Charles James returns a punt past Pittsburgh Steelers Josh Victorian...

Charles James returns a punt past Pittsburgh Steelers Josh Victorian during the fourth quarter of a preseason game. (Aug. 10, 2013) Credit: AP

Charles James is close to his dream of owning one of the 53 jerseys that the Giants will bestow this weekend. But it was another shirt that the rookie cornerback was wearing with pride Tuesday that told him he'd already made it.

It was a simple white T with three letters across the chest in red and blue: UFA. It stands for undrafted free agent, and it was given to James by the patron saint of UFAs, Victor Cruz.

"I love this shirt," James said, looking down at the letters. "I told Vic I appreciate it as soon as he gave it to me. He was one of the first guys I talked to when I got here. He went [Football Championship Subdivision] just like me, an undrafted, and now, well, he's him."

Cruz's fashion line, Young Whales, designed the shirt as a limited edition that the now Pro Bowl receiver handed out to select family and friends. But when James saw Cruz wearing it in the locker room last week, he remarked on the simple design that carries a lot of meaning.

"He was like, 'Yo, I need one! I'm undrafted!' " Cruz said. "So [Monday] I brought it in and put it on his stool. He liked the shirt, he likes what it represents. I think it represents hard work, it represents someone who has to come through a struggle. Not a lot of people know our struggle from undrafted and not knowing where you're going to be and then actually doing well and making a team and going from there. There's not many of us out there still hanging around."

In some ways, James' journey to a spot on an NFL roster is even more improbable than Cruz's. In 2008 James was a passenger in a car wreck and was nearly killed when his body was launched through the windshield. He was about to enter his freshman year at Charleston Southern. He missed that football season recovering from injuries and returned to play there for four seasons. This spring the 5-9, 179-pounder went undrafted but the Giants signed him as a free agent. It was far from a guarantee of a roster spot, but it was a chance. And it was the NFL.

"Growing up watching the NFL for so long, it's a blessing to be in this locker room with some of the guys I'm in here with," James said. "I told Antrel [Rolle] and [Aaron] Ross, 'Man, I remember watching you guys play thoroughly and play good ball and getting coached up by you guys.' To possibly be a teammate to those guys is just a blessing."

He's one decent preseason game away from that, after spending the summer catching the eye of the coaching staff and other Giants players.

"I've been impressed by the kid," Tom Coughlin said. "He jumps right in, he does whatever you ask him to do. That's been impressive."

"He's good," said Cruz, who ran routes against James in practice before he was sidelined by a heel injury. "A lot of being a corner is reading and reacting and he definitely has that. He's a smart player, he's cerebral, he knows how to read different body languages and different schemes. He's definitely a good player."

The Giants started training camp with six undrafted rookies on the 90-man roster. After trimming the team to 75 earlier this week, James is the only one left. He's not stressed about his chances, though.

"To me, I don't see this as pressure," he said. "Football is something I've been doing my whole life. Pressure is when you have to fight for your life. Pressure is when you don't know whether you're going to wake up tomorrow. That's pressure."

James has been there.

"Whatever happens is going to happen," he said of his philosophy about facing final cuts. "That's one of the things I've been doing ever since that car wreck. You never know when it is that your life is going to take a sudden turn, so make sure you live it day by day."

And by all means, try to get a T-shirt out of the deal.

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