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Ultimate victor

The winning Giants receiver has overcome many struggles

Victor Cruz, who does the salsa after TD catches, dances with fans recently at a sporting goods store in New York. Victor Cruz, who does the salsa after TD catches, dances with fans recently at a sporting goods store in New York. (Frank Franklin II/Associated Press)
By Julian Benbow
Globe Staff / January 30, 2012
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - He still remembers warming up, the nerves, the butterflies.

He still remembers not being able to play until the second half, because at that point he wasn’t a Giants starter.

At that point, few had a clue who Victor Cruz was.

It was a Monday night preseason game, but he remembers trying to fight anxiety with patience.

Brian Smith, an assistant with the Jets, was sitting high in a stadium booth next to the team’s defensive coordinator, Mike Pettine.

Scanning the field, Pettine had no idea who Cruz was. He couldn’t ask for the book on him, because there wasn’t one. He wasn’t even sure if Cruz was a receiver or if the Giants were trying to get one over, maybe sneak in an option quarterback.

He looked over at Smith, and asked, “Who’s No. 3?’’

Smith confirmed that Cruz was a wideout. But he knew him. He had coached him.

When Cruz signed with the University of Massachusetts in 2004, Smith was an assistant coach. While receivers coach in 2005-06, he remembers Cruz as barely speaking during meetings.

Smith sat next to Pettine that Monday night and watched Cruz embarrass the Jets secondary. He made a one-handed catch-and-run along the sideline for a touchdown, caught a deep ball without a defensive back within arm’s reach for another score, and made a back-shoulder catch in the end zone for a third.

Smith remembered Cruz when he was on the UMass scout team, making the same catches. But he never thought he’d be making them at the NFL level.

His feelings were mixed. A player he had coached was having his coming-out party on a national stage. But he was doing it at the expense of Smith’s defense.

“The one-handed catch that he made was just unbelievable,’’ Smith said. “And he wasn’t doing it against players that were getting cut. He was doing it against players that we were counting on in the game. That was the part that stood out to me and let me know he had a chance at that level.’’

That game feels like it happened light years ago even though it hasn’t been two years.

Time has moved in a blur for Cruz ever since. Since making the Giants as an undrafted rookie in 2010, he’s set franchise records, and become one of the best slot receivers in the NFL. He’s multiracial (Puerto Rican and black) and bilingual, with an easy demeanor. He has an oversized smile, a laugh that can be heard down the hallway, and a quick wit that is disarming and wildly marketable.

He does the salsa in the end zone whenever he catches a touchdown pass, which means this season he did the salsa nine times.

He has become one of the Giants’ biggest stars in a breakout season in which they’ve made a Super Bowl run that was largely considered impossible barely a month ago.

His family has been there. The drive to MetLife Stadium is barely a half-hour from where he grew up in Paterson, N.J. For Cruz, though, the journey from there to here was a winding one.

Tough city environment

Paterson, the third-largest city in New Jersey, has 52 nationalities and 77 dialects in its 8.4 square miles, said Benjie Wimberly.

Wimberly has been the city’s director of recreation for years and coached football for 21 years, 15 at Paterson Catholic, where he coached Cruz. Wimberly was elected to city council in 2010, the year Paterson Catholic closed. It was one of the last urban parochial high schools in the city.

Most of the city’s problems are centered around troubled public schools, with gang issues and drug trafficking.

The Paterson Catholic field was its own monster.

Six sets of five-row-high bleachers still are scattered along a sideline that doubled as the baseball field’s dirt infield. One goalpost is practically at arm’s distance from a chain-link fence. The other is where second base would be. It’s hard to tell whether you’re walking in mud or quicksand. A couple of signs from the glory days still are hanging, barely, on the chain-link fences - “Paterson Catholic Back 2 Back State Champions.’’

To make the field playable after heavy rain, Wimberly remembers the team would pour gasoline into the puddles and set them on fire to boil the water off.

“We’d do that, then we’d get the speedy dry,’’ he said. “It was a work of art. We’d be up at the crack of dawn if we had a 1 o’clock game. But what’s funny is our guys thrived on it.’’

The football team won seven state championships. The program churned out college players.

Cruz was an all-state receiver. Even then Wimberly said his talent was obvious.

Cruz said, “Paterson Catholic was like a second home to me. Just to go there and it not be there anymore and for there not to be a school there, it’s tough.’’

Its absence has left a void.

“The school’s success rate for urban kids, and particularly black and Latino kids, was really unbelievable,’’ Wimberly said.

For a long while, Cruz teetered on either side of success or failure.

‘I’m going to be a star’

It was never that Cruz was a troublemaker.

“He was just a typical boy,’’ Wimberly said. “Vic has always been a pleasant kid, with a great personality that could sometimes smile his way out of trouble.’’

He played basketball and football and was equally good at both.

His father, Mike Walker, was a firefighter who dreamed that Cruz would become a defensive back for the Cowboys.

Walker was in the crowd whenever Cruz had a game.

“He was very visible at most events in the city of Paterson,’’ Wimberly said. “There’s nothing I could say bad about him. He was friendly, kind of like Vic, very personable, a good personality. Just a good guy.’’

Cruz played AAU basketball for Jimmy Salmon, one of the city’s more respected coaches. He is Cruz’s godfather, but he considers himself “the fun uncle.’’

When Cruz was in eighth grade, Salmon told Cruz if he got a good report card, he would take him to a North Carolina-Duke basketball game. With the carrot dangling, Cruz made it happen.

Salmon bought two plane tickets and they traveled to Raleigh-Durham. They had seats behind the Duke bench. At the time, Dahntay Jones was a Blue Devil, Joseph Forte was a Tar Heel, and they had both come through Salmon’s program.

Cruz spent time that weekend with both and became fascinated with big-time athletics, Salmon said.

On the flight back, Salmon remembered Cruz saying, “Jim, I’m going to be a star.’’

Trouble at UMass

The hiccups came as soon as Cruz’s college career started.

He signed with UMass in ’04, but he needed to get his grades up. The program was in a transition period, with coach Mark Whipple leaving and Don Brown stepping in, and one of the first things Brown did was send Cruz to Bridgton (Maine) Academy.

Bridgton coach Rick Marcella saw Cruz’s talent; his job was to do what he could in a year’s time to maximize it. But Cruz had growing up to do. And once he got to UMass, the maturation process stalled as he experienced college life.

Shannon James, the Minutemen’s all-time leader in interceptions, was Cruz’s host on his recruiting trip and they remain close friends.

“Every kid when they first get to college, you’ve got that freedom now, you’re not home, no parents there, you do what you want to do,’’ said James.

Cruz redshirted 2005, then was ruled academically ineligible in 2006. It was frustrating for the team.

“On the field, he was as talented as they come,’’ Smith said. “We just couldn’t get him on the field.’’

Quarterback Liam Coen came in with Cruz in 2004, and became his roommate. Coen led UMass to the Division 1-AA title game in 2006. Cruz never saw the field.

“It was more frustrating because it wasn’t like he was just a bad egg, a kid who just wasn’t going to make it,’’ Coen said. “He was a great kid who just couldn’t pull it all together.’’

Cruz bottomed out in the spring semester in 2007, when his 1.7 grade-point average got him kicked out of school.

His mother, Blanca, concerned and desperate, went with Cruz to UMass to meet with the dean. The teary and emotional meeting lasted an hour.

Pamela Marsh-Williams, the school’s assistant provost and dean for undergraduate advising and learning communities, understood the pressures of being a student-athlete. Her son played football at the University of Maine. But in Cruz’s case she found it hard to have sympathy.

“To get to that point to see me under those circumstances, it meant that there had already been previous conversations, interventions,’’ Marsh-Williams said.

“I really didn’t see much . . . bemoaning the fact that he really had screwed up.’’

She said it was simply too late.

The door had closed, but not completely.

Marsh-Williams told Cruz that if he was going to get another opportunity, he would have to do his part. He’d have to find a community college and show UMass that he could make it there as a student.

The meeting stuck with Cruz.

“My mother can’t come and be there with me and be my voice anymore,’’ Cruz said. “I had to really speak up and speak for myself. That was one of the turning points in my life. I had to turn a leaf and become a man.’’

Cruz went back to New Jersey and took classes at community colleges while he worked at the Garden State Plaza, to provide money for his mother. People would see him and ask why he wasn’t in school.

“It was tough,’’ he said. “I had to humble myself and let them know.’’

A devastating blow

Everything came at once.

As Cruz was going through his academic issues, his father was coping with losing the job he had held for 30 years. Isolated, and despondent, he took medications to cope.

Then, one day, Cruz got the call from his brother that Walker had died. Cruz believes it was an apparent suicide.

That night, Salmon called Cruz.

He said, “I don’t know what to say. You know why I’m calling right?’’

Cruz’s responses were short.

“Yeah,’’ he said. “I’m good.’’

Salmon asked him, “Are you really, or are you just, like, in shock?’’

Wimberly and Salmon both kept tabs on Cruz that week.

“I don’t think you ever get over losing a parent,’’ said Wimberly, who had lost both of his parents. “I think it’s something you cope with, you handle within, but I don’t think he’s ever gotten over it and I think it’s something that drove him.’’

Pulling himself up

Looking at what he’d lost - his scholarship, his biggest supporter, and his pride - Cruz realized he couldn’t stay where he was.

He was reinstated at UMass for the fall semester in 2007.

Coen remembered the first day of training camp, when Cruz’s mother dropped him off.

First she gave Coen a look, then a hug, and told him, “Hopefully, this is it.’’

Cruz had to sit out the first five games of the season. But after that, it was like he was a completely different player.

He only caught one ball that year, but that was the start.

In 2008, he put together the fourth-best season in UMass history (71 catches for 1,064 yards) and was named All-Colonial Athletic Association.

He became one of Coen’s favorite targets.

“He could wiggle, he could move, he could shake, he was quick,’’ said Coen, now an assistant coach at the University of Rhode Island. “He could do all those things in a small space and get open. And the one thing about Vic, once he got the ball, whoever was covering him wasn’t going to tackle him. He was going to make the first guy miss. He always made the first guy miss.’’

He had another fine season in 2009, and even with all the time he missed, he finished his career fourth on the school’s list for catches (131) and fifth in receiving yards (1,958). He was an All-America candidate, but more than that he was a much more polished product than the one who came to Amherst five years before.

“He got a lot more serious about school, about football, about everything after that,’’ Salmon said. “One day he was just Vic. The next day he was a man.’’

Aside from a handful of e-mails, he and Marsh-Williams never spoke again. But she watches “SportsCenter’’. She’s seen his highlights.

Success ‘doesn’t feel real’

It’s all still surreal - for everyone.

James, who was the last cut in Ravens camp in 2006, remembers taking Cruz to Baltimore with him while he was still at UMass. Cruz was awestruck.

“He was like, ‘Man, I want to be here,’ ’’ James said. “Lo and behold.’’

Salmon says he doesn’t ask Cruz for tickets. He’s more comfortable watching the games from home.

“I’m proud of him,’’ he said. “I think he deserves everything that he’s gotten, because he hasn’t gotten it easily.’’

It’s hard for Wimberly to count the number of interviews he’s done. Last week, he and Cruz met former Colts coach and current NBC Sports analyst Tony Dungy and a camera crew at Paterson Catholic, showing him the same field they had to set ablaze before games.

“I can’t even describe the feeling,’’ Wimberly said. “It’s not only a good thing for Victor, it’s a good thing for the city of Paterson.’’

During the Giants’ bye week in October, Cruz went to meet James and another close friend, Alexis Mongo, at Gillette Stadium to see UMass play the University of New Hampshire.

At that point, Cruz had 21 catches for 398 yards in six games. He had torched the Eagles for 110 yards and a 74-yard touchdown catch and he had stuck the Seahawks for 161 yards and a 68-yard TD connection. Neither of those games ended up as his biggest of the season. That came Christmas Eve against the Jets, when he caught a 99-yard touchdown in a win that defined the Giants’ season.

As they watched the UMass game, Mongo asked, “Do you realize what you’re doing?’’

Cruz said to him, “Bruh, it doesn’t even feel real.’’

Julian Benbow can be reached at jbenbow@globe.com.

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