LIKE A CHOIR BELTING OUT AN IMPASSIONED HYMN, the nearly 80,000 faithful who pack MetLife Stadium exalt his name whenever he touches the ball, Cruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuz rolling off their tongues as easily as the object of their cheering glides downfield. But far harsher sounds fell on Cruz's ears while he was celebrating his 25th birthday at Manhattan's upscale Juliet Supperclub in mid-November: Gunshots rang out and a man was killed in an altercation. Cruz, a bystander who ducked for cover along with roughly a dozen other pro athletes, became the focus of many news reports.
"Not what I want in my life," said Cruz shorty after the incident. He said that he first thought of his unborn child—he and longtime girlfriend Elaina Watley had a daughter, Kennedy, on Jan. 9—and then of the loose comparisons that would inevitably be drawn to Plaxico Burress, the former Giants receiver who shot himself at a nightclub in 2008.
"People are looking at you to screw up," Cruz says, "but you have a responsibility to keep the team in positive eyes."
Though rattled, Cruz did not let the incident interfere with his play or his life. He continued to produce with substance and style—a knack for which he has also shown in a fashion line specializing in designer T-shirts that he has started with Nate Collins, a defensive tackle with the Jaguars—and he continued to carry himself as he always has. In December, Wimberly, Cruz's former coach, hosted a dinner for nearly 600 homeless and underprivileged people at Eastside High in Paterson. Cruz showed up with no security or entourage and stayed until every autograph and picture request was fulfilled.
"The way he was dressed, he blended in with everybody else," Wimberly says. "He's humble. He's genuine. I don't see him becoming an untouchable person."
Try telling that to defensive backs.