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THE WAY HE STRUTS, THE WAY HE SMILES, THE WAY he zips past defensive backs and salsas in the end zone—gyrating so fluidly that Dancing With the Stars tried recruiting him—seemingly everything about Victor Cruz is as smooth as his hometown's nickname: Silk City. Cruz is so at ease with his sudden celebrity that his ascent into Giants lore almost seems part of some master script: An undrafted wideout enters his second season searching for his first NFL reception and catches 82 passes for a franchise-record 1,536 yards, nothing to it. In so doing he becomes the toast of New York, feted with a rousing ovation while sitting courtside at a Knicks game and swarmed by reporters crowding his locker the way they converge upon Derek Jeter's in the summertime.
"I wake up every day and just pinch myself," Cruz says. "This wasn't in my wildest dreams."
Indeed, no one in New York's front office was prepared for Cruz to come on so strong. Although he would wind up finishing third in the NFL in receiving yards and equaling Larry Fitzgerald and Calvin Johnson with a league-best 17 catches of 25 yards or more, Cruz was not listed on the Pro Bowl fan ballot because the Giants instead chose to nominate Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham by the Oct. 25 deadline. And even though he grew up just a 15-minute drive from the Meadowlands, his Giants jersey was at times so hard to come by this season that fans resorted to taping over the name on old Jeremy Shockey jerseys (same number 80) and writing Cruz's in permanent marker.
He has become an overnight mainstay of the New York offense, but this is the same Victor Cruz who came very close to not playing professional football at all.
THE ROUGH EDGES OF CRUZ'S LIFE TELL A SORT OF RAGS--to--Lombardi Trophy story. Start with his hometown of Paterson, N.J., which earned its moniker by manufacturing half of the country's silk in the late 1800s but has always been a gritty place. Cruz grew up in the city's Fourth Ward, where he once witnessed a carjacking down the block and remembers seeing someone get shot roughly 50 feet away. Flying bullets broke up cookouts and block parties he attended; gang fights were common in nearby parks.
"You've got to have a toughness about you to really survive," says Benjie Wimberly, Cruz's high school coach at the since-shuttered Paterson Catholic and a state assemblyman. "He's a tough kid."
Cruz's father, Michael Walker, wasn't so sure when he took an 11-year-old Victor to his first football practice. Dad dressed him up like the Michelin Man, doubling up on knee and thigh pads. It might have been the only time Cruz looked stiff on a football field. At Paterson Catholic he was an all-state wideout and defensive back who led the Cougars to an undefeated season in 2003. Cruz scored 19 touchdowns in 11 games as a senior—15 receiving, one rushing, one on a kick return, another on a punt return and still one more on an interception return. His nickname back then was Team, because his friends joked that he was the entire team.
But his prospects were limited. At 5' 9" and 165 pounds, Cruz could dunk a basketball but was unable to attract football scholarship offers from anywhere but Division I-AA schools Massachusetts and Delaware. "He had superior athletic ability, particularly explosion," Wimberly says. "He just didn't have the eye candy, the size, that recruiters were looking for."
Coming out of high school, Cruz opted to play at UMass but wasn't able to pass muster on SAT and grade point requirements. He needed to spend a semester at Bridgton Academy in Maine before joining the Minutemen—but the extra schooling didn't sharpen his academic focus. Cruz was twice kicked out of UMass for poor grades, the second expulsion coming in the spring of 2007, around the time his father, a firefighter who'd lost his job after being hurt in a car accident, died of an apparent suicide.