By Jason Keidel
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He grew up 15 minutes from MetLife Stadium, yet may as well have lived on Mars. Kids from the streets usually get stuck like weeds along the cracks in the sidewalks. They are little more than statistics.
They aren’t supposed to make the NFL, post huge statistics, win a Super Bowl ring and become a national sensation.
Few have lived the Hollywood tableau more than Victor Cruz, who wasn’t supposed to break out of the ‘hood, who wasn’t supposed to go to college, to whom the Giants’ home stadium must have been as distant and distorted as a Greek temple.
But, as we know, he did make it. Make it big. And as quickly as he flashed across the NFL sky, he seemed to vanish with equal speed.
Seven hundred days. It took a lot longer than that to make it to the NFL. And he played longer than that in the NFL. But it took a fraction of that time for the public, the pundits and perhaps his fellow players to give up on him.
That’s how long Cruz spent on the sidelines, on trainers’ tables, on operating tables, in recovery rooms, with physical therapists, in his bed wondering if he’d ever play again.
If that weren’t enough, if shredding his knee didn’t knock him down, it was his calf. Injuries dumped a bucket of ice water on his life, and the world found his replacement.
Cruz wasn’t just toiling in the sterile PT rooms; he had to watch someone younger and faster dart down the sidelines. He saw Odell Beckham Jr. make Spider-Man catches on national television, smash records and become America’s new sensation. Beckham even had the requisite, sprawling blonde mane, as if he were indeed the new lion taking over the football pride.
Instead of all those Cruz jerseys that once freckled the stadium, jumping up and down like piano keys on game day, kids now clamored for the new star.
Those who still owned Cruz’s jersey wore it with solemn pride, like a relic, like the way you’d wear Bart Starr’s jersey, as if you were a graybeard recalling another epoch.
Indeed, worse than injured, Cruz was forgotten.
But some of us never gave up on Cruz, whose greatest sin seemed to be getting hurt. Fans were growing into a throaty chorus, not only impatient but also indignant. Why is he taking two years to return to the field? He’s lazy. He’s soft. He’s gone.
Maybe he was happy with his 15 minutes in the Big Apple’s heart.
He had done enough. He created a dance craze. He got stars — like Madonna — to mimic his end zone salsa party. He won a Super Bowl ring. He did way more than any kid from the streets of Paterson could expect.
If Cruz doesn’t catch another ball this season, or the rest of his career, Sunday’s game against Dallas was irrefutable proof of his courage, confidence and heart. It took 700 days of torment to revive his talent for one glorious day.
Cruz is more than a football player, which is why we fell in love with him in the first place. Yet the moment we think he’s taking too long to come back, we dismiss him as yet another pampered athlete who wilts at the first whiff of adversity.
If anything, we should be more invested in Cruz than any other Giant. We should be more invested in him now than ever.
We wave the flag of the home team, root for the laundry and walk all chest-out over our native ballers. We take provincial pride in the home team. Yet we lose interest in the homegrown player.
The irony, of course, is we root for a team filled with men who are from everywhere but New York or New Jersey. Think Eli Manning is from Lodi? Think Beckham is from Brooklyn? Think Lawrence Taylor is from Paterson?
Cruz is the quintessential local kid done good, who should have been delivering the local paper, not adorning it with sizzling stats and touchdown dances. We should have known better than anyone that you can’t keep that kid down.
We lost patience with Cruz while he was working to do the very thing he’s done his whole life — beat the odds. For becoming something when he’s expected to be nothing.
You don’t have to love Big Blue to have felt a few hairs spike when he caught that TD on Sunday that was two years in the making. His muscle memory not only hauled in that ball from Manning, but also led Cruz right to his dance.
His teammates gleefully hopped around him. Beckham, who has since sped past Cruz in every conceivable way, morphed into a fan for a few seconds. He knelt before Cruz and pretended to take a picture of the man doing his football thing.
Maybe Cruz will pull a muscle, tweak a tendon or break a bone before the season ends. Maybe this comeback was all about giving him one more moment in our hearts.
But maybe, just maybe, Cruz’s comeback has just begun. Maybe he leads the Giants back to their ancestral playoff perch. Maybe this cat has more lives.
Maybe this is Victor Cruz’s Hollywood ending. Maybe Beckham can play the role of Cruz in the movie.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel