Victor Cruz was one of the best undrafted free agents in New York Giants franchise history.
Cruz, who struggled in his academics in high school and college, overcame insurmountable odds and made the Giants’ 53-man regular-season roster in 2010.
Opponents and naysayers alike thought Cruz was just a no-name wannabe who wouldn’t make it far in the National Football League.
Through sheer hard work and determination, Victor Cruz proved them wrong.
His spectacular 99-yard touchdown against the New York Jets in December 2011 was one of many that led to his famous salsa touchdown celebration.
Behind Cruz’s exploits at the wide receiver position, the Giants beat the heavily-favored New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
Although injuries slowed Victor Cruz down as his career progressed, his six-year tenure with Big Blue was one for the ages.
Victor Michael Cruz was born to parents Michael and Blanca in Paterson, NJ on November 11, 1986.
Cruz’s grandmother Lucy Molina left Puerto Rico for the United States in 1965. She had no income or house. All she had was her nine-year-old daughter, Blanca, per Victor’s 2012 autobiography, Out of the Blue.
Victor’s grandmother soon found employment at a local sewing factory and met her future husband, Fernando DeJesus.
Victor, nicknamed “Vic,” fondly referred to his grandfather as “Papi.” He considered him his best friend.
Vic remembered his Papi, who severed one of his fingers in a factory accident and sported a huge scar on his back, always wearing the trendiest slacks and shoes. However, he was always shirtless.
In the 2015 Showtime documentary, I Am Giant, Cruz’s mother Blanca described Victor as a sweet baby who never cried. They lived with his grandparents, who had a profound influence on him.
Fernando DeJesus always woke up at 6:30 a.m. He drank black coffee while sitting on his rocking chair with Vic on his lap humming along to the songs of Jose Feliciano.
DeJesus was consistent with his routine. He imposed a 5 p.m. dinner time that Vic had to follow. If he didn’t show, he couldn’t eat supper. Vic never wanted to miss out on his abuela’s sumptuous pork chops and arepas, a South American flatbread.
“My grandfather had his life in order,” Cruz said in his 2012 book. “He would always tell me, ‘If your life is stable, the rest will fall into place.'”
Both grandfather and grandson were wrestling fanatics. Vic loved Hulk Hogan, Randy “Macho Man Savage,” The Rock, Mr. Perfect, and the Ultimate Warrior. On the other hand, his Papi loved the Undertaker.
Victor also had a hidden talent in grade school. He played the flute when he was in the fourth grade.
Blanca Cruz’s main concern was looking after Victor whenever he went out. Although Paterson, NJ was a vibrant and lively community, some parts of the city were seedy and crime-riddled. Sports kept Victor out of trouble.
Blanca signed Victor up for the YMCA after-school program during his formative years. Victor and the other kids swam, did gymnastics, and played other sports.
Victor met his father Michael (nicknamed “Mike”) for the first time when he was seven years old. Once the latter pulled up in his car, Victor knew in his heart it was his father. They had an uncanny resemblance and shared the same build.
Victor Cruz with the "Straight Outta Paterson, NJ" shirt. pic.twitter.com/Vw1j9dUvE3
— Ralph Vacchiano (@RalphVacchiano) January 4, 2017
Victor also noticed somebody sitting in the passenger’s seat. His dad told him that was his brother, Malik Walker.
Mike Walker met Cruz’s mom Blanca at a bus stop in 1982. He offered her a ride to work, and they soon developed a relationship.
Blanca got pregnant with Victor three years into their courtship. Mike Walker, a local firefighter, wasn’t pleased. He already had a wife and two children, per Victor’s 2012 autobiography.
Nonetheless, Walker paved the way for Victor’s future career on the gridiron.
Walker asked Victor to watch a televised game between the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions on September 25, 1995. Victor obliged and became fascinated with 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice, who had a monster game against the Lions that night.
Football officially became a part of Victor Cruz’s life from that moment onward.
When twelve-year-old Victor was playing Little League football, he played the center position for the PAL North Firefighters because he was one of the tallest players on his team. All of his teammates had dads or uncles who were firemen.
Victor proudly wore his team’s red, white, and blue colors – the same colors that represented his future team in the National Football League, the New York Giants.
Victor loved playing center because he loved playing in the trenches and being in the middle of the action. However, he would become more adept at catching the football as his gridiron career progressed.
His dad Michael, one of the assistant coaches, had other ideas. He told the coaching staff he envisioned Victor becoming a running back.
The Firefighters were ahead by a wide margin late in the season. Mike Walker pestered the head football coach, a man named Mr. Tolbert, to play Victor at fullback.
Mr. Tolbert finally relented, called Victor to the sideline, and told him to play in the game’s waning moments at fullback. He told Victor that gaining negative yardage on some plays was okay – fumbling the football wasn’t.
On Victor’s first play from scrimmage, he took the handoff from his quarterback, Nigel. Cruz found a seam over the right guard, burst through, and promptly broke several tackles.
When Victor had just one defensive back to beat in the open field, images of one of his football heroes, Tennessee Titans running back Eddie George, filled his mind.
Victor asked himself if he should plow through his defender or turn on the afterburners. He chose the former and scored an uncontested 64-yard touchdown in his first play as a Little League running back.
Mike Walker whooped it up on the sideline as his son Vic ran toward the end zone. He matched his son stride for stride and cheered himself hoarse near the spot where Victor scored. Father and son hugged and celebrated the memorable moment.
The next thing Michael knew, he ran over to Mr. Tolbert and told him his hunch was spot on.
Victor Cruz never played center in Little League football again.
Victor Cruz teamed up with the Paterson Division of Recreation to host a free football camp for 150 boys and girls in his hometown of Paterson, New Jersey! pic.twitter.com/YvZcBQ7IRY
— NYG in the Community (@GiantsCRDept) June 11, 2022
Football wasn’t the only thing that piqued Victor’s interest as a child. He was into martial arts during his early years in the Garden State.
“Tae kwon do – not football – was my first true passion,” Cruz wrote in his 2012 book.
Vic took tae kwon do lessons at Manny Quile’s Martial Arts Studio which was located on the second floor of their three-bedroom apartment. El Aguila Supermarket was on the first floor.
Vic and the other students referred to Quile, a Colombian martial artist, as “The Sir.” He reminded Cruz of his future New York Giants head coach Tom Coughlin because of his authoritarian ways.
Cruz brought the same dedication to tae kwon do that he would use when he became an elite receiver in the National Football League. When he earned his black belt in 1997, Quile told him he was the youngest to accomplish the feat in New Jersey State history.
To Cruz’s surprise, Quile’s 10-year-old daughter beat his record two years later.
Although New York City was just a 10-minute drive from Paterson, NJ, Victor Cruz went to the Big Apple just three times prior to his 15th birthday. On each of those three occasions, he played in a basketball or tennis tournament.
Victor Cruz attended Paterson Catholic Regional High School in his hometown. He suited up for Paterson Cougars head football coach Benjie Wimberly.
Cruz played on both sides of the ball. He was a wide receiver and defensive back for the Cougars. He also suited up for Paterson Catholic’s basketball team.
Victor exploded for 19 touchdowns as a senior in 2003. To nobody’s surprise, he earned All-State honors after leading the Cougars to an 11-0 win-loss record that year.
Cruz and his family didn’t have enough money to send him to college. As his high school days wound down, he knew getting a full scholarship was his best option.
The UMass Minutemen dangled a scholarship to Cruz. However, he had to pass his SAT first.
It never came easy for Cruz, who, by his estimate, took the SAT seven or eight times, per his 2015 documentary. By the time he took the exam for the fifth time, he already knew some of the questions all too well.
Cruz spent one postgraduate semester at Bridgton Academy in North Bridgton, ME. The area was highly desolate – the immediate vicinity featured a lone post office and the nearest laundromat was an hour’s drive from the institution.
There was one upside. Cruz finally passed the SAT at Bridgton Academy. He had finally punched his ticket to the next level.
College Days with the UMass Minutemen
Victor Cruz attended the University of Massachusetts during his college days. He majored in African-American studies.
Cruz’s academic struggles continued at UMass. The school sent him home two times for academic reasons.
The beginning of Cruz’s college football career was one of the darkest periods of his life. His brother Malik called him and informed him their father, Michael Walker, committed suicide in 2007.
Victor could not fathom why his father would take his own life. In the latter’s 2015 documentary, he said he felt confused and helpless at his dad’s funeral.
The moment Victor Cruz uttered that line during the interview, he broke down and cried in his girlfriend Elaina Watley’s arms.
Mike Walker’s death served as a massive turning point in Victor Cruz’s life.
10 years ago today, undrafted UMass receiver Victor Cruz made his preseason debut for the New York Giants. He is the only UMass Football alumni to be named to an NFL All-Pro team. #onthisdate pic.twitter.com/TInITSzlWF
— 𝗧𝗵𝗲 𝗠𝗶𝗹𝗶𝘁𝗶𝗮 (@UMassMilitia) August 16, 2020
Cruz’s mother worked for FLANDERS at the time. She enrolled him at Passaic County Community College in Paterson, NJ which was just a stone’s throw away from her office.
Victor woke up early and drove his mom to the office on weekdays. After he dropped her off, he went to school and waited for her to clock out at 5 p.m. before picking her up.
“I think that’s when I really started to focus on school, focus on my craft, and football kind of came easy after that,” Cruz said in his 2015 documentary.
Before long, Victor Cruz earned the credits he needed, so he could return to UMass.
Cruz, who redshirted his true freshman season in 2005, evolved into one of the country’s finest wideouts as a redshirt junior in 2008. Victor had 1,064 receiving yards and six touchdowns that year.
Cruz became just the sixth player in Minutemen program history to rack up at least 1,000 receiving yards in a single season, per their official athletics website.
Cruz’s 1,958 career receiving yards placed him fifth on the Minutemen’s all-time leaderboard.
With sheer grit and determination, Victor earned his degree in African-American studies from UMass. He gave it to his mother Blanca, who, in turn, hung it on her wall.
Although Victor Cruz only had two strong seasons of college football, he defied the odds and became one of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning’s favorite targets in the National Football League.
Pro Football Career
The New York Giants signed Victor Cruz as an undrafted free agent in the spring of 2010.
Even though Cruz was an unheralded wideout from UMass, he had no doubts in his mind and heart that he would make it to the National Football League.
According to Cruz’s 2012 autobiography, he went to NFL.com several days before the 2010 NFL Draft. He checked out the depth charts of all 32 NFL teams, printed the lineups, and memorized the names of all of the league’s wide receivers.
Cruz then highlighted the names of the teams he imagined taking his name off the board one day before the draft.
To Cruz’s dismay, he spent ten hours watching the 2010 NFL Draft without hearing commissioner Roger Goodell call his name on the stage.
“Tim Tebow had Jeremy Schaap and the ESPN cameras in his living room, Colt McCoy had the NFL Network following is every step and I was on my couch in Paterson, New Jersey. In my gym shorts and t-shirt. Alone,” Cruz wrote in his 2012 book.
Giants quarterback Eli Manning made an indelible first impression on Cruz during the latter’s rookie year.
In Cruz’s 2012 book, he mentioned that Manning’s swagger and confidence impressed him to no end. Cruz felt Manning, the Giants’ Pro Bowl quarterback and Super Bowl XLII MVP, played like the first overall pick he was in 2004.
“Every day I came to work, I’m amazed by the way Eli carries himself,” Cruz wrote.
Manning would eventually lead Big Blue to another Super Bowl title in 2012.
When Cruz was fighting for a roster spot with the Giants in the summer of 2010, he and another Giants rookie, defensive tackle Nate Collins, launched their own clothing line called “Young Whales.”
Cruz made the Giants’ 53-man regular-season roster after he had a team-leading four touchdown receptions in the 2010 preseason.
Unfortunately, a hamstring injury ended his rookie campaign prematurely after just three games.
After an injury-riddled rookie campaign, Victor Cruz defied the odds in 2011. Steve Smith’s departure to free agency and Domenik Hixon’s injury made Cruz climb the Giants’ wide receiver depth chart. Cruz made the most out of the opportunity, to say the least.
Cruz and Manning practiced their hook route routine for hours during the 2011 lockout. The Giants quarterback even reached out to the athletic director of Hoboken High School and asked his permission for Manning and his teammates to practice on their field.
After the athletic director agreed, Manning sent a mass e-mail to his Giants teammates and encouraged them to take the field.
Not everybody turned up. Some of the Giants were out of town while others didn’t feel like doing it.
Not Victor Cruz, however. He exchanged text messages with Manning to confirm his attendance. Manning told him he should prepare to work hard.
That’s exactly what the two Giants players did. They executed everything on their route tree in oppressive, 100-degree heat during the lockout.
When the crowd got out of hand, Manning, Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Ramses Barden, Michael Clayton, Duke Calhoun, and Sam Giguere took their act to Bergen Catholic High School. It was always either Manning or Cruz who reported for off-season practice first.
Cruz stirred controversy and made headlines in the 2011 NFL season.
During the leadup to the much-anticipated crosstown showdown between Cruz’s Giants and Darrelle Revis’ New York Jets at MetLife Stadium in Week 15, Cruz put his foot in his mouth.
Cruz and his Giants teammate Mario Manningham mentioned some things about Revis, an eventual seven-time Pro Bowl cornerback, to the New York media the week before the game.
When Cruz reported for practice, he read a headline that read, “Cruz Says Teams Aren’t Scared of Revis Anymore.”
That headline created a backlash among the Jets and some members of the local media.
Jets defensive back Antonio Cromartie gave Cruz hell while he tried putting the clamps on him during the game. Cromartie shot his mouth off and told Cruz in no uncertain terms he was just a nobody.
ESPN analyst Stephen A. Smith also rebuked Cruz in front of a national television audience.
“Victor Cruz! I’m talking to you!” Smith screamed in his familiar New York accent (via Cruz’s 2012 autobiography). “How dare you talk about Darrelle Revis like that? In your first year on the field? You have the audacity to even say Revis’ name?”
Victor Cruz made Stephen A. Smith eat his words and proved to the naysayers he deserved to play at football’s highest level.
On 3rd and 10 against the Jets, Cruz began running a hook pattern – one of the most difficult wide receiver routes. He considered New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker the best in the business at running that particular route.
Cruz picked up the first down. Thoughts about his touchdowns while playing Little League football and fastbreak plays suiting up for the Tim Thomas Playaz basketball team suddenly crossed his mind.
Several possessions later, Jets defensive back Antonio Cromartie lunged at Cruz but missed. That missed tackle allowed Cruz to rack up a huge chunk of yardage down the sideline.
Cruz, in a moment similar to his first touchdown as a twelve-year-old in Little League play, had only Jets safety Eric Smith to beat.
When Smith dove for Cruz’s legs at the 45-yard line, the latter did a hop step that allowed him to break free for the touchdown. As Cruz made his way toward the end zone, he fixed his gaze on his mom Blanca and girlfriend Elaina, who was eight months pregnant with their daughter, Kennedy.
Victor Cruz's #NFL record-tying 99-yard TD reception against the #Jets on Christmas Eve 2011.
The play that ignited the #Giants Super Bowl XLVI run. #GiantsPride pic.twitter.com/NIrqZEi1Bg
— WBG84 (@WBG84) August 21, 2018
Both mom and girlfriend were delirious with joy amidst the sea of Jets fans clad in green while Victor did his famous salsa celebratory touchdown dance in the end zone.
Cruz told ESPN’s Ohm Youngmisuk in the fall of 2012 that his salsa dance was a tribute to his grandmother Lucy Molina, who taught him how to dance when he was younger.
In Cruz’s 2012 autobiography, he thought he heard the Jets fans booing him after he scored his sensational 99-yard touchdown, the longest of his career. It turned out they were yelling his name (“Cruuuuuuz!”).
That 99-yard touchdown play became a regular ESPN highlight and one of the signature moments of Victor Cruz’s career with the New York Giants.
Cruz finished his breakout 2011 NFL season with a career-best 1,536 receiving yards and nine touchdowns.
The 9-7 Giants defied the odds and upset Tom Brady’s New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI, 21-17.
Victor Cruz, who had a touchdown reception in the first quarter, earned his first and only Super Bowl ring in his six-year NFL career. He also earned Second-Team All-Pro honors in 2011.
He continued his strong play over the next two seasons. He had 2,098 receiving yards and 14 touchdown receptions from 2012 to 2013.
Cruz earned his only Pro Bowl selection following the 2012 NFL campaign.
Unfortunately, the Giants failed to defend their Super Bowl title. They averaged eight wins per year and missed the postseason during those two years.
One of the most iconic duos was Eli Manning and Victor Cruz (@TeamVic) in my lifetime. Here are a few of their top plays together, truly special connection!
-57,023 passing yards (7th all-time)
-366 passing TD (7th all-time)
-Never missed a game due to injury#giantschat pic.twitter.com/FH5nVW9q3w
— Alex Wilson (@AlexWilsonESM) January 24, 2020
Cruz launched the Victor Cruz Foundation in his third pro football season in 2012. The foundation spearheads educational endeavors for children in collaboration with the Boys & Girls Club.
The injury bug bit Victor Cruz hard again in his fifth pro season in 2014.
Cruz tore his patellar tendon (the tendon in the front of the knee) as he leaped high in the air trying to catch Eli Manning’s pass attempt in the corner of the end zone against the Philadelphia Eagles on October 12, 2014.
With Cruz laying in agony on the grass, the usual rabid crowd at Lincoln Financial Field was dead silent.
“It sounded like two bones squeaking and then I heard a pop,” Cruz recalled in his 2015 Showtime documentary.
Cruz sobbed and wept as he was carted off the field. Although the recovery and rehabilitation process was long and arduous, he remained undaunted. He knew he could return to the gridiron with a vengeance.
Alas, that return took some time. Although the Giants pegged his return in Week 10, his aggravated left calf forced him to undergo surgery and sat him out of the entire 2015 NFL season.
Victor Cruz made his much-anticipated return on September 11, 2016. He hauled in a game-winning touchdown – his only touchdown reception of the season – against the Dallas Cowboys on that day.
Regrettably, the Giants released Victor Cruz on February 13, 2017.
Cruz signed a one-year deal with the Chicago Bears three months later. They eventually released him on September 1, 2017.
Victor Cruz officially announced his retirement from the National Football League in the summer of 2018. His retirement coincided with his new career as an ESPN NFL analyst.
“As I officially close one chapter of my life and begin another, I could not be thrilled to join another championship team at ESPN,” Cruz said on UNINTERRUPTED (via ESPN.com).
Cruz signed a one-day contract to retire as a member of the New York Giants organization on August 28, 2018.
Victor Cruz finished his six-year NFL career with 4,549 receiving yards and 25 receiving touchdowns.
Victor Cruz has a daughter, Kennedy, with his former partner Elaina Watley. He and actress Karrueche Tran were together from 2017 to 2021.
Cruz’s latest business venture began on the golf course.
Cruz played golf with Krystal investor and franchise owner Jonathan Childs and their friend Billy Jones sometime in 2021. The three men began discussing the pros and cons of expanding the franchise to the New Jersey area.
When Childs brought up the possibility of opening a Krystal restaurant in Cruz’s hometown of Paterson, NJ, the latter was sold on the idea.
“When they told me they wanted to open not just in New Jersey, but in my hometown of Paterson, I just felt it was a no-brainer,” Cruz told the New York Post’s Ryan Glasspiegel in January 2022.
Victor Cruz and his team plan to launch five Krystal franchises in the New Jersey area before 2023 ends.
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