Well, of course one of the most important moments of Victor Cruz’s career will come against the Jets. Would you expect otherwise?
Cruz is set to play a game of football for the first time in more than 22 1⁄2 months, and there is no more appropriate backdrop for his return than MetLife Stadium against the Jets.
“It’s the story of my life, I guess,” Cruz said Thursday outside the Giants’ training facility, which is just a few hundred yards away from the stadium. “You can’t write it any better than this.”
No, you can’t.
Cruz began his meteoric journey into the NFL with a three-touchdown game against the Jets in the 2010 preseason, a spectacular one-man performance that left then-Jets coach Rex Ryan shaking his head and asking then-Giants coach Tom Coughlin, “Who is that No. 3?” That’s the number Cruz wore that preseason, although he had to switch to No. 80 for the regular season because No. 3 is restricted to quarterbacks, punters and kickers.
“That was a big part of him making the team that night,” Eli Manning said. “He wore No. 3. It was before anybody knew who Victor Cruz was. He definitely made a name for himself that night.”
A year later, also against the Jets, Cruz made one of the most important plays in franchise history, when he caught a short pass from Manning and turned it into a 99-yard touchdown to spark a 29-14 Week 16 win that eventually led to a playoff berth. The Giants went on to win their second Super Bowl of the Coughlin- Manning era.
“This is the way my professional career has gone,” Cruz said of his history with the Jets. “The Jets’ preseason game has always been some type of landmark situation for me, and here we go again.”
Only this time, the dynamic is entirely different, albeit equally dramatic. Perhaps even more so, considering Cruz may have doubted this day might ever come. After suffering a devastating knee injury on Oct. 12, 2014 against the Eagles and then seeing a comeback attempt halted last year because of a calf problem that eventually required surgery, Cruz is finally ready to play again.
And unless there is a stunning setback between now and game time on Saturday, Cruz will finally feel what it’s like to catch a pass and get tackled. For Cruz, this is more than just another preseason game. Much more.
“This one is crossing so many hurdles, so many barriers, so many ups and downs that I had to face to get to this moment,” he said. “Now, I’m ready to relax and go play some football again. For me, mentally and emotionally [and] physically, all of the above, it’s more than just a football game.”
Had Cruz’s latest comeback gone according to plan, this would be his third tune-up game of the preseason in advance of the Giants’ regular season opener against the Cowboys. But a groin injury was yet another setback, and forced him to miss the Giants’ first two exhibition games, although he did suit up and go through pregame warmups against the Bills last week.
He shared a friendly moment with Ryan, now the head coach in Buffalo.
“He came out to me during warmups and he was like, ‘Good to see you. Get healthy, and we’ll see you out there throughout the year,’” Cruz said. “We’ve always had a mutual respect for each other over the years, and it was good to see him.”
Cruz has no connection to current Jets coach Todd Bowles, but the fact that the 29-year-old receiver is playing against the team in green-and-white will be familiarity enough. The fact that he’s playing at all, in fact, is all he really wants.
Cruz had a terrific week in practice — his best since coming back from his knee injury, in fact, and he hopes to now build his confidence back up.
“I think there are things that have always come pretty naturally to him, and he just has to get used to doing them, where he’s not thinking,” Manning said. “Just catching and acting normally. It takes time to trust it, to realize that you still got it, and it seems like he’s moving that way.”
Cruz will get a better sense when he takes the field against the Jets. He hopes the familiar scenario for this latest challenge turns out as well as the rest.