Victor Cruz fought back tears as he listened to Jack Pinto's family try to explain just how important the Giants wide receiver was in their son's life. And he could barely contain his emotions when he found out that the 6-year-old boy might be buried in his No. 80 jersey.
"There are no words that can describe the type of feeling you get when a kid idolizes you so much that, you know, unfortunately they put him in a casket with your jersey on," Cruz said Sunday.
Jack Pinto, a first-grader at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., was one of 20 children gunned down at the school Friday morning.
Like everyone else grieving for the victims and their families, Cruz was pained by the sorrow of so many lives lost, so many of them children. Looking at his 11-month-old daughter, Kennedy, made those feelings even more heart-wrenching.
"Just the thought of your little one, your son or daughter, going through something like that, it was unbelievable to listen to on the news," he said. " . . . That night, I put my daughter into bed with me and we slept together -- although that was a mission within itself -- but we slept together that night and it was a good feeling. I cherished that night."
The next day, Cruz's Twitter feed was filled with mentions of little Jack Pinto and how he had so adored Cruz, watching the Giants each week in his replica jersey. Cruz was so overcome with emotion that he asked his fiancee, Elaina Watley, to contact the family to see if he could offer his condolences. Later that day, when Cruz was at an Atlanta hotel, he spoke to the parents and Jack's 11-year-old brother by telephone.
"It was very emotional," Cruz said. "Obviously, going in, when a family is facing that much tragedy, you want to be someone that inspires them, someone that can put a smile on their faces when it's tough to do that. I told them just to stay strong and to understand that God has a plan, and things are unfortunate, things don't always go as planned, but to stay strong."
He added that "it was very humbling just to hear how big of a fan he was, for them to think about putting my jersey on him for the services. It shows you how much of an effect you have on kids. They don't just see you on TV, they want to be you. They idolize you . . . It really showed me how real it is to be a role model."
Cruz honored his memory by writing messages on his cleats and gloves. He wrote "JACK PINTO" on one glove and "This one is 4 u!" on the other.
On one cleat, he wrote "JACK PINTO" "MY HERO." On the other: "R.I.P. JACK PINTO."
"I felt like I wanted to play well to honor the family, to bring the victory home to them," Cruz said. " . . . It was on my mind every time I sat on the bench and looked down at what I wrote on my cleats."
Cruz couldn't deliver the victory or even a chance to celebrate Jack's memory by scoring a touchdown. "I probably would have pointed up to the sky, tapped my shoes or something special just to let him know I was thinking of him," he said. "I think [the salsa celebration] is one of the things he loved the most as a kid, seeing me dance in the end zone, so I definitely would have kept that."
Cruz said he will deliver his gloves and cleats to the family. In person. "I'm going to try this week to visit,'' he said, "even if it's for an hour."
It no doubt will be a moment of overpowering emotions for all involved, a family grieving the unimaginable loss of a child and a football player who understood how important he was to that little boy.
Bless your soul, Jack Pinto.