Moreno Loved in Athens

ATHENS – Knowshon Moreno might be the most loved northerner in Georgia. The truth is, the New Jersey native is pretty popular everywhere these days, with his picture plastered across the covers of national magazines and stories about his life cropping up in newspapers from New York City to Los Angeles.

In Athens, however, Moreno is less a national celebrity and more a local hero. It's part of the beauty of college football – the legends on the field on Saturday are the same ones sitting next to fans in class Monday.

So fans get to see a lot of Moreno in restaurants, in classrooms or just around town, and he always draws the same attention from total strangers he does from defensive coordinators hoping to keep him from dashing past defenders into the end zone.

"I usually get to eat first," teammate Asher Allen said of his trips to restaurants with Moreno, "so that's good."

Longtime Georgia fans remember Herschel Walker leading their team to a national championship in 1980 and can't help but draw comparisons. Children too young to know who Walker is sport child-sized No. 24 jerseys with pride.

Moreno, however, barely notices.

"I really don't pay too much attention to it," Moreno said. "Those things don't get to me."

His aversion to fame could be a product of his intense focus on succeeding on the field. More likely, however, it's about his immovable desire to stay true to his humble New Jersey roots.

Moreno was raised by his grandmother in Bedford, N.J. At Middletown South High School, he racked up more than 6,000 career rushing yards – the second-most in state history. He arrived at Georgia as one of the most highly recruited running backs in the country, yet he accepted a redshirt his first year without complaint.

He began his second year in Athens as the third-string running back, but happily deferred to his older teammates then made the most of his playing time when it came. Eventually, he had made so much of those third-string carries, it became impossible to ignore his skill.

He took over as the starter against Vanderbilt – also earning a nod as offensive captain for the game, an honor never before given to a freshman under head coach Mark Richt. He finished the season with 1,334 yards rushing, 14 touchdowns and a rock-star status among the Georgia faithful.

It's not that Moreno is shy, but the whirlwind of popularity didn't match his personality. Among teammates and friends, he's outgoing and talkative. In public, however, he admits he's not comfortable hoarding the spotlight.

Quarterback Matthew Stafford can sympathize.

Stafford arrived in Athens at the same time as Moreno, but to much more fanfare. He was the top-rated quarterback coming out of high school. He moved halfway across the country from his Texas home. He was under the spotlight from the day he arrived, but unlike Moreno, he was on the field not long after.

The two are now among the most recognizable athletes in the state – rivaling professional counterparts in Atlanta – but according to Richt, there may not be two players better equipped to handle the hype.

"The question is, are they comfortable with it, can they manage it, can they handle that type of attention," Richt said. "I think from a point of view of are they going to get out of hand thinking they are better than they are because people say they are, I don't think that's a problem."

When your face is so familiar to so many people, however, it's easy for them all to assume you're their friend, and that's the real danger, Richt said.

"The thing with them is just getting a little bit of privacy, a little bit of peace, a little bit of sanity, because sometimes it does get a little bit insane," Richt said.

The media coverage of Moreno's rise to glory has exceeded anything available when Walker won the Heisman trophy, and Richt said the popularity surrounding Stafford and Moreno exceeds that of David Pollack and David Greene, the last dynamic duo to storm through Athens.

Stafford said he meets fans almost every day who want to take pictures or talk football. He has been asked for autographs by other students in the middle of class.

"People are just trying to be nice, so you might as well be nice back," Stafford said. "It's not a bad deal. We obviously enjoy it."

For Moreno, however, there are two sanctuaries. The first is on the football field, where his focus has set him apart from the competition. The second is back home in New Jersey, where the people don't recognize his face just from TV. They've known him for years.

"I think it's really the same when I get back home," Moreno said. "Everybody's really excited to see me. It's nothing different because I'm still the same person. It's just exciting to get back and see your friends and family."

Saturday, Moreno will get back to seeing tens of thousands of fans in No. 24 jerseys who think of him as family, too. He is their adopted son, the kid from New Jersey who came to bring Georgia back to glory.

That type of popularity is hard to ignore, even for Moreno. But for both he and Stafford, the fame isn't something they need to ignore, Allen said. It's something they've earned.

"From the weight room to off the field, these guys are such hard workers, so when you see them in magazines, see their jerseys, they deserve it," Allen said. "They're so humble. They think team-first all the time."

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