By Jason Keidel
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Like so many moves in the NFL, the Giants cutting Victor Cruz was cold, rooted in the blind business of finance, in numbers, in the zero-sum calculus of pay versus production.
The NFL loves to trade on the cozy images on the billboards of unlimited success, that pro football is but an extension of the American dream. Even if the average career lasts three years. For every Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, there are hundreds of players toiling on practice squads — sweating, bleeding and breaking bones just to play for a month, much less a decade.
Then there’s Victor Cruz. An undrafted player out of UMass … strike that … an unknown person out of Paterson, New Jersey, whose odds of making a roster were so remote that he wore the No. 3 on his jersey. It was the equivalent of those red shirts at the start of a Star Trek episode, whom you knew would be zapped into salt cubes before the first commercial break.
Just when we’re ready to dismiss the NFL’s false advertising, Cruz comes along. In an anonymous, summer preseason game, Cruz torched the Jets, dashing down the sideline as the cornerback fell down trying to catch him, another TD for the kid who would surely be selling cars by the time the adults started playing in September.
But Cruz kept running, kept sweating, kept scoring and became a national sensation. The odds against any human making an NFL roster is remote. The odds of Cruz not only joining the Giants but becoming Big Blue’s best wideout is as likely as Mr. Spock playing Van Halen’s “Panama” on electric guitar. Yet here he was, swapping his No. 3 for the more appropriate No. 80, perhaps the first super slot receiver, Wes Welker 2.0, scorching NFL secondaries for several years.
Cruz was the sports version of a comet. He didn’t last very long, but he owned our hearts as soon as he stepped on the turf. His first full season was perhaps his most indelible, catching 82 passes for an astounding 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. And surely his magnum opus was that catch against, again, the Jets.
No regular season game at the Meadowlands has more heft than when Big Blue plays Gang Green. And when they squared off on Christmas Eve 2011, the Jets were 8-6 and the Giants were 7-7, each toeing the playoff tightrope. The Jets were riding the crest of the Rex Ryan wave, coming off consecutive AFC title games. Ryan was in full bombastic bloom, guaranteeing a Super Bowl every year. And this game would surely crown Ryan and the Jets king of MetLife Stadium.
Pinned back on their 1-yard line, Eli Manning, whose feet were dancing nervously in the end zone, slung a ball about 10 yards, and Cruz did the rest — make the catch, juking a few defenders, then breezing down the right sideline for the TD, pushing the Giants ahead 10-7. Though the iconic catch-and-run happened at the end of the first half, the Jets never recovered. Indeed, years later, Ryan told Newsday that the play still haunts him. He noted to Bob Glauber that Manning had just eight completions all day, and of his 225 yards, almost half came on a single — and singular — play.
The Jets missed the playoffs.
The Giants won the Super Bowl.
Ryan may have had the contours of Santa Claus, but Christmas was never the same after Cruz gutted his Jets, who never made the playoffs again under Ryan, who was fired a few years later.
Of course, Cruz was known well beyond the muscular machinations of running routes and breaking tackles. Along with his athletic splendor, he also became a pop culture super nova, stamping each score with his trademark salsa dance, his hips twisting in perfect concert with his churning arms. Crowds poured into MetLife with Cruz jerseys, thousands of sudden salsa fans doing their best imitation with every score. Even Madge, the Material Girl, came under the spell of Cruz’s hypnotic hips.
Not that Cruz was done scoring or dancing after the G-Men’s enchanted 2011 Super Bowl season. His second full season, he caught more passes (86) and more touchdowns (10), proving the prior season wasn’t a fluke, that he was more than a single-season wonder with some catchy feet. Indeed, Cruz ended the 2012 season with a trip to the Pro Bowl, the only one in his brief but electric career with the Giants.
Cruz finishes his time with Big Blue with 303 receptions, 4,549 yards and 25 touchdowns. Hardly Hall of Fame figures. But it’s hard to think of any Giant, any football player or any player in any sport that so charmed the masses, from the blue-collar stiff to the white-collar banker, from the bleachers to the luxury suites, like Victor Cruz.
Victor Cruz had no business being here. Yet he made it his business to stay here long enough to take an unforgettable bite out of the Big Apple.
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel