Wednesday was a special day for New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz, and it was marked by something somewhat simple: When the club issued its first official injury report of the season, his name was nowhere to be found.
That in itself was an accomplishment for the former undrafted free agent that made the Giants roster in 2010 and took the league by storm from 2011-2013 catching 241 passes for 3,626 yards (15.0 average) and 23 touchdowns. The sky was the limit for the dancing machine and effervescent personality that exemplified his presence on the field.
That is until Oct. 12, 2014, when he tore the patellar tendon in his right knee at Philadelphia. The ensuing 23 months have been one frustration after another. He was hopeful of making a return in 2015, but experienced tightness in his calf in training camp on Aug. 17, and missed the entire season, eventually undergoing surgery in November.
Then, there was a groin injury that sidelined him for the first two preseason games this year. The doubt was starting to manifest itself again. However, he finally made it back on the practice field prior to the Aug. 27 game against the New York Jets.
As offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said then, “Victor looked great. He has had two strong days, got a lot of balls thrown to him. I’m excited about where he is. There was the suddenness, the explosiveness, the things that I have in mind, visions of 2011 in terms of that type of quickness. So obviously that is something to be excited about, and again, we’re just progressing and hoping for the best. We’re not trying to get overly excited or put too much pressure, just taking it one day, one rep, at a time; and he’s certainly shown some flashes.”
Cruz played 32 snaps in that game against the Jets, and while he had just 1 reception for 4 yards on two targets, he got through the game healthy, and the smile was back along with optimism that he was ready to truly contribute.
He was emotional after the game when asked about the legion of Giants fans chiming in with the familiar “Croooz” chant that hadn’t been heard for a while.
“It was unreal,” he said that night. “It kind of gave me goosebumps, especially that first walk out onto the field to have the fans do that. I mean, it was just humbling and it really showed how much I mean to the fan base here in this tri-state area and to all the Giants fans across the world. How much they’ve anticipated this moment, and how much I anticipated this moment to be back in front of them, and it was a pretty surreal moment for me, to say the least.”
Now, he is only days away from playing in his first regular-season game in almost two years. And his teammates are as happy for Cruz as he is for himself. Even during those times when he wasn’t able to play, he still set a leadership example for his teammates, especially the young receivers.
Injured players often talk about feeling invisible; not being part of the team when they can’t play. Cruz wouldn’t let that happen. Asked why he chose to be not only visible but part of the team, he told Patricia Traina of Inside Football, “That was just me; I wanted to stay a part of the family. I wanted to stay part of the temperament of the team and stay abreast of what everyone was doing, what was going on in their lives, continue to be a mentor and a leader to the guys in the receiving room, the younger guys. So it was just something where I might be hurt and not be there physically, but mentally I can still be there and have a positive effect on players.
“It was also not only a matter of helping the young guys, but keeping myself sharp, too, so I wouldn’t forget everything and that I’m staying the course on what I need to learn.”
Asked the impact of Cruz’s leadership, wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said, “It means a lot more that can ever really be explained. For a guy who wants to play football so bad but is still dedicated enough to his team to be here. To throw in his opinion, what he’s learned, he’s experienced. He’s been there for us all the way. To finally have him back, I don’t know how to explain it. I’m excited. I want to see him play, I want to see him do well and see him at the end of the year at the ESPYs with Comeback Player of the Year. That’s what I expect from him and that’s what I would love to see.”
Beckham added, “I’m just ready to be out there with him. Coming from college, going into the league, I watched a lot of his film. I’ve seen what he can do. I’ve stolen bits and pieces from him whether he knows it or not. I’m excited to have him back, if not more excited. I’m just as excited, I think, for him to be able to get back on the field and do what he loves.”
Rookie receiver Sterling Shepard told Traina, “Having a guy like that who’s had a lot of success in the NFL is always great to have on your team to help you out every day.”
Even running back Rashad Jennings noticed. He told Traina, “He kept his head in the work. We saw him going through the struggle when he was injured; it’s never easy to be injured in this league. Vic is a competitor. He wants to be out there and we could see it in his face. He never complained, he always saw what was on the schedule every day for his rehab and he went at it 100 percent. That just shows the kind of guy he is; he hasn’t complained once since I’ve been here. That kind of energy he brings to the classroom, to the field; that excitement, finishing his runs. When 8-oh gets the ball in his hands, that’s something we’re just all looking forward to seeing this year.”
Sunday in Dallas, Cruz will be back on the field, hoping to experience again the rare highs that not many players are able to experience.
Comparing what it will be like to that preseason game last month, Cruz said, “It definitely trumps it. Obviously the preseason game, to even suit up and be back out there and to be playing football again, was a great feeling. But this one, Week 1 when it matters, against the Dallas Cowboys, is definitely going to be one for the books. I think that being gone for roughly two years is just an emotional time for me when I go out there, an exhilarating time, an exciting time, but a time where I just have to look back and put this all into perspective from where I came from, and to be here again is just a blessing.”
As for how much he will be ready to play, Cruz said, “I believe I am ready to play a full game. I have done great in my conditioning. I am in great shape. I think we are going to see. We will see how it goes, we will see how my body feels going into that third and fourth quarter and we will take it from there. But I feel like mentally I am definitely ready and physically I am ready for a full game, conditioning wise. But obviously, playing in a game, we will see how it goes.”
He also admits there will be “some jitters,” and added, “I get butterflies before every game until that ball is kicked off, but this one might have some extra butterflies. Just being able to run out there with my team again, being able to line up across from an opposing team in a Week-1 scenario playing football again. I think I am excited, I am anxious, emotions will be everywhere, so I am just excited for the opportunity to run out there and see what happens.”
Quarterback Eli Manning knows what he wants to see happen. Manning said recently, “I’m excited for him. He’s a longtime teammate and friend. I know what he’s been through and I know it’s been a tough road these last two years. When it comes to the regular season to get him some action, some catches. A touchdown; that would be special.”
Beckham believes in his heart it will happen. He said this week he expects to see the same Victor Cruz that was there before the injuries began.
“My opinion yes, but I guess we’ll see Sunday,” Beckham said. “Knock the rust off. He had some preseason games. He’s feeling good. Mentally, when you’re feeling in a good state, the rest will control itself. I know he’s more than excited, anxious, nervous all those feelings. I’m sure after the first tackle, you’ll see 80 again.”
Giants Nation can only hope that is the case.