Super Bowl XLVI is just the next chapter of a storybook season for New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz.
After making the Giants roster as an undrafted free agent in 2010, the former University of Massachusetts standout is living a dream for his hometown team. He impressed in training camp as a rookie but did not catch a pass in three regular-season games after being sidelined with a hamstring injury.
Cruz began the 2011 season as New York’s fourth wide receiver. Injuries again played a major role, although this time in his favor. Mario Manningham and Domenik Hixon both went down, opening the door for more playing time.
He didn’t disappoint. The Patterson, N.J., native wound up the regular season with an eye-popping 82 receptions in 16 games for a franchise single-season record 1,582 yards, and scored nine touchdowns. His 99-yard catch and run against the crosstown rival Jets tied the mark for the longest scoring play in Giants’ history.
Not bad for a guy that some scouts figured was too slow to be a major contributor for an NFL team.
“I think I still have the sore mark right here on my arm [from pinching himself]. It’s been an amazing ride for me,” Cruz quickly admits. “It's one that I didn’t imagine having initially. I just wanted to come in [this season] and do some good things and see where I could fit into this team. It’s been amazing.”
That's putting it mildly. What he lacks in straight-out speed, Cruz has impressed with his ability to make tough catches in a crowd and then to make something happen after hauling in a pass. It’s his burst after the catch that has caught the most attention.
Cruz has made a big impression on two very important people, coach Tom Coughlin and quarterback Eli Manning.
“When the opportunity was presented, he was at a point in time when he actually understood how important and serious it was [due to injuries at wide receiver]. The fact that these opportunities don’t come along every day, he seized it. He took full advantage of it,” Coughlin acknowledged.
“Once he was able to accomplish what he did, the result was kind of eye-popping. Of course, once that happened, the ball was going to go [his] way.”
Manning likes what he sees of Cruz.
“He has done a great job of learning this offense and making decisions. He’s gotten better because of meetings and game-time experience. That is the best thing for a receiver to do. The chemistry between a quarterback and a receiver, you just have to play games,” the Giants signal caller said.
“You can work on a lot of things in practice and get on the same page and work on some of the timing. But once the game happens, a lot of that timing is thrown out the window. There’s the [pass] rush, [the] defense is doing different things and a lot of it is quarterbacks relying on body language, reading the body language of that receiver. Victor has done a great job.”
What Cruz has accomplished this season should serve as a wake-up call for any college player who feels slighted that he didn’t get an invitation to the National Football Scouting Combine, which is conducted in Indianapolis every February.
“No, I wasn’t disappointed. I just knew whatever opportunities were in front of me, whether it be Pro Day, combine or whatever it was, I just had to make the best of it,” he said. “I had two pro days [prior to the NFL draft]. One was at Boston College and one up at UMass. I just did the best I could and was fortunate enough to open up some minds.”
When asked if there’s a sense of irony to the fact that Sunday night’s Super Bowl matchup with New England will be played at Lucas Oil Stadium, the site of the annual combine, Cruz just shook his head and smiled.
“I guess so. Being from a small school, I understand how [the combine] goes. I wasn’t 6-5, 220 pounds or I didn’t have off-the-wall statistics," he said. “I understood how the whole thing goes. I’d rather be here for the Super Bowl now than the combine.”