By Jason Keidel
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If you watched the tenderhearted Showtime documentary on his life, you saw that Victor Cruz walked through quite a maze to reach the NFL.

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From the perilous streets of Paterson, he seemed a lifetime from fame and stardom. But just 20 minutes away, in the Meadowlands, he turned his talent and touchdown dances into a cultural billboard. Cruz became the quintessential American dream that only sports can serve into our homes.

His father vanished from his life and then magically appeared at seven. Then he took his life while Cruz wept into his woman’s arms, on film, asking why. He had endless, unanswered questions for his dad.

You saw his path to college, where he was humbled and booted. Then he limped back to NJ for a gut check and symbolic slap in the face, only to come back and make a glittering name for himself.

Then there was his epic rise to the back page, Page Six and a Super Bowl title with the Giants. Cruz’s story became the stuff of mythology, proof positive that talent and temerity still count for something in these parts.

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Few men can come from Paterson/UMass to amass the kind of contract and career that Cruz earned over the last few years. Much less the endless pop stars and average fans who mimicked his style and salsa. He’s been a mainstay in fashion and football, his visage splashed across myriad commercials and TV shows, including the HBO’s “Ballers.”

It seems like yesterday when Cruz lit up the Jets on that summer night, his incongruous No. 3 blurring all over the field while cornerbacks panted to keep up. Rex Ryan, who was miked that night, kept imploring his coordinators to find a solution to Cruz. Then, during the perfunctory postgame handshake, the incredulous coach asked Tom Coughlin where he found that football gem.

And then the NFL’s reality of mangled limbs popped Cruz’s dream cloud. He blew out his knee over a year ago, hence the Showtime crew filming his return. But rather than celebrate Cruz running through some fiery tunnel into a vast expanse of turf, it ended with him limping, again, off the practice field. This time his calf betrayed him. And he recently announced he’s having season-ending surgery. He hopes. There are more macabre forecasts on his future.

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Cruz mused profoundly throughout the documentary about how he would be received in a suddenly strange Giants locker room, how he would perform after so much time away from the gridiron. He even confessed a healthy jealousy of Odell Beckham, Jr., who has since stolen the spotlight from Cruz to become the avatar of the breakout wideout.

While the rest of us marveled at Beckham’s one-handed TD snare against the Cowboys, Cruz likely had different emotions altogether, seeing his career shrink in the shadow of a younger, faster, more athletic player.

The hardest part is that Cruz may not get a chance to prove his gridiron wares. Next year he breaches 30, a perversely magical membrane for the pro athlete when all the skill is supposed to turn to dust. Coming off two crucial surgeries can’t help his recovery or his time left on the NFL earth.

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Cruz knows how fleeting football glory is. He can recite the “Not For Long” acronym better than any of us. If we see his career melting into the New Jersey swamp, you can bet he does.

Former NBA star and current life coach John Lucas once said the pro athlete suffers two deaths: his playing career and his actual, physical demise. Indeed, there is a funereal feel to Cruz’s latest injury. Soon he will sit in yet another sterile, physical therapy room, grunting away at his rehab while he watches Big Blue gallop onward without him.

The animal kingdom of the NFL doesn’t suffer weakness kindly. And in the zero-sum chaos of football, the misfortune of a twisted leg, a bad step or a teammate rolling on your open ankle somehow doubles as ineptitude.

It feels like the conga line of “What could have been” players long exceeds all the icons whose bronze busts beam from Canton. Cruz made it to the top, but his stay was as fleeting as any player we can recall, at least without the inherent implosion of booze, drugs or crimes. If Cruz is looking upward, asking the Deity “Why Me?”, he may as well take a number.

You don’t have to be a Giants fan to wonder if Victor Cruz will ever dazzle fans with his hands and speed and end-zone contortions. And you don’t have to be a fan to hope he has a little more salsa, and sizzle, left in his legs.

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