If Victor Cruz could live the life of his dreams, it would be the one he's enjoying right now. He's an exciting and popular wide receiver for the Giants, who just happen to play their home games about a half hour from his boyhood home. Cruz has made spectacular plays that were shown repeatedly on highlight shows. He is popular with fans, a favorite interview subject for reporters and a hero to those who knew him before millions of others learned his name.
"It's been exciting," Cruz said recently. "A lot of family and friends have been hitting me up, wishing me the best of luck and telling me they are proud of me. It's just really been a dream come true, not only just to play in the NFL, but to be playing for the hometown team and actually be an intricate part of the offense and be able to do some good things. I don't want it to end."
That's unlikely to happen anytime soon, particularly since as his production and fame soar, Cruz stays firmly grounded. He remains devoted to those closest to him, notably his mother Blanca Cruz, who lives in Paterson, N.J., the gritty city a short drive from MetLife Stadium where Victor grew up. Cruz may be the toast of the town, but that doesn't preclude him from doing chores around his mother's house.
"She loves it," Cruz said of his mother's reaction to his success. "She loves that she can call me and I can drive over there and check up at the house whenever she needs it. Sometimes I'll go take her trash out or do something like that like I usually did when I was living with her. I am close by (Cruz lives near the stadium), so any chance I can go there when she wants me to help out, I do. She loves the fact that she can call me and I can be there for her."
The Giants have also come to rely on Cruz's work ethic and dependability.
"He's a kind of kid that you don't worry about from the standpoint of reliability or his maturity, or from the standpoint of knowing that this is his job," Coach Tom Coughlin said. "He's come on the scene and done very, very well. You've got to continue to perform, and the only way you're going to do that is to be prepared. There are so many things for a young player in that position to learn that are still out in front of him. You just continually remind him of that. He's trying the best he can to be a sponge and learn as much as he can and he's had a chance. He's worked with Eli (Manning) and he's got a chance to continue that."
"Certain guys have a knack for being able to go and get the ball and they find themselves around the ball a lot and he's got some of that," former wide receivers coach Sean Ryan said. "There's no question. I think you could see a little of that day one when he walked in this place, that this guy might have a knack for making some plays and getting to the ball. He's built on it. He's got a ways to go. He's got a lot to clean up. There are still those mistakes that you have to get rid of and we're striving to do it. He is too. He's by far not a finished product, but he's working to get there."
"It was rough, especially where I was from," Cruz said. "My mother was a single parent at the time and she had two kids (including Victor's younger sister). "You would hear gun shots at night while you were sleeping, you would hear police chases, you would hear guys outside, little young kids outside at 1 or 2 o'clock in the morning when you woke up in the middle of the night or you would see kids skipping school during the day and wonder why such and such is not here and would not know the answer. It was just tough and it's easy to kind of get sucked into that life.
"I was (tempted). As a child you want to hang out, you thought it was cool because these guys got to hang out for a long period of time and you had a curfew. So there were times where I would pry my mom to let me stay out past curfew where she would be upset, but I never did anything illegal. I always had a good support system and my mom always knew that there was big and better things out there for me."
Blanca, a customer service representative at Benjamin Moore, steered her son away from trouble with the vehicle so many others have used to find a better life in rough neighborhoods.
"Sports," Cruz said. "It was just staying involved, staying busy, not even having time to be out there. There were times where I would have a day off or it would be after practice and I would be walking home and I would see guys I grew up with and they would call me to hang out and see what was going on. But I understood that once those lights came on and my mother was home from work, she expected me home and they understood that. They respected the fact that I played sports, so I kind of commend them for that, for not trying to reel me in and suck me into doing some things. But there were some times where there were some influences and I had to be the bigger man and say no."
The first activity Blanca Cruz picked for her son was specifically so he'd be safer on the streets.
"I started off when I was seven in karate, because my mother wanted me to defend myself," Cruz said. "I started playing basketball and baseball at eight. I didn't get into football until I was about nine or 10."
When he was 12, Cruz quit karate because football had become the game of his dreams, for a very understandable reason.
"At that age, I was bigger than everyone, so I was kind of dominating," he said. "I played running back and I was getting the ball all the time. It was just a fun time, because all of my friends were playing with me and we were playing football and just running around so it was cool."
That statement leads to the inevitable question: Victor Cruz, bigger than everyone? Though he is listed at 6-foot, Cruz is one of the shortest Giants.
"Yeah, at that age I was taller," Cruz said. "It was shocking. My dad had some old film of me and I was just like, 'I am about three inches taller than everybody out there.' It was cool. Now I am about three inches shorter than everybody out there."
Although he didn't live with his father, Paterson firefighter Mike Walker, Cruz was close to him.
"He would come visit all the time, he would take me and my brother out," Cruz said. "He introduced me to football so he would always call me and give me pointers on some things and talk sports. He was an intricate part of my life, but growing up it was just me and my mother in the same household majority of the time."
Cruz starred at Paterson Catholic High School (which closed in 2010), leading the team to an 11-0 record and the Parochial Group 1 state championship as a senior in 2003. That season, Cruz was an all-state selection after catching 42 passes for 731 yards and totaling 19 touchdowns - 15 receiving, one rushing, one on a punt return, one on a kickoff return and one on an interception return.
"It was a great time at Paterson Catholic," Cruz said. "It was like a family. We all hung out together, went to parties together, in class we sat in the same area. I just had a blast with everyone and I think that is why we did so well, because we knew each other in and out and we had each other's back."
Cruz spent the autumn of 2004 at Bridgton Academy in North Bridgton, Maine so he could raise both his grade point average and his SAT score. He achieved his academic goals and for the first time experienced life outside Paterson.
"It was a big difference," Cruz said. "The only thing close to you was a post office. The Laundromat was a 30-minute drive. The mall was about a 45-minute to an hour drive and the supermarket was like a 50-minute drive. It was an all-boy school, but it gave me a chance to get to focus on football and my grades and be away from everything, be in the weight room. I made some really great friends with that I am still friends with to this day."
Cruz left Bridgton to enroll at the University of Massachusetts, where the future pro player was redshirted in 2005, did not appear in a game in 2006 and caught one pass in eight games in 2007.
"It was a little frustrating, but I understood that my time would come and that it would take some time for me to get acclimated," Cruz said. "I had some academic issues and stuff like that, but once my number got called and I understood that I had to buckle down and do some good things and I was able to do so and I prevailed."
He first had to deal with the worst heartache of his life. On March 1, 2007, Mike Walker was found dead in his Paterson apartment.
"My brother called me and told me about it and at first I was in disbelief, I thought he was joking," Cruz said. "Then he started breaking down crying to me on the phone and then it started to click that he was being serious, this is real. I hung up the phone and took a moment, just sat back and didn't understand it."
Cruz honors his father's memory with a ritual he follows before every game. He runs to the end zone, bows his head and says a prayer in memory of his father. "When I do that, I know he's looking after me and keeping me safe," Cruz said.
While Cruz was dealing with the loss of his father, he also struggled at times at UMass, which twice asked him to leave school. Cruz took online courses and enrolled at a community college to boost his grade and his standing with the school.
"It was more me being a knucklehead and being away from home and not having that person in my ear saying that I have to go to class," Cruz said. "I was just in my dorm room, there was nobody there. My mother didn't have to wake me up. I was just basically doing whatever I wanted and things like that. So once I got kicked out those few times I understood that this isn't a game, this isn't a joke, this is for real and I have to take this seriously if I want to reach my ultimate goal."
Once Cruz got serious about school, his football career soared. As a junior in 2008, he was named to the Colonial Athletic Association's first team after finishing with a team-high 71 catches for 1,064 yards and six touchdowns while starting all 12 games. The following year, he was again selected first-team all-conference after catching 59 passes for 858 yards and five scores. He finished fourth on the school's career catches list with 131 and fifth with 1,958 yards. It had taken a while, but Cruz had compiled the statistics he long thought he was capable of.
"I think it was more of me finally getting that chance and finally understanding the offense and the coaching staff having confidence in me and understanding that I had the potential to be a good player," he said. "I had 100 percent confidence and focus that I could get the job done. I think it was a mixture of me just coming into my own and having them give me a chance."
Like so many college players, Cruz hoped to get selected in the NFL Draft, but he knew going in the odds were against him.
"In the back of your mind you always think you're good enough to get drafted," he said. "But I understood that I came from a small school and I understood what the chances are of a guy like me making a team or getting drafted are. My best chance was to get a free agency contract or something like that and that's what ended up happening and I made the most of it."
The Giants were one of four teams to contact Cruz after the 2010 draft, but the only one to offer him a contract. When a smallish receiver from a school like UMass arrives at a pro camp, he is considered a longshot to make the team, much less become a regular contributor. But Cruz impressed the Giants almost immediately.
Now that he's living the life of his dreams, Cruz said that will continue for a long time.
"I just want to maintain consistency, make plays when our team needs it the most, be open for Eli whenever he wants to see me and whenever he wants to come to me," Cruz said. "I want to make sure I am doing the right thing and reading the coverages correctly and making sure I am getting open so that Eli has a lane to through me the ball and have a safety valve when he is in trouble. I want to do anything I can to get open and remain consistent for the most part and not have any negative plays. I just want to keep doing what I am doing and remain consistent."