JERSEY CITY, N.J. (AP) — Knowshon Moreno still cherishes the weekly phone calls and texts from his high school coach.
After all, they've helped the Denver Broncos running back through some tough times and celebrated great moments in the years since he graduated from New Jersey's Middletown South High School. There have been plenty of both for Moreno, who is back home this week and preparing for the biggest game of his life.
And, of course, he can count on hearing from Steve Antonucci. Just like always.
"I told him from the moment he graduated from high school that I didn't care if he carried the football or not," said Antonucci, who won three state titles with Moreno setting records in his backfield. "I told him, 'I'm always going to be here. I'm not just your coach. I'm your friend.' He's always come to me.
"He's as much a part of my family as anybody."
Moreno, who was in and out of shelters and apartments with his father as a youngster, moved to the town of Belford in New Jersey with his maternal grandmother Mildred McQueen when he was 11. She raised him through his formative years, and did all she could to steer him in a positive direction.
By the time he got to high school, Moreno had dealt with more adversity than many adults. It's a journey upon which he reflects before every game, usually during the national anthem, and usually accompanied by tears — a pregame ritual that became a hot topic when TV cameras caught him crying before a game last month.
"It made me into the person that I am today," Moreno said Monday. "Just learning from my experiences, going in and out of doing what I was doing, shelters and things like that, that's part of life. Everyone goes through different things. It's how you battle back from that and see the positive in all the negative.
"I think I did a good job of that."
Moreno graduated from Middletown South as New Jersey's career leader in total touchdowns (128) and scoring (782 points). He also ranked second in state history with 6,268 career yards rushing and established himself as one of the country's most gifted football players.
"When I tell you that he was an ultra-competitor, he really was one," Antonucci said. "It didn't matter what game he was playing or what he was doing. He had to win. Just had to. He would compete at chess or volleyball or a bike race, or we'd play golf sometimes and it would become a competition."
Moreno followed that up with a terrific career at the University of Georgia, where he rushed for 2,734 yards and 30 touchdowns in two seasons after redshirting as a freshman.
"When you watched him playing high school football games, you saw how dominant he was and the way he took games over," Antonucci said. "When he decided to go to Georgia and made that decision, what really stood out to me was he dominated the SEC for two years. When you talk to people about SEC football, they say it's the next-closest thing to the NFL."
He was a first-round pick of Denver, going 12th overall in 2009, and considered by many to be the top running back available that year.
But the road to stardom in the pros was filled with plenty of potholes, including injuries, a DUI arrest, bouts of ineffectiveness and a bust label that grew increasingly larger. He was benched last season and not active for two months after dealing with fumble issues. Moreno then promised himself he'd not let a second chance slip through his hands — if he got one.
"You make mistakes and things happen," Moreno said. "For me, I just wanted to get better. My role was not to be playing on Sundays. Wednesday was my Sunday. Thursday was my Sunday when I was out there on the scout team trying to make the defense better."
Sundays became, well, Sundays again this season as he regained the trust of coach John Fox and became a major part of the offense with Peyton Manning. Moreno ran for a career-high 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns, while also setting personal marks with 60 catches for 548 yards.
All without losing a single fumble.
"I just feel very comfortable with No. 27 standing next to me," Manning said. "He has been through a lot in his life and his football career. He has paid his dues, and I'm happy for him that he has this opportunity to play in his first Super Bowl. And I'm looking forward to playing in it with him next Sunday."
Antonucci had no doubts Moreno would turn things around. He had already seen him do it off the field. But to know that Moreno could walk off the field a Super Bowl champion at MetLife Stadium — less than an hour away from where he used to make jaws drop in high school — excited his former coach.
"I try to keep finding a word, and maybe I'll look one up later today, to express how proud I am that's even better than 'proud,'" Antonucci said. "I'm as proud as anybody could be. There's no better word right now, but if there was, I would use it.
"It's just so satisfying because this whole journey started way back when Knowshon was a freshman and it has finally come to fruition."