Victor Cruz began his unforgettable NFL career began on a hot summer night at what was then known as New Meadowlands Stadium. Cruz, an undrafted wide receiver for the New York Giants, donned his white number 3 jersey before the bright lights on a preseason edition of Monday Night Football against the rival New York Jets.
Anyone who’s anyone knows how that game went.
Now, a little over 6 years after that improbable day, the same Victor Cruz will be just as giddy, nervous, and overcome by emotion when he pulls on his white number 80 jersey for Saturday night’s preseason game against those same New York Jets at MetLife Stadium.
Victor Cruz is back.
The journey of Victor Cruz has been well-documented. A Paterson, NJ native of Puerto Rican descent, Cruz was given little chance to succeed by those who evaluated him. However, thanks to perseverance and a tireless work ethic, Cruz found his way into a starring role at the University of Massachusetts.
Despite Cruz’s stellar numbers, no NFL team was willing to take a chance on Cruz in the 2010 NFL Draft. They pointed out his good-but-not-great performance at the combine, his seemingly average size (6’0″, 204 lbs.), and his subpar grades in school as worries.
However, the New York Giants were the first team to call Cruz immediately following the draft to offer him a contract as an undrafted free agent. Cruz accepted and went to training camp in 2010 as a New York Giant.
Fate would soon intervene for Cruz, as injuries to top wideouts Steve Smith and Dominek Hixon forced the team to take a longer look at its depth options. Cruz, wearing a number 3 jersey, knew that if he had a big preseason, he could force his way onto the NFL roster and into a better number.
That kid in number 3 came out and obliterated the New York Jets in the first preseason game and continued his reign of terror over the entirety of the preseason. There was simply no way the Giants could open their season without Victor Cruz on their active roster.
But injuries of his own would bring a swift end to Cruz’s rookie season. He only played in 3 games exclusively on special teams, and was seemingly just another name for the 2011 preseason.
With the departure of Smith to the Eagles in free agency, the Giants needed a new slot receiver. Cruz battled veterans like Sinorice Moss and Brandon Stokely as well as high draft pick Jerrel Jernigan and won the job as the team’s slot receiver.
However, Cruz’s first NFL target wouldn’t go according to plan. Facing a crucial third down in the first game against the Washington Redskins, Cruz dropped an easy pass. The Giants lost the game, and some fans had run out of patience with Cruz.
But when Hixon was again lost for the season in Week 2, Cruz got an opportunity to shine in Week 3. It was probably his last chance to show that he could be an NFL player.
And boy did Cruz shine. He caught 3 passes and earned 110 yards and 2 touchdowns in the process, making the vaunted Eagles secondary look foolish.
Cruz would continue this excellence for the rest of the 2011 regular season. His ability to stop on a dime, shift side to side, and shimmy past the defenders led to an 82-catch, 1,536-yard, 9-touchdown season. And once the postseason rolled around, Cruz only improved his game. He caught 21 passes in the postseason, including an early touchdown in Super Bowl XLVI, in which the Giants stunned the New England Patriots for the second time.
So there stood Victor Cruz, atop the NFL world on a makeshift podium, holding the Vince Lombardi Trophy, wearing a Super Bowl Champions hat. None of this seemed remotely possible for the small undrafted kid out of UMass.
But that’s the narrative for Cruz’s entire career. No one ever thinks he can accomplish what he ends up doing. He silenced the critics by having an equally-strong 2012 season (86 catches, 1,092 yards, 10 touchdowns, and a Pro Bowl nomination), and continuing his success in 2013.
In a nod to Cruz’s meteoric rise and his impact on young wideouts in the video room, Cruz was named a team captain for the 2014 season. Cruz was expected to have a large role in the development of first-round draft pick Odell Beckham Jr., who was eager to join the Giants’ vaunted receiving corps.
But as per usual for Victor Cruz, things just didn’t turn out the way they were supposed to.
Cruz only ended up playing a total of 6 quarters with Beckham Jr. in the regular season before Cruz tore his patellar tendon and his ACL while reaching for a jump ball on fourth down in the end zone at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia.
The Giants were losing the game by a large margin, but that was beside the point. Cruz seemed to twist his entire leg at the knee while performing his jump, and when he landed, the impact left Cruz screaming in pain. Even some of the Eagles players hovered around Cruz as he was slowly placed onto the trainer’s cart and driven away to the locker room, with his future in doubt.
Cruz of course missed the rest of the 2014 season, but he remained upbeat about a 2015 comeback. Despite excruciating rehab for his injured knee, Cruz came back too hard and too soon, and ended up straining his calf. When all was said and done, Cruz’s lower half seemed completely shot, and there didn’t appear to be a way in which he could play an NFL down ever again.
But the one constant part of the Victor Cruz story is his perseverance. Despite being 29 years of age, Cruz was more determined than ever to make it back for the 2016 season. He hadn’t played NFL football since October of 2014, but Cruz was still convinced that he could be a viable NFL contributor.
The Giants had seen the rise of Odell Beckham Jr., the drafting of Sterling Shepard, the signing of Dwayne Harris, and the development of tight ends Larry Donnell and Will Tye in the time since Cruz got injured. Still, the Giants felt that they owed it to their former captain to give it one last shot.
Despite a slow start at training camp (Cruz dealt with a minor groin injury), Cruz eventually got back to doing what he does best: turning heads. And this week, Cruz and Head Coach Ben McAdoo proclaimed Cruz ready to play, fittingly against the Jets in the preseason.
Victor Cruz of 2016 is absolutely not the Victor Cruz of 2011. However, the fact that he is back at all is a truly heartwarming story. It won’t be long before chants of “Cruuuuuuuuuuuuz” take over MetLife Stadium once again, and there will be Victor Cruz, that same familiar smile plastered over his face.