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Fifteen-hour trek from N.J. to Georgia right path for Moreno.


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MIDDLETOWN, N.J. — Knowshon Moreno is on top of the Georgia Bulldogs world looking down on elation.

Fans — even a Rhodes Scholar — are ready to chisel him on the program’s Mount Rushmore as a legend in the making.

“Can one person alone make a difference?” asked Deep Shah during his Georgia spring commencement speech. “Sure. Especially if his name is Knowshon.”

Moreno’s No. 24 jerseys — particularly those of the black variety — have become what to wear to Sanford Stadium.

We can dress like Moreno, but we can’t run and juke and spin away from defenders like Moreno. We can’t leap with the ball extended over Florida’s defense like Moreno, setting off a celebration for the ages.

What we can do is roll like Moreno. For nearly 800 miles each way. On Amtrak’s Crescent Line. The same way Moreno traveled from New Jersey on his first trip to Athens for a summer camp in 2005, before his senior year at Middletown South High.

Not that Moreno would recommend taking a Midnight Train to (or from) Georgia. “That was a long trip,” Moreno said. “I’m not taking the train again. Fly in to Newark. In and out. Best way to do it.”

That’s the easy way. Not if we want to experience America the way Moreno did when he made the round trip by train.

Clear your schedule. It’s at least 15 hours. Each way.

“I slept most of the time,” Moreno said.

Nobody can remember exactly the way Moreno traveled. Metropark to Atlanta. Middletown to Gainesville. Newark to Toccoa. Ask three different people, get three different answers. Ask a fourth and get the final answer — Trenton to Toccoa.

His mode of transportation to Athens harkens to a time when Georgia coach Wally Butts sent a train ticket to Yeadon, Penn., for future College Football Hall of Famer John Rauch to come South for a tryout back when teams actually could have tryouts.

On the tracks

We’re heading north, riding in coach to soak up the part of Jersey Moreno calls home.

The first thing you notice about train travel is the people. There seems to be more elderly and less affluent people than you find on a plane flight.

It’s kind of bumpy. There’s an unexpected half-hour stop for an apparent mechanical issue when the air condition conks out. There’s the hum of iPods blaring and laptops booting.

Gainesville, Ga. Greenville, S.C. Charlotte, N.C. The train moves north as night becomes early morning.

In a summer of $4-a-gallon gas and rising air fares, the train is becoming a more affordable way to travel. It’s only six bucks for scrambled eggs, potatoes, a biscuit and coffee in the dining car.

Not bad.

Lynchburg, Va. Charlottesville, Va. More passengers jump aboard.

Past Montpellier (home of James Madison), the Washington Monument and Capitol, Baltimore, past the factories and financial institutions in Wilmington, Del., and into Philadelphia and finally New Jersey.

Surprise landing

Moreno traveled by rail just like current Bulldogs defensive tackle Kade Weston, from nearby Red Bank, N.J., did a year earlier.

“Knowshon, when your time comes, I’ll send you to Georgia, too,” Dr. Jean D’Arcy Maculaitis, who runs a college prepatory testing center in the area, remembers telling him. “You interested?”

Maculaitis played an integral role in putting Weston and Moreno on track to become academically eligible for college.

Even so, Mark Richt was pretty sure Moreno wasn’t too interested in playing for Georgia. “I didn’t think we had any chance of getting him,” Richt said. “Not only did he show up kind of unannounced — I didn’t know who he was when he showed up — I met him because he ended up here early (at the football offices) and he was kind of bopping around.”

Maculaitis, whose daughter graduated from Georgia, thought that the warm climate would suit Weston, who is originally from the island of Trinidad.

Moreno got a taste of the South’s scorching summer right away.

Moreno and another hotshot running back recruit, Caleb King, worked together during agility drills. “It was hot,” Richt said. “Smoking hot. They kept grinding these guys. It was almost like ‘Who’s going to break first?’ "

Richt figured he might have lost both players right there and then. Eventually, he landed them both.

In the land of Springsteen and a Queen

Moreno is from the Belford section of Middletown, a 42-square mile community of more than 67,000. Commuters like its proximity to New York City. Middletown is just 25 miles south across the Raritan Bay.

Bruce Springsteen lives in nearby Rumson. Jon Bon Jovi is also from these parts and is a big supporter of Pop Warner football. The locals also can claim Newark-born Queen Latifah, who lives in nearby Colts Neck.

Money Magazine ranked Middletown No. 86 among best places to live in America citing its “distinct neighborhoods,” schools and proximity to the beach. One downside: upper middle class price-tags on real estate.

“I loved it around here,” said Mildred McQueen, Knowshon’s grandmother, sitting in the kitchen of her home in Belford, which has a population of 1,340.

Mildred McQueen was born in Edison, Ga., about 40 miles west of Albany and she moved to Ashford, Ala., 10 miles outside of Dothan when she was five. An adventurous spirit, she said, brought her in the early 1960s to New York, where Knowshon’s mother was born.

Knowshon’s name is a combination of his father (Freddie “Knowledge”) and mother (Varashon). “She put the two together,” McQueen said.

McQueen, a retired Newark postal and a part-time contract employee in New York, was largely responsible for raising Knowshon, who lived in New York with his mother for a time.

King of dodgeball

Before Moreno made a name for himself in football, he was a game-changer in Bayshore Ball.

That’s the name that Bayshore Middle School teacher Al Bigos gave to a modified version of kickball. It had a little dodgeball thrown in. Players darted around the diamond set up in the gymnasium and tried to avoid being pegged.

“Basically for three years, I may have gotten him like once or twice,” Bigos said. “His thing when he was in eighth grade and getting ready to graduate, he said, ‘Mr. Bigos, you should change the name of your game to ’Shon Ball because you never got me.’ He was ultra-competitive at that stuff. There were just beads of sweat running off him in phys ed class and he just never turned it off.”

Bigos, Middletown South’s defensive coordinator, told head coach Steve Antonucci about the rising talent that was doing “this freaky stuff.”

By the time Moreno finished his prep football career, he was the state’s all-time leader in points (782) and touchdowns (128) and had the second-most rushing yards in New Jersey history (6,268).

Moreno led Middletown South to three straight state titles from 2003-05. Moreno finished his career with the Eagles on a 36-game winning streak.

“We were pretty good, but at the same time, we had a lot of fun, all the guys around there,” Moreno said. “It was nice to win that many championships and that many games in a row.”

Antonucci won one before Moreno arrived and another the year after he left.

“Never seen anything like him,” Antonucci said. “I don’t think I realized how talented he was until he left. The great thing about his team is there were other players. The best football player I’ve ever seen is that kid. There’s no doubt.”

Art of elusion

“How did he do just that? I can’t believe my eyes.”

Knowshon apparently acquired the gift of showmanship from his grandfather, William McQueen, a magician who performed on cruise ships for corporate gatherings and lives most of the time in Florida.

“Mostly slight-of-hand tricks,” Mildred McQueen explained. “Once he used to try out tricks on me. Once you know the trick is done, you become disinterested. I like to be entertained, too.”

The magician taught the grandson how to play chess.

Word got out at Middletown South that Moreno wasn’t too shabby not only with a football, but with kings, queens and rooks.

“Can we use Knowshon?” the school’s chess coach asked Antonucci when he needed an alternate.

In his essay to Georgia on his application, Moreno wrote about how his grandfather taught him to play chess, but would never let him win. When Moreno finally defeated the old man, it was a great day for the proud grandfather.

“To Knowshon, football is chess on grass,” said Maculaitis, the testing instructor. “Just like he can see the whole chess board, he can see all of those players.”

Moreno has been known to wear a pink shirt to the bowling alley. He wore his grandmother’s gold slippers to school on gameday.

Yes, like a magician, Moreno has a unique flair.

“He’s mentioned recently about doing some acting or something like that,” McQueen said. “I think he will eventually.”

Twist of fate, irony

Rodney Garner turned on the charm with McQueen the first time he spoke with her and found out they both had Alabama roots.

“I’m going to call you grandma,” Georgia’s recruiting coordinator told Moreno. “We’ve got to be related.”

Garner figures he must have been in Moreno’s home at least six times during the recruiting process. “We played spades every time,” Garner said. “I beat him every time, I can tell you that.”

Except for when Moreno pulled the trigger on committing to Georgia over Florida.

Moreno teamed with then-running backs coach Kirby Smart against Garner and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.

“Me and Bobo let him win so he could commit,” Garner said. “After he committed, we beat him down again.”

Stabilizing force

Maculaitis is known to everybody as Dr. Mac.

The professional test writer and test designer runs MAC Testing & Consulting, which helps about 300 students each academic year in test preparation and learning skills, including those from outside the state and country.

She’s close enough to her students that she can tell you about much more than Moreno’s SAT score or GPA.

“Knowshon loves his grandma’s lasagna,” she said. “He loves Twizzlers. Red Twizzlers. He loves Martinelli’s sparkling cider. He loves Red Roman sandwiches from Cluck U.”

Moreno and Weston were part of her “All-Stars” class, which costs $2,132 a student, though she works with those who can’t afford to pay that price.

Maculaitis, who has a Ph.D. in the measurement and evaluation of the English language, is an influential part of many her students’ lives.

Weston’s acceptance letter from Georgia dated May 23, 2005, is framed and displayed in her new 3,500-square foot office in Tinton Falls, N.J. She has photos of Moreno in action as well.

“If you want the deed done, you better come here,” said Maculaitis, who has students tested for hearing and vision. “There are miracles happening every single day. I will never forget the day that for Knowshon Moreno everything clicked in his mind. ‘I got it.’ And he never lost it. He finally understood how the reading world worked and the writing worked and you couldn’t stop him. That to me was when he gave birth to himself as a learner. I tell them you have to have a fine mind in order to be a fine athlete.”

Shot to stardom

Moreno rushed for 188 yards and three touchdowns against Florida and showed the folks that saw him dominate the Shore Conference that, yes, he could make it in the rugged SEC.

“If there was any question about ’Shon when he left, I think the No. 1 question people had around here was, ‘Is he fast enough to play in the SEC?,’ ” Antonucci said. “When I turned the TV off after the Florida game, I think he had solidified himself as a bona fide SEC kid and there was no doubt in anybody’s mind anymore.”

There was zero doubt after Moreno rushed for the most rushing yards (1,334) for a Georgia freshman since Herschel Walker.

What can he do for an encore?

McQueen and Antonucci are part of a Jersey group planning to travel to Athens for Saturday’s season opener against Georgia Southern to see for themselves.

“We won’t be wearing No. 24s anymore,” McQueen said. “Oh, no. People, they were hounding us (last year). No, we won’t do that again.”

And that was before Moreno’s college debut.

“My goddaughter and nephew down there, they were telling me they can’t keep his shirts in the store long enough,” McQueen said. “The manager was telling them no other person that came through Georgia has made them money like ’Shon has.”

With the NFL calling in the future, Moreno will be able to one day cash in on that Knowshon Gravy Train for himself.

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“Can one person alone make a difference?” asked Deep Shah during his Georgia spring commencement speech. “Sure. Especially if his name is Knowshon.”

I was there when Shah said that during his commencement speech.

I thought, "Wow. A Moreno reference." LOL!

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