When Victor Cruz stepped foot on the campus of the University of Albany for the first time since he was an undrafted and anonymous free agent two years ago, he paused to study his surroundings. He stood still and reflected over a journey that transformed the diminutive 6-0 wide receiver born and raised on the rough streets of Paterson, N.J., from ordinary to extraordinary.
Cruz's rise was memorable in its explosive brilliance, a run that started so dramatically in Week 3 of the 2012 NFL season. He caught three passes for 110 yards and two touchdowns in the Giants' upset of the Eagles in Philadelphia. Months later after becoming a Super Bowl champion, Cruz politely turned down the chance to impress the judges and sultry women of "Dancing With the Stars" with the "Silk City Salsa." Even when arriving to Albany driving an Audi, it's still his nature to stay humble.
"It’s a little different," Cruz told the assembled media on the day the Giants' defense of their fourth Super Bowl championship began in earnest. "I mean, it’s up here, you know I’m not as nervous as I was the first time, not knowing if I was going to make the team, or what was going to happen. You know you never know what’s going to happen when you come up as a rookie free agent, but this year it’s a little more calming to come up and continue to fine-tune my skills, and just get better every day and keep competing, because that’s what I did every year leading up to this point, so that’s what I want to continue to do."
Cruz was excited over the nostalgia trip, and equally anxious to prove that he's legit and not a transient star that burns out and fades away. Tom Coughlin's mantra last season was "Finish." This year it's "Sustain." And that applies to Cruz and the rest of his Giants teammates many pundits continue to stubbornly refuse to take seriously. It's logical that Cruz and the Giants were made for one another. Nobody gave Cruz even a passing glance despite his 131 catches, 11 touchdowns and under 1,958 receiving yards despite not starting until his junior season at the University of Massachusetts.
Many are blowing off any chance the Giants have of repeating as champions. This was a team on death's door until beginning their miraculous ride with Cruz's 99-yard touchdown catch-and-run against the Jets in Week 16. It's easy to forget, scoffs the critics, that the Giants actually finished 9-7, clinched the NFC East in the final game of the regular season and faces, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, the toughest schedule of any defending champ.
Perfect, says Cruz. Bring it. He and the Giants have that old chip on their shoulder. Next to winning it all, Big Blue loves to prove so-called experts wrong, and that's another way one can sum up Mission 2012: Sustain, Defy and Do It Again.
"I think we still have that," Cruz said. "Coming into this season nobody is picking us to win, everybody is picking us to be last in the division, and things of that nature. Surely that puts a chip on our shoulder. We want to come out and prove people wrong, like we essentially have to do every year. That chip is definitely still there, and we’re going to be working hard to knock that chip off our shoulder at the end of the year. It’s not the easiest, but I think as a team, we understand that at some point we have to cross that bridge and go on to the next season and try to do it all over again. I think all of us understand that. We’re hungry, we want to keep winning, and win another championship. We understand that in order to do that, we have to put the past behind us, and focus on right now.
"It doesn’t upset me. It’s just something that I see on TV, I see on SportsCenter, or different shows, it doesn’t upset me at all. It’s just something that we take with us into the season knowing that nobody is really picking us to win. They’re picking all the other teams to beat us, or finish the division on top of us. It’s just something that we carry with us every game."
If the Giants are to nail the critics' mouths shut and repeat, Cruz will have to elevate his game from the stratosphere to the mesosphere. He caught 82 of Eli Manning's passes for a franchise-record 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. He was money in the NFC Championship Game with 10 grabs and 142 yards, and caught the first touchdown of Super Bowl XLVI. Yet the doubts linger like the aftertaste of spicy food. The Giants' run proved they can play with anyone. The same team also required some Coughlin magic in light of terrible losses to the Seahawks and twice to Rex Grossman and the Redskins. Cruz is perplexed as to why the Giants are again the underdogs, but all they need to do is think back to a Week 15, 23-10, loss to Grossman and Co. at home that put their season on life support.
"I don’t know what else we have to do, what else we have to prove," Cruz said. "It seems like every year they doubt us, and don’t put us at the top. It is what it is, we’re going to go out and play our style of football, which is hard-nosed, grind it out, football. At the end of the year we’ll see what happens.
"There is a lot more of my career to accomplish. A lot more for us as a team to accomplish. We’re relatively young, and we understand that our time is now. We want to continue to keep that pressure on ourselves, to keep winning, keep performing at a high level. Our teammates do a good job of keeping everybody humble."
Besides football, Cruz is living the life of an NFL star, sexy dancer and best-selling author. He takes all that in stride, just like these new set of challenges. He has to be Manning's No. 2 man -- No. 1 if Hakeem Nicks' nagging injury woes don't go away. He has to be a mentor to a crop of rookies and second-year players competing for time at wide receiver. Cruz can't just be great in 2012, oh no. He has to be magnificent in the final season of his contract to garner enough ammunition to go head-to-head with Jerry Reese, the hard-nosed, brick-headed and stubborn GM who won the battle of wits with star defensive end Osi Umenyiora.
No problem, says Cruz. He's come too far already to let small details like dollars and cents derail his flight to destiny. The next phase, on the fields of Albany where he was once just another face in the crowd, has officially begun.
"Essentially. I don’t need a contract to stay motivated," Cruz said. "I just want to win, and just the thrill of winning with my team, and winning at home in New York, a place where I grew up, that’s all the motivation I need to play football, and to continue playing the sport I love so I don’t think a contract is something that will motivate me."
Follow Jon Lane on Twitter: @JonLaneNYC