YOU SAW the tears. And you can't forget the tears because they were unlike any two tears you have seen. Maybe you saw them while watching CBS's broadcast of the Broncos game in Kansas City on Dec. 1, when cameras caught Denver running back Knowshon Moreno crying during the closing notes of the national anthem. Or perhaps you caught them coming out of a second-quarter commercial break, the moment rebroadcast after Moreno scored on a three-yard pass from Peyton Manning. Or maybe you saw the tears later that night on SportsCenter. Or in the GIFs and mash-ups and montages that swept across the Internet like a winter storm: Knowshon crying to Whitney Houston, Knowshon crying to Michael Bolton, Knowshon crying to Justin Timberlake.
This is an article from the Jan. 13, 2014 issue
The tears formed at the base of Moreno's eyes and then rushed over his cheekbones as if they were blasted from tiny garden hoses, enough water to nurture the grass at his feet on the Arrowhead Stadium sideline, to hydrate any small animals that might have wandered past. "Alligator tears," Paige Elway said to her husband, Broncos executive vice president John Elway, so impressed that she mixed both reptiles and idioms. It was an outpouring that reduced famous weepers Dick Vermeil and Terrell Owens and Ray Lewis to wannabes. "I've never seen anybody cry like that," says Denver left guard Zane Beadles. "Never seen that amount of tears."
On the team flight back to Denver after a 35--28 win, players passed around screenshots and video of Moreno's lachrymal moment. "Guys were joking around," says rookie running back Montee Ball, "saying that they heard Knowshon slobbering and sobbing all over the place." At least three Twitter accounts were created for Knowshon's Tears. Back in Belford, N.J., where Moreno spent his adolescence, his grandmother and guardian, Mildred McQueen, started getting phone calls soon after CBS showed the tears, from friends and family.
They wanted to know, Why is Knowshon crying?
YOU WERE curious too. You saw those tears and you wondered, What makes a player cry like that before a game? Especially a player like Knowshon Moreno, who is finally thriving in the NFL. In his fifth season, the 5'10", 215-pound Moreno rushed for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns, both career highs. He caught 60 passes for 548 yards, by far the best in his career, and three more TDs. And he did this for a team with 13 wins and home field for as long as it survives in the AFC playoffs—Denver will face the Chargers on Jan. 12—peaking with a 37-carry, 224-yard game in the bitter cold against the Patriots on Nov. 24. "He's been our bell cow," says coach John Fox, evoking the bovine metaphor that coaches lovingly employ to describe the most reliable of running backs. Moreno has earned Manning's trust and respect, and there is no more valuable currency in the Broncos' locker room—or in any locker room west of Foxborough. "He's a horse," says Manning, opting for the equine metaphor. "I love his passion. I love his intensity. I love having him standing next to me back there. It's a very comfortable feeling."
Still, those tears. Only two of them, but each enough to fill a shot glass; Hollywood tears, Broadway tears, the tears of a broken, beaten, fearful man. Or not. Here the 26-year-old Moreno sits in an overstuffed leather chair in the glass-walled lobby of the Broncos' training facility in the Denver suburbs. Outside the temperature has not risen above single digits in several December days, and blinding sunshine bounces off piles of snow. "The tears?" Moreno is asked.
"Not uncommon at all," he says. "It's always been that way for me, all the way back to high school and college. During the anthem it's always quiet and still, so I take in the moment and say a little prayer. Usually there's no camera on me. I thank the Lord for letting me play the game. I thank Him for everything. I run through my whole life right there at that moment. Even the bad stuff."
The bad stuff. Like spending much of the first 10 years of his life bouncing between ramshackle apartments and homeless shelters in New York City with his young father. Like emerging from that struggle, through the love and generosity of his grandmother, to become a star at Middletown (N.J.) South High and at Georgia, to be taken with the 12th pick in the NFL draft, and then seeing that career imperiled by the punishing combination of wealth, stupidity and injury. Like finding himself a stereotype—a rich, young athlete driving a Bentley with comically inappropriate vanity plates, arrested for DUI. Like being stuck, in his fourth year as a professional, imitating other teams' running backs all week on the scout team, wearing sweats on Sunday afternoons, labeled a bust: No-Show Moreno. Like injuring his hamstring. Like blowing out his ACL. Like hurting the reconstructed knee again.
All that bad stuff.
HIS STORY has been told often, but only from the age of 11 onward. Family members preferred it that way. The story always made passing reference to a father and a mother and to the construction of Knowshon's unusual name, but only began in earnest when he was in middle school in New Jersey, living with McQueen, his maternal grandmother, outrunning his classmates in furious games of tag, hinting at the athletic skills that would carry him all the way to the NFL. But there is more.
Sitting in the glass lobby of the Broncos' practice facility, Moreno sketches the edges of a life he lived as a child. He tells the story only because he was asked, and he tells it without pause or drama, with the same smile he wears for most of every day. He sheds no tears, alligator or otherwise. Afterward, Moreno's mother, grandmother and his uncle Gary, three relatives with whom he has close relationships, fill in more details about Knowshon's early life. His father does not participate in the retelling of this story.
Moreno was born as the child of two children: His mother, Varashon McQueen, was 16 when Knowshon was conceived; his father, Freddie Moreno, was 17. Both teenagers lived in the Bronx. Varashon, one of three children, was named after a character in a short story written by her father, William McQueen. Freddie was called Knowledge, a name he received as a member of the Five Percent Nation, an offshoot of the Nation of Islam that was founded in the 1960s; he was the second of five children born to Puerto Rican immigrants and was raised by his mother at a housing project on Fish Avenue. The young couple gave their son a name built from their own: Know for Knowledge, Shon for Varashon.
Knowshon lived briefly with both of his parents, but the couple never got married and did not stay together long. "[Varashon] was young, and she got herself into certain situations as young people sometimes do," says Mildred of her daughter. ("When I was young," says Varashon, "I was out going to a lot of clubs and parties—that's true.")
As a toddler, Knowshon was moved among several residences, living sometimes with his paternal grandmother, sometimes with his father and sometimes with his grandmother and mother in New Jersey. He was seldom in the same place for more than a week or two. "I just remember going back and forth," says Knowshon. "It seemed like I was all over [New York City's five] boroughs."
Knowshon's father eventually became his primary caregiver, and the two of them lived together. It is unclear how this arrangement took root, although Varashon says that she was not happy with it. (Mildred McQueen says she is unaware of how Knowshon came to live with his father; SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's attempts to reach Freddie Moreno were unsuccessful.)
In his early 20s, according to Gary, Freddie designed T-shirts and sold them off a table near his apartment building on West 133rd Street, in Harlem. Knowshon remembers the T-shirts. "They had cartoon characters," he says, "and sequins." Freddie would sell his wares into the small hours of the morning, with his young son nearby, helping out. "I can't say it was fun, really; it was business," says Knowshon. "But it was exciting when we sold a shirt and somebody gave you money for it."
That business did not endure. Freddie and Knowshon left the Harlem apartment, and when he was, Knowshon estimates, between six and nine, they moved frequently. Sometimes they were able to find a small apartment, but they also lived for long periods in homeless shelters. "It was a tough situation," says Gary Moreno, 41, an audio-video specialist with the accounting firm Deloitte. "My brother and 'Shon would find an apartment, and that would be good for a few months. Then they would have to move and the shelter situation would come up again. That cycle repeated itself a few times." Most of the shelters were in the Bronx or upper Manhattan, and Knowshon says he attended school as often as possible while moving between shelters and apartments.
"I guess you could say it was a little bit of a struggle for us, going from shelter to shelter," says Knowshon. "It would be tough for anybody, but it was something we had to do. And everyone there was in the same situation. Everyone was hungry. We always made do. When we were in an apartment, whatever we had in the house, we'd eat—bread and ketchup, I remember that. It was delicious at the time. I used to kill those sandwiches. My grandma was there a lot, to help us out. She would give us a few dollars, and we could go to the store or whatever, just to get by."
McQueen, now 71, was born Mildred Howard in Edison, Ga., and later moved with her family to the southeastern Alabama town of Ashford. Her father was a farmer and subsequently worked on the railroad and in a paper mill. Mildred attended Alabama State for a year and then moved north to New York City, where she met and married a professional magician and amateur writer named William McQueen. Later, as a grandmother, she doted on Knowshon from birth and became gradually more troubled during visits to shelters to see him. "I definitely did not approve of the situation," she says today. "I felt I had to take over because I didn't want to see [Knowshon] end up on the street, and I could see that coming. I decided to step in and make the best of it."
McQueen says she sued for and was awarded custody of Knowshon in Bronx Family Court. To that point the young boy had periodically spent time living with McQueen; now, at 12, he was moving into a bedroom in her home in Atlantic Highlands, N.J. Shortly thereafter they moved to Belford, a coastal town 10 miles—and a world—across Sandy Hook Bay from Brooklyn and the rest of New York City.
It was just the two of them; William McQueen had relocated to Florida for easier access to the cruise ships that employed him onboard. (He still lives there, apart from Mildred, though the couple remains married.) On visits home William taught Knowshon the very magic tricks—such as the "multiple coin trick"—that the running back will occasionally drop on a teammate today. Moreno has sustained a relationship with his mother, who is now 44, lives near Mildred in New Jersey and says she is studying to obtain an online degree in psychology while receiving financial support from her son. Knowshon describes his relationship with his father as more distant. "I talk to my dad once in a while," he says. "Usually when he's at my uncle's house."
Knowshon made the varsity team as a freshman at Middletown South. "He fumbled a couple times in a game against Neptune High his freshman year," says Steve Antonucci, Moreno's coach. "And he came over to the bench and said to me, 'I can't do this, take me out.' I said, 'Are you out of your mind? You're the best player on the field.' I threw him back out there, and he scored two touchdowns."
Middletown South didn't lose a game after Knowshon's freshman season, winning three state titles. Moreno rushed for more than 6,000 yards and accepted a scholarship to Georgia, where he redshirted one season and then rushed for 2,734 yards and 30 touchdowns in two years. He left for the NFL without submitting paperwork requesting an evaluation of his probable draft status, a service available to potential draftees with college eligibility remaining. ("I forgot to do that," he says, "but I knew I was going somewhere else to compete.") The first running back taken in the 2009 draft, he signed a five-year, $16.7 million contract.
His career began relatively smoothly; Moreno led the Broncos with 947 yards that year and started the first two games of 2010 before missing the next three with a left hamstring injury. He recovered to finish the season with a team-leading 779 yards and 37 receptions. In '11, the staff that drafted Moreno, including coach Josh McDaniels, was gone, and as Tim Tebow led the Broncos to their surreal playoff run, Moreno was nagged for most of the season by that same dodgy hamstring. (Moreno had inexplicably dived into Crossfit training in the off-season, and while he says he was in "great shape," he'd also dropped to 195 pounds from his customary 215.) He didn't get on the field in two of the first three games and then played sporadically for the next six weeks, mostly as a third-down back. Still, Fox, in his first year as coach, saw promise. "He was coming back," says Fox. "He was getting sharper."
In Week 10 at Kansas City, Moreno broke a 24-yard first-quarter gain on which he hurdled Chiefs safety Brandon Flowers. Late in the first quarter he popped outside and went for 22 more yards—"an explosive run," says Fox—but tore his right ACL on the play, ending his season just as he seemed to be on the cusp of validating his draft spot and his contract.
Less than three months later, in early February 2012, Moreno was stopped by police for driving 70 mph in a 45-mph construction zone. He failed a Breathalyzer test and was charged with driving under the influence. The plates on his Bentley convertible read sauced, a punch line that didn't need a joke. (Months later Gary Moreno would explain that sauced and saucy were commonly used among Moreno family members to describe a lively, aggressive attitude. Try selling that to Twitter.) Moreno paid a fine and was sentenced to 24 hours of community service. That spring, Elway drafted running back Ronnie Hillman from San Diego State in the third round and brought back veteran Willis McGahee for a second year. A writer for NFL.com proffered, "We wouldn't be surprised to see [Moreno] released by the team before the season."
In the first two weeks of 2012 he carried just eight times for 15 yards—and lost a fumble. He was placed on the inactive list for the next eight games and relegated to the scout team during the week. But this is the thing about Moreno: You can hurt him, you can bench him, you can make him live in a homeless shelter. But you cannot break him. For eight weeks he became a beast on the "look squad" (so named because it gives the first team a good look at the upcoming opponent). The scout team quarterback was journeyman Caleb Hanie. "On scout team," says Hanie, a five-year veteran, "I've seen good players who sulk and take a couple reps because the coach is making them do it, and then just sit out. With Knowshon, you had to pull him off the field. I didn't know what to expect from him, but he seemed like he put everything out of his mind and went to work every day."
During the season Moreno talked to his uncle Gary. "He said, 'I'm back in the shelter again,' " says Gary. "That's the way he looked at it. He said, 'I'm gonna do what I gotta do to make it right.' "
"This is a business," says Moreno. "What could I do? They wanted to take a look at the young guy, Hillman. Some guys get mad or go in the tank. I'm the kind of guy who doesn't harp on things I can't control. I tried to be ready to play at any time."
That moment arrived on Nov. 18, 2012, when McGahee was injured in Denver, against the Chargers. Moreno started the last six games of the year and rushed for 510 yards. Bell-cow territory. But in the third quarter of what would become a playoff loss to the Ravens, he reinjured his right knee. He went back to Dr. James Andrews, who, Moreno says, "cleaned out" some meniscus damage and also gave him a stem cell injection to promote healing in the joint.
This year he's been more than just the team's most reliable running back; he's been a maturing presence in the locker room. Through the early years of his career he was a ball of frantic energy, often without direction, bouncing around the locker room like a grade-schooler on Red Bull. "He was kind of crazy-passionate," says Fox. Now that passion has been refined. "He's channeled that energy," adds kicker Matt Prater, one of Moreno's best friends on the team. "He's settled down and learned when to use it."
When Ball, a second-round pick brought in to challenge Moreno, fumbled against New England in that Week 12 game, he sought out Moreno the next day. "I knew he had a experience with fumbling," says Ball. "He told me, You're holding the entire organization in your hands when you carry the ball; your teammates and the coaches and fans—everybody. It's a mental thing. Everybody holds the ball tight. He helped me realize how much it means to hold that football."
MORENO HAS no bigger fan than Manning. Since Knowshon was in high school, he has habitually jumped up from tackles and jogged back to the huddle (or the no-huddle). "I love how fast he gets up," says Manning, never one to overlook details. "My dad even mentioned that to me. He's getting some big hits the way he plays, but he hops right up. That's deflating to a defense. I've seen guys who have been through a lot. Knowshon had high expectations, then he had to compete for a roster spot, then play on scout team. He knew that could be it. And his attitude has been the best it could possibly be."
Still, it's not always easy to throttle back the energy. On Oct. 6, with 1:40 left in the fourth quarter, the Broncos were in a historic shootout with the Cowboys in Dallas, tied at 48 and facing third-and-one from just outside the Cowboys' one-yard line. With the Broncos lined up in formation, Manning can be seen on the CBS telecast walking back to Moreno and talking animatedly. Moreno waves his arms, as if frustrated. "If we score a touchdown there, they get the ball back and maybe go down and score a touchdown to tie it," explains Manning now. "So I'm saying to him, 'Knowshon, you've got to get one yard, but you can't get two.' And he's arguing back at me. 'I can't do that! I can't do that!' I said, 'You've got to do that.' He only knows one speed, so I know it's killing him. It was so against his nature. But he did it, and he got one yard and he kind of eased up and went down. And we kicked the field goal and won."
Moreno asks, "Do you know how hard it is to gain exactly one yard?"
It's not so hard to get rid of a Bentley. Moreno now drives a Dodge Charger V10—not exactly a family sedan, but a major step back in terms of bling. The license plates? "Numbers and letters," says Moreno. He might have the opportunity to trade up again if he wishes: His career year has come on the cusp of unrestricted free agency.
Much of Moreno's social life takes place in front of a TV screen with an Xbox controller in his hands and a headset stretched across his skull. Prater is among his closest friends but says, "Most of our conversations are over the headset, playing games. Knowshon is a serious gamer." It's through gaming that Moreno stays tight with his friends back in New York City—most pointedly his uncle Gary and his cousin Rasheem (Wonder) Wells, but also the other members of a team they call Kings of the Street. They go by Obvious, Johnny Handsome, Mr. Barrio, Film and Bubbles, and they play Madden, NBA 2K and Battlefield until their fingers bleed.
They all live across the cold Hudson River from New Jersey, where Knowshon grew fast and strong and where the Super Bowl will be played on the first weekend in February. If the Broncos get that far and the jets fly overhead, the fireworks explode and the anthem is sung, of this you can be certain: There will be tears.
Moreno's Broncos had a first-round bye last weekend; for more in-depth profiles on players who advanced to the divisional round, check out Faces of the Playoffs, all week long on TheMMQB.com