The year of Victor Cruz ends today, good or bad, but the real story isn’t how his magical run will end. The Paterson native’s journey is already worthy of a celebration, simply because the hometown kid whom no one believed in has made believers of everyone.
The New York Giants face the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI with hopes of punctuating a Cinderella run, one that will remind everyone of how the NFL’s season ended four years ago when David Tyree hauled in the catch heard around the world and Plaxico Burress clasped onto Eli Manning’s game-winning toss to crush Tom Brady and company’s quest for a perfect campaign.
Over the last few weeks, no player has generated more buzz than Cruz, suddenly the Giants’ most explosive weapon. But to truly appreciate where he is, you have to understand where he’s been.
Cruz was a star wide receiver for Paterson Catholic, before the school closed a year ago due to drowning in a tidal wave of financial issues, and then went on to star at UMass. As an all-state playmaker for the Cougars in New Jersey, he was presented with just two college scholarship offers: Massachusetts and Delaware. In the eleventh hour, Rutgers had begun to show interest, but opted to use its final scholarship on St. Joseph Regional cornerback Devin McCourty.
It just so happens, Cruz will line up against McCourty tonight once the Giants’ offense steps onto the turf. The ironic twist serves as a symbol of what Cruz’s path has presented to his millions of onlookers. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound Little Engine That Could has also transformed into a beacon of hope in his hometown.
“It’s amazing. Guys recognize me in the streets,” Cruz said. “I went to Paterson Catholic the other day, or what used to be Paterson Catholic, and there were kids just going up to the window, disregarding their teachers – which isn’t always the right thing to do – and they were yelling. They love me, and I get goose bumps every time a kid recognizes me or comes up to me to ask for my autograph because it really shows how far I’ve come.
“These kids really look up to their hometown athletes and hometown heroes and I’m just glad I can be a guy they look up to and look at as a role model. I understand that; I like to carry that burden and be a guy who does a lot of positive things and always comes back. That’s the biggest thing to me, always coming back and not being a guy that you never see anymore. I like coming back to Paterson and doing things in the community and making sure I stay heavily involved in the city.”
New to the circle of superstars, Cruz has dealt with his fair share of adversity. He attended prep school in 2004 and finally made it to the field as a starter for the Division I-AA Minutemen as a junior. In just two years he became one of the most prominent players to ever wear a UMass uniform – if not the most.
After he signed as an undrafted free agent with the Giants, Cruz participated in three games in 2010-11 but did not accumulate any offensive statistics. This year, he set a franchise record for single-season receiving yards (1,536) and has joined Hakeem Nicks in becoming Manning’s go-to targets.
Benjie Wimberly, who spoke to MSG Varsity’s Jimmy Cavallo this week, offered nothing but high praise for his former standout at Paterson Catholic.
“Explosive, exciting,” said Wimberly, who was the head coach of the Cougars and is now a New Jersey Assemblyman. “A lot of the stuff he’s doing with the Giants he was doing in the BPSL. The knack to make the one-handed catch, diving, jumping over their heads – he was just an exciting high school player.
“He was a very aggressive receiver. He was the type of person who, when he saw that ball in the air, it was his.”
While Cruz has been spectacular on the field for Big Blue, his work off the field has made waves throughout Paterson.
“He’s been back from the beginning. After the preseason game with the Jets, I remember talking to him that night and he was back in Paterson," Wimberly said. "He’s just one of the guys. He’s been everything we could’ve asked. We’ve done fundraisers, he’s spoken at a bunch of grammar schools, he’s been at homeless centers for the needy, and when we had the terrible floods here in September, he came out to a funding for the families.
“Vic has really never said no. Anytime I’ve needed someone to come to Paterson and give an injection of hope, he’s been right there.”
Paterson was the site of a recent pep rally for Cruz, as over 5,000 residents crowded the streets and celebrated their native son before sending him off to the NFL’s biggest stage.
“It’s unbelievable. It’s so exciting,” Wimberly said. “I’m at the edge of my seat. I was watching the game in San Francisco and my stomach did more back flips than any championship game I’ve ever had in my life. I was a nervous wreck. It’s just so exciting to see him out there on the big stage.”
The kid from Public School 21 is now a star. He’s put Paterson, home of many prominent professional and collegiate athletes, on the map once again.
“It’s been a buzz since last year when he signed and made the team,” Wimberly said. “His teammates, the class that I had those couple of years when Vic was there, they’re great guys and they still remain close. So these guys are constantly texting me, calling me, and they’re so excited for Vic because the type of guy he is. Cougar pride is alive and strong.”
It’s amazing to think this all started when Manning called Cruz in the offseason to offer encouragement and nudge him to join the team for voluntary workouts at Hoboken High School and Bergen Catholic during the league’s lockout over the summer.
“It was huge for me and my confidence to have Eli call me on my phone,” Cruz said.
It’s safe to say that confidence has taken the kid nobody believed in a long way.
Now, Cruz has the chance to become the first New Jersey native to win the Super Bowl MVP since nine-time Pro Bowler Franco Harris – a Rancocas Valley alumnus – accomplished the feat with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1975.
On this morning, dwelling on the possibilities seems more fun than ever in the Garden State.
“The city,” Wimberly gushed, “is on a big, blue cloud right now.”
Contact Brian Fitzsimmons at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FitzWriter