Victor Cruz was introduced to the world on Aug. 16, 2010, when he scored three second-half touchdowns in a preseason win over the Jets on national television.
He was introduced to the reporters who would go on to cover him for the next seven years earlier that week, Aug. 11 to be exact.
It was a hot day in Albany at Giants training camp, and the team was suffering a spate of injuries at wide receiver. Steve Smith was unavailable. So too was Sinorice Moss. Tom Coughlin was asked about the status of the group.
“Victor Cruz!” he shouted. “What do we need anybody for? We’ve got Victor Cruz!”
Then, after a beat and in response to a mix of polite giggles and blank stares from the audience, Coughlin added: “I’m serious.”
Cruz had made a one-handed “catch” along the sideline in practice that morning (he landed out of bounds but held onto the ball) and had shown an ability to get open on some deep passes throughout camp, but there was no real indication yet that the undrafted rookie who wore the No. 3 would become one of the most popular players in team history. Only Coughlin’s words.
Something special seemed to take place that day. It wasn’t just the catch or the praise from Coughlin, either. Cruz came to the podium that afternoon after Coughlin’s warm words and was surprisingly at ease under the spotlight. Those who covered the team that year, that day, recall the same seismic shift and we’ve shared that strange sensation over the years.
At the time, Cruz took everything in stride.
“It feels good just to get in there and get some reps,” he said that day. “Some of the guys are hurt, so I’m just filling in and trying to get the plays down pat and play my role a little bit.”
It turns out, all these years later, Cruz remembers that day too. For all the passes he caught, all the accolades he achieved, even for the championship he helped win, Cruz said on Monday — the day the team released him — that his “favorite moment” as a Giant was catching Coughlin’s eye on that day in Albany.
“Rookies don’t impress Coach Coughlin very often,” Cruz recalled. “To be able to turn Coach Coughlin’s head and have him say something about me and really appreciate my talent level was a beautiful thing.”
It was just the start, of course.
Cruz went from an obscure kid out of UMass and nearby Paterson, New Jersey, all the way to superstardom, a Super Bowl, and having Madonna salsa dance as a teaser to her halftime show just 18 months after that day in Albany.
He went from injury on the night of Oct. 12, 2014, when he tore his patellar tendon in the back of the end zone and his howls of pain echoed through Lincoln Financial Field, all the way to his comeback almost two years later with a game-winning touchdown and salsa dance to beat the Cowboys.
He’ll go now from Giant to whatever awaits him as he tries to continue his NFL career elsewhere as a 30-year-old receiver. And one day he’ll go from football to whatever camera he winds up in front of after his playing days officially end.
Anyone who was surprised the Giants released Cruz was not paying attention. His $6.4-million base salary for 2017 was too much for the team to keep, and there are some young receivers on the roster who should be able to match the modest production he provided this past season.
But anyone who is not saddened that the Giants released Cruz was not paying attention either, to what he meant to the locker room and the franchise.
It’s too bad one of the last images many will have of Cruz is of him posing on that party yacht in Miami with his fellow wide receivers less than a week after what turned out to be his final game as a Giant. The mentor, the one who was supposed to add maturity to the group, caught up in the youthful exuberance of his teammates. Did that play a role in his departure from the team? It was certainly part of the equation when the brass sat down to crunch the catches and the contract.
It won’t take long, however, for that picture to be wiped away and replaced by all the others he provided. The 99-yard touchdown that not only propelled the Giants to the Super Bowl but also signaled the end of the Rex Ryan era with the Jets. The smile when he shook his head in awe of the athleticism on daily display from Odell Beckham Jr. The tears when his first comeback from the knee injury was aborted by what seemed like a simple calf strain but turned out to require season-ending surgery of its own. The triumph behind that salsa in Dallas that finally marked his return.
“Justice has been served,” Coughlin said the night Cruz, the hustling rookie, caught those three preseason touchdowns against the Jets and cannonballed into New York’s sports consciousness.
For the next seven seasons, with all of their ups and downs, it continued to be.
Sports writers often are asked which teams they root for. Surely there has to be some under-the-table allegiance. The truth (usually) is we root for stories. We root for narratives that play out with drama, conflict, emotion and character development, all right before our eyes.
There may never be a better story to cover than Victor Cruz’s.