Those aren’t boos you hear when #80 of the New York Giants hauls in another jaw-dropping reception. That’s “Croooooz”—as in Victor Cruz, the NFL’s #1 surprise story of 2011. After spending his entire football career flying under the radar, Victor danced across the screen and became a high-profile difference-maker during New York’s improbable run to the Super Bowl. So if Victor is such a big star for Big Blue, how come it’s so hard for opponents to find him on a football field? That’s a question league defensive coordinators will no doubt spend the off-season attempting to answer. This is his story…

GROWING UP

Victor Cruz was born on November 11, 1986 in Paterson, New Jersey. (Click here for a complete listing of today's sports birthdays.) His mother, Blanca Cruz, was not married to his father, who was African-American.

Paterson was one of the most violent cities in the nation, but Victor managed to stay out of trouble. He pursued two things he loved, football and dancing. His grandmother taught him how to salsa when he was 11. He pays tribute to her whenever he scores a touchdown. 

Although Victor grew up just a few miles from Giants Stadium, he became a fan of the Dallas Cowboys as a kid. The Cowboys were one of the league’s best teams in the 1990s, and Victor jumped on the bandwagon as they won three Super Bowls during the decade.

Football was Victor’s first love, but basketball was the sport that ruled the playgrounds in Paterson. Victor was an excellent shooter and defender. In AAU competition, he more than held his own against the best players in the area. Still, nothing got him as excited as football.

Victor attended PS 21 in Paterson as a boy and distinguished himself in a number of sports. In 2000, he enrolled at Paterson Catholic High School. The Cougars were known for producing top college and pro athletes. Among the school’s most famous grads was Tim Thomas, who was a first-round pick by the New Jersey Nets in 1997.

At Paterson Catholic, Victor played wide receiver and defensive back for coach Benjie Wimberly. He earned All-State honors as a senior in 2003, when the team went undefeated at 11–0 and captured the New Jersey Parochial Group I championship. That season Victor caught 42 passes and scored 19 touchdowns—15 on receptions.

Victor was selected to play in the New Jersey North-South All-Star Game early in 2004. At the same time, he began receiving recruiting bids from a handful of schools. He accepted an offer from the University of Massachusetts, but before matriculating he spent a semester at Bridgton Academy in Maine to get ready for college academics. The following fall, the Minutemen red-shirted Victor, so his first varsity season was actually 2006.

ON THE RISE

Victor sat on the bench for two seasons before making Don Brown’s starting lineup as a junior in 2008. He blossomed into a star, catching 71 passes for 1,064 yards and five touchdowns. His biggest day of the year came against James Madison, when he made 13 receptions for 262 yards and one score. After the campaign, he was voted First Team All-Colonial Conference.

As a senior, Victor saw his fair share of double-coverage and his numbers dropped. Still, he caught 59 passes for 868 yards and five touchdowns. Victor was named all-conference for the second year in a row.

Despite his impressive junior and senior seasons at UMass, the NFL draft came and went without Victor’s name being called. He figured that a few teams would invite him to camp as a non-roster player—most likely the Chicago Bears, Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers or Kansas City Chiefs, all of whom lacked depth at wide receiver. To Victor’s astonishment, the first call came from assistant coach Chris Pettit of the Giants. Although they seemed to be loaded on the outside, he couldn’t turn them down. Victor showed up at training camp in the summer of 2010 looking to make an impression. 

Victor opened a lot of eyes in a preseason game against the Jets on a Monday night. He snagged three touchdown passes in a 31–16 win and showed a knack for making big plays in pressure situations. Though not the biggest, fastest, tallest or strongest member of the receiving corps, Victor possessed enough of these qualities—plus the all-important intangibles—to make the team.

Victor played very little as a rookie. He got a few snaps at receiver early in the 2010 campaign but didn’t catch any passes. A hamstring injury eventually sidelined him for the remainder of the year.

It also may have saved his career as a Giant. Interest in Victor from coaches and scouts around the league—most notably Rex Ryan—had grown. The Giants knew if they cut Victor, another team would grab him. By placing him on injured reserve, the team was able to protect him.

That May, Victor was surprised to receive a call from Eli Manning. He was amazed the team’s franchise quarterback even had his cell phone number. The players were in the midst of a lockout, but Manning wanted to hold his own training camp. Victor and 11 teammates began working out at Hoboken High School, waiting for the labor dispute to get settled. During these sessions, Victor found that he and Manning seemed to be on the same page most of the time. That was a valuable asset for a young player trying to earn more playing time.

During the offseason, reliable receiver Steve Smith had surprised the Giants by inking a free agent deal with the Philadelphia Eagles. Amidst all the handwringing in New York over the loss of Smith, Victor saw an opportunity. He moved into the #4 slot on the depth chart and worked to become an even bigger part of the Giants’ attack.


 

 

 


Tim Thomas, 1998 Topps insert

     
 

As luck would have it, Domenik Hixon and Mario Manningham went down with early-season injuries, leaving Victor as Manning’s #2 option after former first-round pick Hakeem Nicks. He was still experiencing growing pains, making incorrect reads and dropping passes, but the Giants stuck with him.

In Week 3 against the Eagles, Victor finally made his presence felt. Manning found him with a pair of touchdown passes in a 29–16 win, including a sensational 74-yard catch and run for a score. Victor caught three balls in all for 110 yards and two touchdowns.

He electrified his teammates again a week later during a road game against the Arizona Cardinals. With Big Blue trailing 27–24 in the fourth quarter and time running out, he made a clutch grab to set up the winning score moments later.

The Giants returned home and were shocked by the Seahawks 36–25 the following. However, New York fans got a firsthand glimpse of Victor’s big play ability, and they loved what they saw. On a throw in traffic from Manning, Victor tipped the ball to himself and then raced down the sideline for a 68-yard score. But fans quickly learned that the rookie was not yet a fully polished gem. Later in the game he fumbled the ball, allowing Seattle to tie the score. Then, with New York poised to put the game away, he stumbled on a pass route and deflected the ball in the air when he had no chance to catch it. Brandon Browner intercepted and returned the pick 94 yards for the winning touchdown. Despite the shocking loss, it was hard to ignore the fact that Victor led all receivers with eight catches and 161 yards.  

New York recovered to win its next three games, and Victor improved with each contest. In a 24–20 win over the New England Patriots in Foxboro, he caught six passes for 91 yards. He had a lot of friends and fans in the stands, and they shouted “Croooooz” every time he caught a pass. 

It was a pass he didn’t catch, however, that proved to be the key play. With under a minute to play and New York down 20–17, Victor broke free in the end zone and drew an interference penalty on safety Sergio Brown. From the 1-yard line, the Giants scored the winning points on a short pass to tight end Jake Ballard. It halted a 20-game home winning streak for the Pats.

Victor even played well during a four-game midseason losing streak that seemed to put the Giants out of serious playoff contention. He caught six passes for 128 yards and a touchdown in a 17–10 loss to the Eagles. Next, he had nine catches for157 yards and two touchdowns in a 49–24 defeat at the hands of the New Orleans Saints. Victor surpassed 100 yards for the third game in a row when the Giants lost a close game to the Green Bay Packers.

MAKING HIS MARK

With their record at 7-7, the Giants split their next two games to set up a showdown with their Meadowlands co-tenants, the Jets. Victor caught just three passes in the game, but one of his receptions turned the season around, arguably for both clubs. The Giants were pinned against their own goal line on third and 10 when Manning found Victor with a pass around the 11-yard line—close to the first down marker. Victor slipped a pair of tackles and then jetted down the sideline for that rarest of plays in the NFL—a 99-yard touchdown catch. It was just the 13th in league history. The play turned a 7–3 deficit into a 10–7 lead that the Giants would never relinquish. They beat the Jets 29–14. The win would ultimately enable the Giants to squeak into the playoffs and ultimately keep the playoff-bound Jets out of the postseason.


Eli Manning, autographed photo
     
 

 The Giants beat the Cowboys the following week to wrestle away the division title with a meager 9–7 record. Victor was sensational in the season finale, catching six passes for a career-high 178 yards. Those number enabled him to become the first New York receiver to have more than 1,500 yards in a season. His 82 catches were second in team history to Steve Smith’s 107 receptions in 2009.

Victor wasn’t much of a factor in his first playoff game, but fortunately he didn’t need to be. The Giants grounded the Atlanta Falcons in a stunning defensive effort. Atlanta’s only points in a 24–2 defeat came on a safety. New York’s pass rush—which featured four All-Pro caliber players in Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, Jason Pierre-Paul and Mathias Kiwanuka—was healthy and at full speed for the first time all year. The Giants battered quarterback Matt Ryan in a dominant performance.

The team’s offense was completely healthy, too. Running backs Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw were running effectively, which created opportunities for Victor, Nicks and Manningham—all three of whom were in top form. With a full arsenal weapons on both sides of the ball and Manning looking like the league MVP, the Giants were peaking at just the right time.

The following week in Green Bay, the Giants crushed the 15–1 Packers, 37–20. Victor caught several clutch passes to keep drives alive and finished the day with 74 receiving yards. Nicks was the star of the day with two touchdowns, including a Hail Mary pass to end the first half.

In the NFC Championship Game, the San Francisco 49ers had no answer for Victor. He was everywhere at once in the first half, catching balls at a record-breaking pace. Victor had 10 receptions in the first two quarters for 142 yards. Whenever Victor caught a pass, the Giants fans in attendance made themselves known by filling the misty air with chants of his name.

The game settled into a defensive battle in the second half, as the 49ers blanketed Victor with two men. This left his teammates open, and Manning found Manningham in the end zone for the go-ahead score in the fourth quarter. The 49ers tied the game, but the Giants won 20–17 in overtime after recovering a fumbled punt return.

Super Bowl XLVI matched the Giants against a familar opponent, the Patriots. Even though New York had won their regular-season meeting and was the hottest team on the planet, New England was installed as a 3-point favorite. Victor knew he would be a primary focus of the Pats’ defensive gameplan. That’s exactly what happened. New England doubled Victor for most of the game. His numbers looked meager—four catches for 25 yards—but he also scored a touchdown and opened holes in the defense for teammates.

The Giants moved the ball well in the first half but found themselves trailing 10-9. Manning and Victor hooked up for New York’s lone touchdown. It was amazing that Manning was able to fit the pass in. With the Giants facing a second-and-goal from the 2-yard line, Victor ran a quick slant and almost looked surprised to see the ball thrown in his direction. Manning slipped a pass by a linebacker, and Victor bobbled, then cradled the ball for the score

The Patriots increased their lead to 17-9 to start the third quarter. The Giants answered with two field goals. Trailing 17-15 with under four minutes left, Manning directed a near-perfect 88-yard scoring drive. Manningham was his favorite target, including a 38-yard dazzler down the left sideline. Bradshaw finished off the drive with a 6-yard touchdown run.

New England got the ball back with a minute remaining. The best Tom Brady could do was a heave Hail Mary on the game’s final play that fell incomplete. Victor was all smiles afterward, and he lit up every media appearance he did. In one season, he forever cemented his place in Giants lore.


Victor Cruz, 2011 New York Post
     
 

One of the charms of pro football is that a player who may be lacking in obvious size or skill often can make up for it with his head and his heart. Even so, Victor is a special case. Totally ignored in the draft and injured before catching an NFL pass, he became a record-smashing receiver when given a chance. Victor was a major reason why his team was playing in a Super Bowl while all those other teams were at home wondering how he ever got away.

VICTOR THE PLAYER  

Victor is an example of how doing the little things well can transform a receiver with average NFL skills into a star. Victor’s speed goes into a whole different gear when he breaks on his routes, giving him that little bit of separation from opposing defender. He has good hands and trusts them to secure balls other players might be fearful of dropping.

Learning how to read defensive coverages is one of the trickiest things for a young receiver. Victor showed his inexperience early in his rookie season, often running the wrong route when he thought the defense was in a different coverage. By midseason, however, he and Manning were consistently on the same page. His natural feel for open spots behind linebackers and in front of the secondary can’t be taught.

Victor’s ability to make big plays is also an instinctive part of his game. He loves to jump, dive or contort his body to make sure he gets all 10 fingers on the football when it comes his way. Once he secures a catch, he is even more dangerous. Victor is slippery in the open field, frustrating opponents by squeezing out of tight spots and turning short receptions into long gainers.

In his short career, Victor has already shown the work ethic and perseverance that marks sustained success in the NFL. He is as smooth answering questions from reporters in the locker room as he is running routes on the field. His teammates love his fearlessness and football intelligence.


Victor Cruz, 2010 insert
     

 

© Copyright 2012 Black Book Partners, LLC. All rights reserved.