The confluence of events and the crescendo of feelings could not have been more breathtakingly dramatic or more soul-stirringly emotional for Victor Cruz.
Nearly two years removed from a horrific knee injury that threatened his career, and a year after an aborted comeback from a calf injury that also required surgery, the 29-year-old receiver yesterday played his first regular-season game against a divisional opponent that was punctuated by deeply personal memories of one of America’s worst tragedies.
The ending could not have been more perfect for him: Cruz made the game-winning catch in the Giants’ 20-19 win over the Cowboys, giving his team its first opening day win since 2010 and giving himself the chance to do his famed salsa touchdown dance for the first time since early in the 2014 season.
“Just elated, just in that moment,” Cruz said of his emotions during the dance. “Couldn’t even describe what was going through my body, to obviously do the dance and just celebrate with my teammates.”
It was the culmination of a grueling rehabilitation process that included some major setbacks but ultimately wound up with a successful return.
Yet there was a more personal connection to this day, the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Cruz was a sophomore at Paterson (N.J.) Catholic High School on 9/11 and his father, a former Paterson firefighter, spent nearly a week helping out at Ground Zero.
He honored the memory of his father and the other first responders who helped on that terrible day and in the aftermath, wearing pregame cleats with firefighter designs and then wearing in-game cleats with U.S.A. on them — for which he likely will be fined by the NFL because of the league’s strict uniform policy.
“I mean, especially my dad being a fireman for over 30 years and being one of the firemen that were at Ground Zero out there at that time, it’s always a heavy-hearted day,” Cruz said of his father, Mike Walker. “You think about that moment where you were on that day, thinking about the emotions that went through your body that day. You relived those moments. It’s one of those days you remember forever and one of those days now that you want to honor those first responders and those firemen and those police officers that were there and just cherish the moment.”
Cruz’s father took his own life nine years ago, reportedly depressed because of persistent difficulty dealing with injuries from a car accident. He is never far from Victor’s thoughts.
“He went down there the next day and he spent five or six days there,” Cruz said. “He went back each and every day, helping and being there for whoever needed it. They obviously needed all the help they can get. He was one of those guys in the trenches.”
Cruz could not have been more touched to make his comeback and make his mark on this day. He finished with four receptions, the first of them a sideline catch, after which he pumped his fist in the air when taken out of bounds by two Cowboys defenders.
“That was just excitement,’’ he said. “My energy level was so high. That was my first catch, and I was like, ‘I’m not going to go down. I’m not letting it stop me.’ I just wanted that energy to be reciprocated by our team.”
But his final catch was his most dramatic. With the Giants trailing 19-13 in the fourth quarter, Cruz wound up going over the middle and caught a 3-yard pass in the end zone from Eli Manning with 6:13 remaining.
“I was supposed to go five yards and kind of sit in that specific area, but it got kind of cloudy, and I saw the middle of the field pop open,” Cruz said. “So I made a football play, got there and Eli and I were on the same page and he hit me in stride.”
Manning said Cruz freelanced on the route and actually might run afoul of his coaches in the grading process.
“He might actually get a minus on the route, because technically, he was not supposed to do what he did,” Manning said. “But we’ll worry about that later. It’s a minus good job, good touchdown. Sometimes you get those in football.”
Once he made the catch, Cruz unleashed his emotions.
“He was screaming,” rookie receiver Sterling Shepard said. “Then he turned around and I smacked him on his helmet.”
Said Odell Beckham Jr.: “I just wanted to sit there, cross my legs, have a bag of popcorn and just watch him salsa. It’s been a long time coming. It feels great for me, so I can only imagine what it feels like for him.”
It was a wonderful moment for him. Seven hundred days after he last played a football game, Cruz made a dramatic return against a dramatic backdrop.
“Just the way my life has unfolded here, I don’t even know what kind of ending it’s going to have,” he said. “I don’t want it to end. I just want it to continue, continue to keep my faith strong in God and continue to push forward.”