Victor Cruz scores a late fourth quarter touchdown against the...

Victor Cruz scores a late fourth quarter touchdown against the Miami Dolphins. (Oct. 30, 2011) Credit: David Pokress

How did Victor Cruz, a too-short, too-slow kid from Paterson, N.J., become New York's sports celeb of the moment? How did he end up in courtside seats next to the hedge-fund operators and supermodels at a Knicks game this week? How did it come to pass that he no longer can walk the streets of Manhattan without someone shouting his name or begging him to break into a salsa dance?

How did Cruz, who had never caught an NFL pass before this year, end up having one of the best seasons by a Giants wide receiver, ever?

Not even Cruz is quite sure.

"Every morning when I brush my teeth, I pinch myself," he said this week as the Giants prepared for Sunday's wild-card playoff game against Atlanta.

In the course of two weeks, Cruz has gone from a good story about an undrafted receiver who excelled in his first year as a starter to a great story about a guy who saved a team's season.

Think about it. If Cruz hadn't fueled a comeback with his NFL record-tying 99-yard TD catch against the Jets two weeks ago, we might be listening to Rex Ryan and Santonio Holmes talking about getting ready for a wild-card game this weekend.

Think about it. If Cruz hadn't opened up last weekend's NFC East title game with a 74-yard catch-and-run that put the Giants up 7-0 against Dallas, it's possible that the Giants would be at home watching the playoffs for a third straight year.

It's not as though those plays have come out of nowhere -- Cruz's first career touchdown was a 74-yarder against the Eagles in Week 3 -- but the fact that he continues to come up with long, game-changing plays this deep into the season is what has Giants fans jumping in anticipation every time the ball is thrown in his direction.

"He's got a knack for making a little tick on a play that is designed to get four, five or six yards and turning it into 60 and 70 yards," Eli Manning said of Cruz, who set a Giants record with 1,536 receiving yards and made 82 catches, nine for touchdowns. "He's not trying to do that every time. It just turns out that way."

Cruz, who is generously listed at 6-1 in the Giants' media guide, knows how to turn nothing into something. And maybe that's because his life hasn't always been so charmed.

Cruz grew up on the tough streets of the Fourth Ward of Paterson and excelled in sports. His favorite was football, the game his father introduced him to in grade school. Though he was a standout at Paterson Catholic, several Division I colleges, including Rutgers, told his coach, Benjie Wimberlie, that they couldn't offer him a scholarship. "The knock on him was he was too small and, believe it or not, too slow," Wimberlie said with a laugh. "Of course, right now, he looks like a track star."

Cruz was able to land a scholarship to Division I-AA Massachusetts in 2004, but in 2007, everything he worked for almost slipped away. Cruz, who had problems keeping up his grades, was asked to leave UMass for a second time. "A lot of it had to do with me being a knucklehead and Mom not being there and me being on my own," he told The Associated Press last week.

Cruz previously has talked about how he was at home taking online courses in the spring of 2007 when he received the news that his father, who had been injured in a car accident and was depressed, had committed suicide.

"It wasn't easy for Vic. His father was a good guy," Wimberlie said. "That's an incredible challenge to have to face as a young man. He could have just tanked it and quit. But instead, he put his head down and moved forward."

UMass eventually gave Cruz another chance. In his final two seasons, he caught 130 passes for 1,932 yards and 11 touchdowns. He went undrafted in 2010, but the Giants invited him to training camp.

Cruz caught the eye of Giants fans in the 2010 preseason game against the Jets when he had six catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns. It was at the end of that game that Ryan was overheard saying to Giants coach Tom Coughlin during their postgame handshake, "I don't know who No. 3 is, but holy ---- !"

After suffering a hamstring injury, Cruz missed most of the 2010 season and didn't catch a pass, but with Steve Smith leaving for Philadelphia last August, he had an opportunity. Over the summer and during the NFL lockout, Cruz was one of the players who spent the most time in New Jersey working with Manning, and the two developed a special rapport.

On the surface, the two have little in common. Manning is a No. 1 overall draft pick who grew up in an affluent home with a famous father. But Manning's father, Archie, once suffered the way Cruz did, learning when he was 19 years old that his father had committed suicide.

On the field, Manning and Cruz have developed a unique understanding. "It's a great credit to Victor," Manning said. "He's worked extremely hard learning this offense.''

Cruz admits his goals were fairly modest entering the season. "I just wanted to find a niche on this team and help out whatever way I could," he said. The goal, however, changed in the days leading up to the Week 3 game in Philly. Cruz said he was tired of hearing that the Giants had no receivers with Smith gone and Mario Manningham injured. And so he scored the first two TDs of his career, a 74-yarder and a 28-yarder in which he outjumped shutdown cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.

"That Philadelphia game showed he had big-play potential," Manning said. "A lot of times you learn your most about your receivers in game-time situations."

It's harder to think of a bigger game-time situation than this Sunday -- Cruz's first playoff game. But if the pressure is on, he's not showing it. He may make the league minimum of $450,000 but he is sporting a multimillion-dollar smile these days. "It's been an amazing ride so far," he said, "and I wouldn't trade it for the world."

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