The 2011 season was wrapping up and the New York Giants playoff hopes came down to a week-16 matchup with their cross-town rival NY Jets. The Giants trailed 7-3 and were buried on their own one-yard line facing a third-and-10 against a game Jets defense. Eli Manning dropped back and fired a short strike to a diminutive wide receiver, who came out of nowhere to become the Giants version of Mark Duper.
He took it 99 yards to the crib, tying an NFL record. It turned out to be the defining play in a Giants season that ended with an improbable Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. When the half-black, half-Puerto Rican wideout burst into an endzone salsa dance, it signaled the birth of Victor Cruz the NFL superstar.
Until that play, Cruz, an undrafted project out of UMass via the rough and rugged streets of Paterson, New Jeru, was a nice NFL story. He was an undersized receiver who starred at Paterson Catholic High School and didn’t receive a single D-1 scholarship. He was longer than a long shot, and he definitely wasn’t supposed to be wrecking shop as Eli Manning’s No. 1 target.
Two seasons later, he is considered one of the game’s dopest pass-snatchers, and now he’s paid like it. After months of hardball negotiating, Cruz and the Giants agreed to terms on a new 5-year $43 million dollar extension. Now his pockets match the celebrity status he has attained since setting the Giants' single-season receiving record in ’11.
Some say this new contract is a loss for Cruz, who reportedly wanted a deal in the $10-million-a-year range. After the 2014 season, his base salary is not guaranteed, and his contract essentially turns into a series of one-year deals with him set to make $6.15 million in 2015, $7.9 million in 2016, $7.4 million in 2017, and $8.4 million in 2018.
At the end of the day, the NFL’s newest slot-machine just wanted to cash in. What he got is more than enough lunch-money to feed the whole projects, so it’s doubtful he’s bitching about the contract’s structure.
Most people doubted Cruz would ever arrive at this enviable destination. He grew up in the town of crack sales, car jacks and gang flack. His mother Bianca and father Mike Walker, a 30-year firefighter, were separated, but were the driving forces behind his athletic prowess and kept him away from shady street dealings.
Despite Cruz’s spectacular high school career, his academics proved to be a tougher opponent than the mean streets of Paterson. He was twice booted out of UMass for being academically ineligible.
“A lot of it had to do with me being a knucklehead and Mom not being there and me being on my own," Cruz told the AP in January of ‘12.
Then, in the spring of 2007, while Cruz was back in New Jersey taking online courses and trying to get back into UMass, his pops died in what some say was a suicide. Having lost his inspiration, Cruz could have folded the tent, stayed in Paterson and lived the stereotypical criminal lifestyle of his hood-mates.
Instead, Cruz got his grades up, went back to UMass and jumped onto NFL radars by destroying college football for 131 grabs and about 2,000 yards of miraculous highlights in his last two eligible seasons.
The work ethic instilled in him by his parents, and the embarrassment of being the “chosen one” who limped home as a failure and let down a community of people with already-shattered hopes, put a spark under his 170-pound butt.
“If I went out, then people would see me and they’d ask, ‘What are you doing here?” Cruz told Bill Pennington of the New York Times. "The neighborhood thought I was off doing great things at UMass, and I’d have to tell them the truth. That was humbling.”
He doesn’t have to hide from the truth anymore. Cruz is a super-celeb and one of the best in the game. Madonna copied his salsa TD dance and his No. 80 jersey is even outselling that of your favorite rapper’s favorite player.
Trying times and crossroad moments are behind him just like his contract concerns. With all of the NFL’s negative publicity, a redemption story like Cruz’s should be what the league is all about.