On Sept. 21, 2014, in the second quarter of a scoreless game against the Texans, Victor Cruz caught a 26-yard scoring pass from Eli Manning.
No one would have guessed at the time that it could wind up being his final touchdown ever at MetLife Stadium.
Yet here we are, 27 months later, and Cruz is facing the very real possibility of playing his final game in front of the fans who have embraced him throughout his career, the ones who have joined him on the roller-coaster ride from undrafted free agent to superstar to veteran role player, whom he refers to as family. And he has not scored in a home game since that day against the Texans.
Cruz said he is not thinking about the future beyond this season, but he’s nothing if not a smart, self-aware player. He sees how he is being marginalized in the Giants’ offense with a total of four catches in the last five games. He knows the numbers on his contract that make it easy for the team to part ways with him (after taking a pay cut to return this season he’s scheduled to earn $6.4 million next year and $7.4 million in 2018). So if this Sunday does turn out to be his last home game as a Giant, he’d love to give the fans one going-away present.
One more salsa.
“That would be icing on the cake for me,” he said on Wednesday of the opportunity to perform his signature celebration in New Jersey. “Last regular-season game here at home. For me to find that end zone again and dance in front of that home crowd, it would be a pretty emotional time for me to say the least.”
The Giants host the Lions on Sunday, then finish the season on the road with games at Philadelphia and Washington. There remains a possibility of the Giants winning the division, which comes with a home playoff game. And there is the even slimmer possibility of hosting the NFC Championship Game as a wild card; they’d have to be the five seed and face the six seed.
The likeliest scenario, though, is that Sunday presents the final chance for Giants fans to see their team play in person this season. And the final chance to see Cruz, a Jersey kid, one of their own, in action.
Cruz, who has had a special connection with Giants fans at MetLife Stadium since he christened the building with his three-touchdown performance as a rookie in the 2010 preseason opener against the Jets, said that relationship has gotten even stronger this year as he has returned from nearly two seasons away because of knee and calf injuries. The “Cruuuz!” cheers may not be as common as they once were, but they do seem packed with more feeling and appreciation.
“There’s a lot of love out there,” he said. “I think fans are happy to see me back out there in uniform again and happy to see me running around and playing football again. After two years I guess they missed me a little bit.”
MetLife Stadium will always hold a special place in his heart.
“This is home,” he said. “This is family for me. This fan base, these people in the locker room, upstairs [in the Giants front office]. I mean, it feels like home when I’m coming in here and you can see that week in and week out during the home games how much love there has been from the fans.”
Cruz isn’t ready for that to end. He turned 30 last month but said he wants to play for the Giants “for years to come.” But he did say on Wednesday that his focus is to win the Super Bowl this year “and if I win one I might just hang it up.”
He didn’t even pause to let that one sink in.
“I’m kidding,” he said quickly. “I’m not ready to do that.”
It might not be such a bad idea, though. Cruz has always had a knack for theatrics. His once-upon-a-time career seems destined to have a happily-ever-after ending, not one that fizzles out or sees him play another few mediocre seasons in another uniform.
For now, though, he’s thinking more about Sunday being the last performance in front of the home crowd for this regular season only.
“We want to give them a show,” he said, “and pay them back for their continued excellence.”
The feeling is undoubtedly mutual.