[Originally published in LatinTRENDS Magazine Issue #85; Jan-Feb 2012].
Written by: Ray Monell
Photos by: Scott Church
New York Giants receiver Victor Cruz discusses the historic year he’s enjoying, his childhood and being Latino in the NFL in an exclusive interview with LatinTRENDS magazine at the Copa.
Once overlooked, overlooked no more. No one would select Paterson, N.J. native Victor Cruz in the 2010 NFL Draft, and now every team save for the New York Giants is regretting what ignorance cost them: one of the most explosive wide receivers in professional football.
“I knew that I had it within me to be a great athlete and a great individual person,” Cruz, 25 told LatinTRENDS on Monday, Dec. 19 during his cover shoot at The Copacabana in midtown Manhattan. “I just needed the time to go out there and prove myself [on] the real stage, in a real game, where it counted, so I could come up and make some huge plays.”
“I got that opportunity this year, and I made the best of it.”
Cruz, signed by the Giants in the summer of 2010, had a three-touchdown performance vs. the New York Jets in a preseason game shortly after joining Big Blue. The UMass graduate’s prodigious athletic talent was obvious then, but he’d injure his hamstring in October of last year and missed the rest of the season. He entered 2011 fully recovered, made the team and has since compiled-over the first 15 games of the 2011-12 campaign-76 catches for 1,358 yards and eight touchdowns.
In a 29-14 victory over the Jets this past Christmas Eve at MetLife Stadium, Cruz sent 79,088 people-and countless more watching on TV-into a frenzy when he caught an 11-yard pass, broke multiple tackles, leaped beyond the clutches of another defender downfield and scored a 99-yard touchdown. Later that afternoon, he broke the Giant’s single season record for receiving yards with a 36-yard reception, surpassing the 1,343 yards Amani Toomer amassed in 2002.
“I don’t know, man, it’s still kind of surreal for me, it’s still kind of a dream come true,” said Cruz, who was recently selected to the 2012 Pro Bowl (i.e., the NFL’s all-star game). “So I just kind of take it every day and still keep some humility about it, and understand that there’s still a lot more that I want to do in my career and just take it day by day. All the individual stuff is cool, but as a team, man, I want to get these wins and make the playoffs and hopefully win a Super Bowl one day.”
Cruz, a graduate of the University of Massachusetts, was born to Michael Walker, an African-American from Paterson, and Blanca Cruz of Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Michael, who passed away five years ago, introduced his son to the game of football.
“I believe I was 9 years old when I started playing football,” Cruz, himself a soon-to-be father recalled. “I remember the first game, I played like center or something like that. And my dad was one of the assistant coaches and he begged [the head coach], ‘Put ’em in at running back. Please, just one play.’ They put me at fullback, and the very first play they gave me the ball and I broke like three tackles and had a 65-yard touchdown run.”
“I spoke to him almost every other day [before he passed],” he added. “He was definitely one of the biggest influences of my life. He was definitely an [integral part of my career]. He still is, and I still think about him every day.”
Cruz’s mother, who worked as a customer service representative throughout his childhood, arrived in New Jersey with her family when she was 9. After his parents’ split, he grew up mainly with her, his maternal grandmother and younger sister.
“My household was very Latin, it was very Puerto Rican,” Cruz said. “It was everything that you could think of, with the [Latino] food every day and just being around my grandmother, and her instilling her tough Puerto Rican ways on me and just making sure I always had a level head on my shoulders. She took care of me, always telling me what I needed to hear when I was down.”
The second-year Giant described his upbringing as “relatively rough” and “middle class.”
“My mother did her best, man, to try to just keep us happy,” he said. “[My sister and I] understood our situation. We had to sometimes go out there and work on our own and just help our mom out the best way we could. So, every summer I would go get a job and help her out, give her money.”
“My mother lived check-to-check. I couldn’t get everything I wanted, obviously. Certain parts of that was rough for me growing up. There were times where she would get frustrated because she couldn’t get us what she wanted to get us, because she had to pay the mortgage that day, or the mortgage that month, and we couldn’t get that extra Christmas gift because she had to give my grandmother something. It was all budgeted.”
“But, just like a kid, any kid in a small urban town, you make do,” Cruz explained. “You find what you want to do, you find your friends that are like you, and you don’t really think about that stuff. You think about [going outside] and playing. I lived on a one-way street with like nine boys that lived on the block. So, we just had a blast, man. We used to play stickball, basketball, wallball, handball…everything you could think of. No matter what our situations were, what our circumstances were, we always found a way to kind of put it aside and not think about it, and just have fun and be kids.”
The NFL confirmed to LatinTRENDS 31 players (out of nearly 1,700) who’re of Latin American descent, including Cruz, who says “It’s awesome” being a Latino in professional football. The 6-footer is known for displaying said pride when he celebrates his touchdowns with a salsa dance in the end zone-though admitted it confused some at first.
“A lot of people were kind of confused at first, like, ‘Is he [Hispanic]?” Cruz said. “And then when I did it again, they were like, ‘OK.’ And then they started to hear my story. They welcomed me with open arms, they’re excited to have a Latino in the league, a Latino guy that represents his side and isn’t afraid to show it.”
That Cruz’s emergence this year is making an impact on Latinos is hardly surprising. What the NFL would appreciate is that people historically more inclined to watch and attend baseball, basketball or soccer games are tuning in to see a member of their community play.
“Just going around Paterson, N.J., where I grew up, and just seeing all the different Latin people, people of Latin heritage that just come up to me that may not have known anything about [American] football, but they know my name and they come up to me asking questions and tell me that they watch football now because of me,” Cruz said. “I remember this last game I signed someone’s Puerto Rican flag before the game. It was one of those moments that I’ll cherish forever. That was the first time I’ve done that, so it was definitely just a cool feeling to see, not only the flags around the stadium, but just a lot more Latinos coming to the game.”
Off the field, the Giants receiver spends a lot of time reaching out to kids in his community, appearing as a guest speaker at schools. The classroom is a natural setting for Cruz, who would’ve “probably” been a teacher-given his degree in African-American history-if he weren’t already catching passes from quaterback Eli Manning.
“I would probably go back to my community and be with the kids, and start teaching and just be with the kids, and start teaching and just be a different type of role model for the kids in my city,” he said. “I’m a guy they can look up to, I’m a guy they can relate to. They see me and they’re like, ‘He’s from a small urban town, and he did everything he had to do, stayed focused, walked these same streets I walked and he was able to break through because he was persistent.'”
“I’m always around where I grew up, so they can definitely just reach out to me and ask questions.”
Even with one great season under his belt-a season in which he has recorded more receiving yards than anyone else in the Giants‘ 86-year history-Cruz refuses to rest on his laurels, going full throttle each time he takes the field.
“There are certain times where I understand that I just got to keep my foot on the gas and keep improving myself,” he said. “Because every day I go in there, it’s not over. I still feel like I’m an undrafted guy; I feel likeI could be let go at any minute despite what my stats are. I feel like I’m just one mishap away from being out of there. That’s the kind of mindset that I [will] try to keep throughout my career; it’s that anything can happen and I could be out of there within a matter of moments.”
“I had to come in and play my heart out on every down, whether it be practice, whether it be in the film room, or anything like that. I understood that it was going to be a long road for me, and I made the best of it. This is just all my hard work paying off, me going in there and proving to everybody that I could make these big plays, in a real game, when it matters the most.”