Victor Cruz knows it’s still in him.
The Giants receiver’s comeback from knee and calf injuries, which had kept him out of the game since October 2014 before his return this season, has been impressive enough. And Cruz will never forget that game-winning touchdown reception against the Cowboys in his first game back.
But he knows there is more. Feels it in his soul. The kind of game that Cruz once was known for, that six-catch, 142-yard, two-touchdown type of game that occurred regularly when he was one of the NFL’s top receivers before injuries felled him, is still in there somewhere.
“I think about it all the time,” Cruz said. “I think about it every week. I want every week to be that week. I want every game to be that game.”
It just hasn’t happened yet.
Cruz has put up modest numbers this season with 24 catches for 331 yards and one touchdown — with the one and only time he has done his signature salsa dance near the end of the Giants’ 20-19 win over the Cowboys. It was an emotional moment, to be sure, the culmination of an intense rehabilitation from surgeries to repair his right patellar tendon in 2014 and his left calf in 2015.
But he wants to be a bigger contributor. He wants to be the Victor Cruz of old, when he could change a game in the blink of an eye. Such as the time he took a short pass from Eli Manning and raced 99 yards for a touchdown in a late-season game against the Jets in 2011, a win that helped catapult the Giants to their second Super Bowl of the Manning-Tom Coughlin era.
He’s not demanding to get the ball more, not lobbying head coach and offensive play-caller Ben McAdoo for more passes. But there isn’t a shadow of a doubt in his own mind that he can be the kind of playmaker he once was. Even if he does turn 30 on Friday.
“I just have to take it how it comes, take what the defense gives me, be on time for Eli whenever he needs me and to kind of take it from there,” Cruz said. “But I definitely think about coming out and having one of those vintage Victor Cruz-style games. I can’t wait.”
There would be no better time than now. The Giants face the Eagles on Sunday at MetLife Stadium, and Cruz is anxious for this one more than most.
For starters, it’s the Eagles, one of the Giants’ fiercest rivals and a team for which Cruz has many memories. Both good and bad.
The good: On Sept. 25, 2011, Cruz had his first breakout game, catching three passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the Giants’ 29-16 win at Lincoln Financial Field. “It was my first start in the NFL, and I just remember being super-nervous and wanting to put my best foot forward,” Cruz said.
He called his performance that day “fantastic” and said he wants to “continue to do more of the same and bring that Victor Cruz out [this] Sunday.”
The bad: On Oct. 12, 2014, in a 27-0 loss in Philadelphia, Cruz went up for a pass in the end zone and came down on his right knee, suffering a season-ending injury.
“In the back of my mind, I think about it,” Cruz said of the injury. “I’d be lying if I didn’t say it’s in my mind at some point.”
But he insists he won’t dwell on it in the moments leading up to Sunday’s game.
“I can’t afford to,” he said. “I don’t dwell on it. Once it’s time to go in that locker room or warm up and play, everything’s out of my mind. I’m just playing. I’m not thinking about anything negative, just going out there and playing.”
Cruz is delighted to be a part of a receiving unit that might collectively be the most talented since he first got here in 2010 as a rookie free agent from the University of Massachusetts. With Odell Beckham Jr. the star of the show and rookie second-round receiver Sterling Shepard now Manning’s No. 2 target, Cruz loves the chemistry.
Cruz has commemorated the trio with a diamond-studded pendant in the shape of the Roman number III he wears almost every day. Shepard and Beckham have the same pendants.
“Odell, Sterling and I all wore No. 3 in college, so we got this chain made and we got our names engraved on the back of it,” Cruz said, turning the pendant over to show their names.
Cruz wears three other pendants almost every day: one in the shape of a Nike shoe given to him by a friend and two angels wings.
“The angel wings are representative of my grandmother and my dad, who passed away,” Cruz said.
His father, a former firefighter in Paterson, New Jersey, died in 2007. “So I always keep those close.”
They are reminders, too, of Cruz’s newfound appreciation for his career, a change prompted in large part because he once feared he’d never be able to play again because of his injury issues.
“I’m just cherishing every moment now,” he said. “I’m making sure I’m talking to the teammates that I might not have spoken to in the past and just getting to know them a little bit more and appreciating practices, appreciating games.”
He saw his own football mortality, and realizes he must never take the game for granted again.
“You know in an instant it can be taken away from you,” he said. “I understand that, and I definitely have a different appreciation for the game.”