Bust, failure, washout.

Denver Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno came too far to accept such labels. He concedes those words could have defined his life.

Moreno, 26, is in the final year of his rookie contract, a five-year, $17 million deal he signed as the 12th overall pick in the 2009 draft. He also is in his first season as a full-time starter in a career detoured by injury.

In 2011, the Broncos all but wrote off Moreno, signing veteran Willis McGahee for the featured back role Moreno failed to assume. Moreno spent half of the season -- eight games -- on the practice squad, then ended his season with a torn anterior cruciate ligament.

In 2012, the Broncos drafted running back Ronnie Hillman in the third round. Last April, running back Montee Ball was Denver's second-round pick.

Sure, Moreno noticed, but he chose not to get the message.

"I have great family members," Moreno said. "(No one) has ever given up. My family is not a quitter. We know how to make do with anything we're given."

Regarded by some in the region as the best high school running back ever to come out of New Jersey, Moreno was sharpened by the irons of a childhood that dotted many shelters and zigzagged the most difficult neighborhoods in New York City. His mother was 16 and father 17 when Moreno was born. Moreno eventually was taken into his grandmother's custody and found greatness at Middletown (N.J.) High School South before achieving similar success as a scholarship running back at the University of Georgia.

"Just having my family around, everyone always pushing for each other and keeping good people around me, at the end of the day, that's what really got me to where I am," Moreno said.

The survivalist mentality of Moreno's grandmother, Mildred McQueen, and his high school coach, Steve Antonucci, were instilled in the multi-sport star.

He admits he came to the NFL with some growing up to do.

In addition to two major knee injuries and multiple attempts by management to slide him down the depth chart in favor of fresh acquisitions, Moreno put a DUI arrest behind him. That incident occurred almost exactly two years ago (Feb. 1, 2012) on Interstate 25 in Colorado. Moreno was stopped going 70 mph in a 45 mph construction zone. The personalized license plate on his Bentley: SAUCED.

Moreno moved on, entering 2013 training camp as an afterthought to the many observers who expected Ball or Hillman to grab the No. 1 back role. But while outsiders doubters Moreno's reliability, record-setting quarterback Peyton Manning said the fifth-year running back was well down the road to proving the contrary.

"During the (2012) season, he was doing scout team, which is definitely a humbling moment for any football player that has been a starter and a first-round pick," Manning said. "Then this past offseason again, probably (he was) unsure on a roster position. I sure have appreciated all he's done. Just in the two seasons we've been together, he's been through an incredible journey as well."

It was no coincidence that Moreno's emergence coincided with Manning's arrival. Moreno said Manning showed him every day what it meant to be a professional. Better ball security -- Moreno fumbled seven times in his first two seasons with the Broncos, but he was responsible for none of Denver's 16 fumbles lost in 2013 -- didn't hurt, either.

Now as the third-longest-tenured player on offense and with the entire front office and coaching staff that brought him to the Rocky Mountains long gone, Moreno fulfilled his potential at the most pivotal time -- with free agency in the foreground.

With McGahee gone and Hillman and Ball both unproven as pass blockers, Moreno topped the depth chart in September, rushed for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns and caught 60 passes for 548 yards and three touchdowns.

"The thing with Knowshon, the thing he's really improved, is his accountability and dependability," Broncos coach John Fox said. "I think that it goes with being a running back, not just toting the rock. It's not just running the football.

"You have protections. We change a lot of things, and we do a lot of things. We don't just call a play and go to the line and run it. You've got to be a sharp guy, so he is very smart.

"He's been a professional as far as his preparation goes, and he has become one of the more dependable guys as far as assignment detail and those types of things. You see that in his stats. You see it with his pass-receiving yardage in combination with the rushing yardage, which is doing all and everything about your job. He's done a tremendous job, and he is maybe one of our most improved players."

Moreno is not lauded in the same tenor as Manning, wide receiver Demaryius Thomas and tight end Julius Thomas, but Moreno isn't after fame.

His drive all season was to return to his old stomping grounds in New Jersey, all for the chance to play in the "big game." It will be a fitting finale for Moreno, whose biggest moment brings the opportunity to prove with conviction he can only be considered a winner.

"It's very special. It made me into the person that I am today," Moreno said of reaching the Super Bowl in his hometown. "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 doesn't know what to expect Sunday night, other than alligator tears and more excitement than he can contain.

"It will be through the roof," Moreno said. "Listening to other guys who have been in this position before playing in the Super Bowl, it's a lot going on. They say you have to hold your emotions down, you're going to be fired up, but there is so much going on that sometimes you've got to calm down. I think that will be my toughest battle, just being able to stay composed until the fires start burning down."