Most players don’t get to live out their NFL dreams even once. Victor Cruz got to live them out twice, overcoming tremendous odds both times and showing us all the good that can come from sports and the special people like Cruz who play them.
The Giants did the expected Monday and announced that they have released Cruz, 30, who no longer can play at the level commensurate with a $6.4-million salary and a $9.4-million salary-cap hit in 2017. But Cruz can walk away from the Giants after seven seasons with his head held high and his heart at peace. He leaves with a contentment that comes from achieving his goals with a unique combination of resolve and dignity that ought to be a lesson for others.
He did things right on the field, becoming one of the Giants’ greatest receivers after an unexpected beginning. And he did things right off the field, too, reaching out to the family of a 6-year-old boy who idolized Cruz after Jack Pinto was gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in December 2012. And always supporting police and firefighters in the aftermath of 9/11 as a tribute to his father, former Paterson, New Jersey, firefighter Mike Walker, who took his own life in 2007.
Cruz was an unlikely success story, yet a willing hero to those who admired him.
He grew up in Paterson and joined the Giants in 2010 as an undrafted free agent out of Massachusetts, a long shot to even make the team, much less become a star. His coming-out moment as a rookie was in the Jets-Giants preseason game, when he caught three touchdown passes and prompted Rex Ryan to ask of Tom Coughlin as they shook hands afterward, “Who’s that No. 3?”
Cruz wore No. 3 that first training camp — also his college number — but switched to No. 80 once he made the team and no longer could wear a number restricted to quarterbacks, kickers and punters. He got into only three games that first season and didn’t have a single catch, but it wouldn’t be long before Cruz became part of one of the most special seasons in Giants history.
He became Eli Manning’s go-to receiver in 2011, catching 82 passes for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns and producing one of that year’s biggest plays — again victimizing Ryan’s Jets. With the Giants’ playoff hopes still in doubt, Cruz turned a short pass into a 99-yard touchdown that ignited a run to the team’s last Super Bowl victory.
He did the salsa after every touchdown as an homage to his late grandmother and became a fan favorite because of his Everyman background, gutsy style and relentlessness that spread throughout his team.
And then it nearly ended.
Cruz’s career flashed before his eyes the night of Oct. 12, 2014, at Lincoln Financial Field. He went up for a pass in the end zone against the Eagles but came down on his right knee, the patellar tendon shredding and the pain so searing that he wept.
He could not have known that the lowest moment of his career would lead to a memorable comeback. His second NFL dream was about to come true, even if it took a year longer than expected.
Cruz made what appeared to be a remarkable return the following spring, recovering from a difficult surgery and running routes with the speed and crispness that made him one of the league’s finest receivers. Then he suffered a calf injury that initially seemed insignificant but kept him out the entire season.
He finally made that comeback in 2016, albeit not before another scare. A preseason groin injury imperiled his return but proved to be only a temporary setback. Cruz played in 15 regular-season games and in the wild-card loss to the Packers.
There wasn’t the statistical achievement that came with his first full season; Cruz had a modest year with 39 catches for 586 yards and one touchdown. But that one score proved consequential — the game-winner against the Cowboys in the opener — and his mentorship of Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard was a major benefit to a team that overachieved in its first season under Ben McAdoo.
Cruz knew all along it might come to this day, but he appreciated the journey.
“I’m just cherishing every moment now,” he told me in November. “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. You know in an instant, it can be taken away from you. I understand that, and I definitely have a different appreciation for the game.”
Cruz still has something left to give, but it won’t be with a team that will go younger at his position with Beckham, Shepard, Tavarres King and Roger Lewis Jr. But in his heart, Cruz will always be a Giant and forever will be remembered for the great success stories he authored.
The first one and the second.