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Demaryius Thomas, Knowshon Moreno are Peyton Manning's key weapons

D. Orlando Ledbetter

Published: Thursday, Jan. 30 2014 8:59 p.m. MST

Denver Broncos' Demaryius Thomas listens to a question during media day for the NFL Super Bowl XLVIII football game Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, in Newark, N.J. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Mark Humphrey, AP

JERSEY CITY, N,J, -- Former Georgia Tech and Georgia stars Demaryius Thomas and Knowshon Moreno each could have their own sad football reality show.

Both overcame personal adversity to play key roles alongside quarterback Peyton Manning in Denver's potent offense. Both are set to make their Super Bowl debut Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., when the Broncos meet the Seattle Seahawks.

Since Thomas was 11, his mother has been incarcerated on federal drug charges. His grandmother also is in jail in Tallahassee, Fla. Mostly with the support of other family members, he's been able to break the cycle of involvement with drugs.

Moreno spent the early part of his childhood bouncing around homeless shelters in New York with his father before the family turned things around and settled in nearby Middletown, N.J.

As in the Langston Hughes poem, "Mother to Son," when the mother describes a tough and hardscrabble life, Thomas has found a way to thrive and be compassionate. Both his mother and grandmother will watch the Super Bowl from jail Sunday.

''I've talked to my grandmother and my mom," Thomas said. "They both called me this week, so far, but they'll call me again before the game. The next time I see them will be after the season."

Those conversations can be tough.

''It was just happy," Thomas said. "My momma, she just told me, 'I told you you would make it.' We haven't really talked about it much, but I talked to my grandma, and she said the same thing. She got emotional and all, but they just said, 'You were going to make it.'"

The Montrose, Ga., native channels his emotions into his play. As Manning's top target, he caught 92 passes for 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns in the regular season. In playoff wins over San Diego and New England, he caught 15 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns.

''He's taken his game up another notch from last year, and he was awesome last year," Manning said. "We know that defenses are keying on him, but he's still be able to produce."

Thomas acknowledges that living with incarcerated relatives changed the way he approaches the game.

''You never know, one day you can be here, and the next day you'll be gone," Thomas said. "So, I take every day like it's my last. I play every football game like it's my last.

''I was brought up a Christian. I was raised around great people. They drive me more to know that they're there and they're watching me. I try to go out there and play my best because they're going to talk about it to the people in the jailhouse."

Thomas also hasn't forgot his days at Tech. When he signed out of West Laurens High, coach Chan Gailey and his staff hoped that Thomas could follow in Calvin Johnson's footsteps. But he ended up playing and thriving in Paul Johnson's run-oriented option attack.

''At first it was (tough), but once I started making big plays, I had 40 catches for like 1,200 yards, my main thing was making big plays," Thomas said. "That was it. Also, we were winning with the (option) offense, so it really didn't bother me. All I wanted to do was win."

Moreno returns home with his head held high after his rough start in life.

''It made me into the person that I am today," Moreno said. "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."

After a stellar career at Georgia, Moreno was selected 12th overall in the 2009 draft. However, his path to stardom in the NFL has traveled a bumpy road. Until he stopped fumbling, Moreno had a hard time winning over coach John Fox, who called him the team's most improved player.

With his ball-handling more secure, he played in all 16 games, making 15 starts. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards for the first time in his career and caught 60 passes for 548 yards and three touchdowns.

''When you're holding that ball in your hands, everyone's lives is in your hands," Moreno said.

Manning said Moreno has used his skills to help balance the Broncos' offense.

''Knowshon has done a lot for us back there the entire season," he said. "Run game, pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield."

Like Thomas, Moreno credits his stay in college with helping him sustain and perhaps salvage his NFL career.

''(Georgia assistant) coach (Tony) Ball just taught us the little things like pass protection," Moreno said. "Running the ball could be easy. Especially when you have an offensive line blocking for you like we had. You just run to daylight.

''But it's just the little things that you work on. It's footwork. Pass protection is the main thing. Especially at Georgia, I was back there protecting Matthew Stafford, so I was doing my best to do that. It's no different here with Peyton."

D. Orlando Ledbetter writes for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

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