If not for the insistence of his mother, Blanca Cruz, Victor says he never would have gotten his life back on track that summer by taking online courses and attending community college in New Jersey. Instead of working his way back to Amherst, Mass., he would have been just another guy doing his best to get by in Paterson, where the median household income is roughly $34,000 and the unemployment rate hovers at 16%.
"She held me accountable for everything," he says. "I realized I had to turn into a man."
Despite entering his redshirt junior season at UMass with only one career reception, Cruz caught 71 passes for 1,064 yards and six touchdowns in the fall of 2008; his 262 yards against James Madison that September are a school record. He finished college with 131 receptions for 1,958 yards and 11 touchdowns but never caught the attention of pro scouts who flocked to western Massachusetts to watch teammate Vladimir Ducasse, a tackle drafted in the second round by the Jets. After his senior season Cruz was primed for the 2010 NFL draft—only no one wanted him.
THE GIANTS WERE THE ONLY TEAM THAT INVITED CRUZ to try out as a free agent, and he soon showed shades of his potential. In a 2010 preseason game against the Jets, Cruz emerged from complete obscurity—back then he wore a single-digit jersey, never a good sign for a wideout trying to make the team—to catch six passes for 145 yards and three scores. "I don't know who number 3 is, but holy s---!" Jets coach Rex Ryan told Giants coach Tom Coughlin afterward. "Victor Cruz going nuts," LeBron James tweeted. "He's gonna have a job this year for sure."
Cruz did make the 53-man roster as a rookie that year but appeared in just three games without a reception before a torn hamstring landed him on injured reserve. Once again he found himself facing an uncertain future. Even after the Giants' receiving corps was decimated by free agency before the 2011 season, Cruz—now generously listed at 6 feet and 204 pounds—barely made the roster. And he didn't get his first real shot until Week 3, when Domenik Hixon and Mario Manningham were out injured. In that game, against an Eagles squad that still fancied itself a Dream Team, Cruz torched All-Pro cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha for 110 yards on three receptions, including a 74-yard touchdown in the first quarter and a game-winning, 28-yard TD in the fourth.
That was just the start of a remarkable run of highlight-reel performances, so many of which stemmed from Cruz's gone-in-a-blink first step. He almost certainly had Rex Ryan using more four-letter words during a Week 16 showdown in East Rutherford. In the first of two games the G-Men needed to win in order to make the playoffs, Cruz caught three passes for 164 yards against the Jets. Just before halftime, with the Giants backed up on their one-yard line and facing a third-and-10, Cruz caught Eli Manning's short pass in the right flat, slipped between two tacklers, hopped away from another and sprinted down the Jets' sideline for a 99-yard touchdown.
Against the Cowboys in the season finale, Cruz caught six passes for 178 yards, including a 74-yard TD. His seven 100-yard receiving games set a franchise record, and his five touchdowns of at least 65 yards were the second-best single-season total in NFL history.
"He does a great job after catching the ball of making guys miss," Manning says. "He has a great feel for what's going on around him."