Even before he stepped onto the Giants Stadium field on Aug. 16, 2010, and before he caught three touchdown passes that earned him a spot on the roster, Victor Cruz felt his journey was complete.
“My moment was when I saw my jersey in a locker before the game and I realized I could play in the NFL,” Cruz told Newsday this past week. “I could have stopped playing right then, because I got to a certain level that I aspired to achieve.”
Of course, that night was just the start. The free-agent walk-on out of the University of Massachusetts solidified a place on the Giants’ roster with three touchdown catches in a preseason game against the Jets. Cruz, who grew up in nearby Paterson, New Jersey, played only three regular- season games that year before a hamstring injury ended his season, but he had a breakout season in 2011 and helped lead the Giants to their second Super Bowl championship under coach Tom Coughlin.
Cruz produced one of the greatest rags-to-riches stories of an NFL free agent, seizing the opportunity given to him during the preseason and turning it into an illustrious career that lasted seven seasons and earned him a lasting place in Giants history.
But as training camp is about to begin around the NFL, Cruz knows it will be difficult for anyone coming into the league with a similar background to even find a place on an NFL roster, much less begin a career as accomplished as his own.
Because of the limitations created by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, there will be no preseason games at all, no chance for walk-on free agents to draw the attention of their own coaches — or others around the league — the way Cruz did a decade ago. Because players couldn’t train with their teams in the offseason, much of this year’s training camp will be devoted to strength and conditioning before the players even step on the field for the first time later in August. And the rest of the preseason will include practices leading up to Week 1 of the regular season.
“I’m like, man, there’s going to be a large pool of guys that aren’t even going to get a chance to play in the NFL, let alone make a team,” Cruz said of this year’s rookie free agents. “Guys won’t have that opportunity at all.”
Even the lack of practices will be a hindrance.
“There’s something to be said about practice and seeing talent, but even practices are changing every day with less hitting, and there aren’t as many drills,” Cruz said. “Guys won’t have as many opportunities.”
Cruz’s advice to free agents trying to follow in his footsteps?
“Take advantage of every single opportunity, because it’s literally going to be harder than you even imagined,” he said. “Pay attention, put your best foot forward, give it everything you’ve got and don’t hold anything back. Treat every practice like it’s an actual game. Every day you step out there, whether it’s practice or a walk-through, a jog-through, that’s your game.”
Cruz, 33, can’t believe it’s already been 10 years since he first started with the Giants.
“It’s like it was yesterday,” said Cruz, who works as an E! News correspondent, is heavily involved with the Victor Cruz Foundation and is considering an acting career in the near future. “When I think about it, it brings me back to that moment, just the feeling of everything going quiet when I scored those touchdowns against the Jets, the idea that, even if I don’t make it here with the Giants, I know I gave it everything I had. I think about all those years, the Super Bowl, feeling exhausted emotionally, because the game just takes so much out of you. I’m excited that I got to experience everything from the highest to the lowest.”