It's been a long season for Victor Cruz. It began with the passing of his beloved grandmother, the source of his salsa. Then his mother and many friends from the Paterson, N.J., area, where he grew up, were displaced by superstorm Sandy. And this past week, it fell upon him to act as a conduit of sympathy, trying to help a family and a community in Newtown, Conn., heal while carrying with him the condolences of a team, a region and a nation.
Meanwhile, he's played this entire season as one of the NFL's most undercompensated stars. He's making only $540,000 in base salary this year, bringing in a little more than one dollar for each of the 515,811 Pro Bowl votes he received from fans to make him the top wide receiver on the NFC ballot. A desire for a contract extension has been hovering over his head since shortly after the Super Bowl last February.
None of that seems to be a distraction to Cruz, though. While other players have complained about being mentally drained from this season and emotionally drawn from the defense of the title with everything else going on in the area and in their lives, Cruz seems to be able to compartmentalize his affairs into two areas: football and life.
And there are no leaks between those compartments.
"Once you're on the field, you have to take care of business," Cruz said. "There's so much going on out there, so much that you're thinking about, that you're not really focused on stuff that's going on off the field. I think I do a good job of, once I'm out there, of locking in, and I'm really focused on the specific task at hand."
For any other player -- or person -- those responsibilities would be a distraction or a burden. Not everyone can handle them.
We saw last year how Justin Tuck understandably struggled with not only nagging injuries but a cloud of negativity that hovered over him from family losses. Even Tom Coughlin admitted last month that the days after superstorm Sandy hit had an impact on the team's focus.
Cruz? In the game after the storm hit, he caught five passes for 67 yards against the Steelers.
"The way he handles it and the way he handles himself, I take my hat off to him," defensive tackle Chris Canty said. "He handles it all in stride. He's consistent. Always positive. Always something positive to say to everyone. He's a great guy."
"That's because of who he is as a young man and his character," fellow wide receiver Domenik Hixon said. "Football hasn't changed him. From the first day I met him until now, nothing has changed him, he's been the same guy. That's a lot of credit for how he was raised."
The Giants already knew Cruz was able to maintain his composure and focus in the midst of a chaotic year, but his actions this past week reinforced that belief. Cruz visited the family of Jack Pinto, one of the 20 children murdered in Newtown, the day after the 6-year-old was buried wearing a number 80 Giants jersey with Cruz's name on the back.
Cruz grew up wanting to play in the NFL, but he never envisioned being one of the sport's ambassadors in the face of such tragedy.
"I never thought that I'd be a person a family would want to come to their house and to be uplifting and to be someone that can put a smile on their face," Cruz said. "It was a good feeling to go in there and kind of just change the mood a little bit if I could for that short hour, hour and a half that I was there. It was a dream to go into a family and be a person that can change their lives like that."
That act touched the nation as well as that specific family. It also touched the Giants.
"I'm not really sure exactly what it did," Canty said, his voice breaking at recalling the visit, "but it was the right thing to do. It was the right thing to do."
"It just shows the world the kind of guy that we see day to day," defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka said. "He takes everything in stride. We have a pretty good locker room and he's one of the standout guys in terms of character in a locker room full of high-character individuals. That means a lot."
On Sunday, though, Cruz will be back from that world of pain and angst and drama and worry and all the other pitfalls of life. Back to the world of football.
The Giants are in a virtual must-win situation against the Ravens with their playoff chances at stake. Cruz will have to be one of the keys to getting the team to rebound from last week's poor performance in Atlanta.
If anyone can make that transition, it's Cruz.
"Growing up I've always been able to, whatever I'm doing at the time, focus in on it," Cruz said. "I don't let outside things affect me in that way, which I guess is a good characteristic to have. I think I've done a good job so far."
He's also aware that not everyone is as good at doing that.
"Everybody is different and everybody has different ways of handling life's courses and life's . . . things," Cruz said, reflecting for a moment on the travails and sorrows and stresses of the past five months. "I guess I'm one of the lucky ones."