's always polite and chatty and smiles when he thinks he should smile, but he's also visibly uncomfortable, fidgety and, at times, has the look of someone who's carrying half the Florida defense on his back.
Perhaps it's because football fans in love are a needy bunch. Especially when their crush has been 28 years in the making. That's how long it's been since Georgia football last won a national title. Those undefeated Dawgs were led by a freshman back with an ironic last name who'd win the Heisman two years later. But since Herschel Walker bolted for the USFL, no Georgia tailback—not Garrison Hearst, Terrell Davis, Robert Edwards, Musa Smith or Thomas Brown—has come remotely close to matching his success. So the way these fans look at it, there could be only one reason Moreno has come here: to return their program to greatness. The universe must have stepped in, right? How else to explain why a running back from Belford, N.J. (pop.: 1,340), a kid who'd never even heard of Walker, paved a path to the Peach State?
On July 16, 1987, as the Bulldogs football team arrived at its practice facility for morning workouts, the future of the program entered the world in a delivery room at Palisades General Hospital in New Jersey. Knowshon Moreno would become one of the most prolific running backs in New Jersey high school history, finishing his career as the state's all-time leading scorer while carrying his team to 36 straight wins and three state titles. He'd set school track records in the 100 meters, long jump and triple jump, and in 2006, he'd sign a letter of intent to attend Georgia, a promise ring binding him to the Bulldogs and their fans. But on the day he was born, his parents, Varashon McQueen and Freddie "Knowledge" Moreno, knew only that they held an eight-pound boy who wouldn't stop moving.
They put him in sports early, and Moreno, a visual learner, picked up games just by watching someone better than him. He shined in a preteen trifecta: youth league basketball, Little League baseball and, for a while, Pop Warner football. At least until he hit middle school weighing 160 pounds, more than the league's weight limit. That left him in football purgatory: too big for Pop Warner, too young for high school. So Moreno challenged every kid he could find on the Bayshore Middle School playground. He spent part of one gym class eluding 25 eighth-graders, all of whom tried to tackle him for nearly a minute.
Al Bigos, Moreno's gym teacher, was defensive coordinator at nearby Middletown High School South. He made regular calls to the school's head coach Steve Antonucci with stories about "that Moreno kid." And when the first day of high school football practice finally arrived for Moreno, it was tough to tell who was more enthusiastic, that kid or his coaches. "He was so exciting," Antonucci says, still a little giddy. "Every day was a learning experience for him."
After a tackle, Moreno raced to beat defenders to their feet. After a play, he sprinted back to the huddle. "Most of what I did was instinct," he says. At practice, he finished gameworthy runs with a backflip (which he taught himself) or a round of high-fives. Says Antonucci: "Our entire team became known by his 'get down, get right back up, never quit' personality."
This attitude is how Moreno put himself at ease, something he'd picked up as a boy bouncing between his dad in the Bronx and his mom in New Jersey. Then, for more permanence before high school, he moved in with Grandma Mildred, an employee of the Postal Inspection Service, and Grandpa William, a sleight-of-hand magician by trade. "He didn't have a lot of structure early on," says Mildred. "But Shon was a good kid and never had a problem as far as discipline. If he did something that wasn't appropriate, I just talked to him."
With his eyes now fully set on football, Moreno steadily improved from game to game his freshman year. His sophomore season, a bigger and stronger Moreno mowed over tacklers while amassing 1,429 yards and 30 TDs. Realizing he was coaching a phenom, Antonucci suggested Moreno sign up for an SAT prep course run by Jean D'Arcy Maculaitis, who had tutored a lot of local athletes. This, Georgia fans, is when fate starts to reveal its master plan.
During Dr. Mac's study sessions, Moreno became tight with Kade Weston, a 300-pound defensive tackle from nearby rival Red Bank Regional High School. When Weston, a grade ahead of Moreno, began to look at colleges, he zeroed in on Rutgers. But one day after class, Dr. Mac suggested that Weston check out Georgia, her daughter's alma mater. Weston agreed, attended the school's annual high school camp and, by the end of that year, had committed to the Bulldogs. "When it was Knowshon's time," Weston says, "I told him he had to come to camp."
When Mildred found out that her grandson wanted to visit Georgia, she swooned at the serendipity. "I couldn't believe it," says the woman who was born in Georgia, raised in Alabama and has family living within an hour of Athens. When Georgia recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner told her he'd grown up in Leeds, Ala., she felt an instant connection. A cosmic draw, you might say.
By the end of his senior season, Moreno felt it too. "I just wanted a school I'd like even if I wasn't playing football," he says. He didn't fret that Georgia was carrying four talented tailbacks. "That was a testament to Knowshon's confidence in his ability," says Georgia running backs coach Tony Ball. "He knew he was just as talented, or more, than the guys here." Or it's indicative of how little Moreno paid attention to football, at least before it became impossible for him to ignore. "He called me up one Sunday his senior year and said, 'Hey, Coach, what are you doing?'" says Middletown South track coach Kathleen Clifton. "I said, 'What am I doing? What are you doing?' He said, 'I'm at Dunkin' Donuts buying a Coolatta. What are you doing?' I said, 'I'm doing what everyone else is doing: watching the Super Bowl.' "
Moreno quickly learned to focus on the game when he arrived in Athens and was redshirted by Georgia coach Mark Richt. It felt like middle school again, where Moreno got plenty of practice but no PT. So he acted like he was back on the Bayshore playground, challenging every Dawg on the field. "I was trying to make the defense work," he says. "It helped them and made me better."
When the team ran stadium steps, at 6 a.m., Moreno bounded the stairs two at a time, passing his half-asleep teammates and hollering all the way to the top. His intensity caught many teammates off guard and plain pissed off some upperclassmen. But when they realized Moreno wasn't going to back off or slow down, their attitude changed. "He works every play at 100%, and eventually that rubs off on you," says fullback Brannon Southerland, a senior. "I'm three years older than Knowshon, and I look at him as a leader."
Assistant coaches, realizing the talent they had on their sideline, asked Richt to pull Moreno's redshirt. "We knew we had something special," Garner says. "The energy he brought gave a boost to the program." By midseason, they were begging. But Richt wouldn't back down. "Knowshon would have been outstanding as a true freshman, no question," he says. "But sometimes, too much too soon is difficult for a young man to handle." Richt knew what Moreno is still only figuring out: Being the top Dawg requires more than bowling over tacklers.
Last season, when Moreno finally began suiting up for games, Mildred and a rotating cast of family, friends and coaches made the trip to nearly every home game. The day Moreno's No. 24 jerseys went on sale, Aunt Michelle bought every one she could find and had "Moreno" stitched on the back. At first, fans seated nearby asked her, "Who's that?" That didn't last long. In the Bulldogs' second game, against South Carolina, Moreno racked up 104 yards on 14 carries while spelling starter Thomas Brown. At the game, a man in a red Georgia cap approached Michelle. "He said, 'Trust me, by Game 7, Knowshon will be a starter,' " she says. "It was like he was a prophet."
As fate would have it, the 5'11", 207-pound redshirt freshman made his first start in the seventh game of the year, against Vanderbilt. Moreno ran over the Commodores for 157 yards on 28 carries. It was the first of five straight 100-yard games. The last Bulldog to do that? Herschel Walker. "When Knowshon runs, he looks like a ballerina," Garner says. By season's end, Moreno had danced his way to 1,334 yards on 248 carries, the second highest tally by a freshman in Georgia history, after only—well, you know who.
But it's the stuff Moreno does that doesn't get counted that makes him the face of the Dawgs. Like when Georgia got out to an early lead against Auburn last season and the stadium speakers blasted Soulja Boy and Moreno started a line dance on the sideline. Or how, after Florida safety Tony Joiner brought him down with a TD-saving tackle, Moreno bounced to his feet as if made of rubber—then high-fived the Gator. During Garner's midseason recruiting calls, coaches from Georgia to Jersey recounted stories of their own wannabe Knowshons. They told him their running backs popped up after tackles, raced to beat defenders to their feet and sprinted back to huddles yelling, "I'm Knowshon Moreno!"
At this moment, though, the real Knowshon is standing at the head of a table in a pizza joint, surrounded by family and friends, happily posing for a birthday photo. And yes, that reporter is still hanging around. But he's slowly getting used to her, loosening up and acting more and more like the backflipping, line-dancing, high-fiving spark plug Georgia fans have grown to love. "Knowshon went from being a guy a few had heard about to a very big celebrity in these parts in a couple months," Richt says. "His life changed drastically, and that was a big shock to his system. But he's much more equipped to handle that than he would have been a year ago."
Only now a bigger audience looms. It's not just the Athens faithful who want to know everything about him, but also the haters in Gainesville and the skeptics in Columbus. It's not just older fans who remember Herschel Walker who are hyping Moreno as a Heisman candidate; it's college football observers everywhere. And it's not just Dawg Nation that expects big things from Georgia, but most every expert in the country—including The Mag—believes Moreno's team will be playing for the BCS championship on Jan. 8. The hype isn't going away anytime soon, whether Moreno is ready or not.
Because this is his fate.
15hMarc Stein and Ramona Shelburne