There are a plethora of storylines during Super Bowl week, but of all the plots perhaps none attracts more attention than that of second-year wideout Victor Cruz.
The salsa-dancing breakout star of the 2011-12 season has had a meteoric rise to fame, which says a lot considering Cruz was merely an afterthought at this time last season. Cruz,undrafted from UMass and a former Big Blue scout-teamer, wasn’t the run-away candidate to fill the void at the slot receiver position following Steve Smith’s departure to Philadelphia last summer.
But once he finally got his chance during the truncated 2011 preseason, Cruz ran away from the other candidates as soon as the regular season commenced, en route to 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. Such perseverance is what allowed Cruz to have such a standout season. He didn’t want to end up right back where he came from as yet another talented athlete from the rugged city of Paterson, N.J. who did nothing with his opportunities.
“Coming from Paterson, New Jersey, a small town, and being able to climb through all the adversity that I had to face has been an amazing journey,” Cruz said. “It was huge [growing up in a rough area]. It gave me some really tough skin. A lot of guys don’t make it out of there or get an opportunity. But once that window of opportunity opens for you, you have to jump through it and take advantage of it. I think I’m a testament of that and hopefully I can be a story or a catalyst for kids in my city to do the same things I did. … I wouldn’t trade it in for anything in the world, though.”
Following a record-setting season in which Cruz dominated teams from all over the field — whether it was in the red zone or 99 yards away — the Giants now have a bonafide star in their midst.
“[Being undrafted] ended up being good for me. I wasn’t really shocked because I understood the process and understood I wasn’t a guy that had blazing statistics or was 6-foot-6, 230 pounds,” Cruz said. “I understood I probably wasn’t going to get drafted and would have to make the best of my opportunities and make the best of coming in as a practice squad guy and a free agent. … I just wanted to do the best job I could to break through on the team.”
Before Cruz could be that breakthrough player, he had to scratch and claw just to make it to UMass. Following his career at Paterson Catholic High School, Cruz decided he needed more seasoning and went the prep school route, completing a post-graduate semester at Bridgton Academy in North Bridgton, Maine.
It was a much-needed respite, according to Cruz.
“It gave me an idea of what college life was going to be like. It gave me a jump start and allowed me to be on my own a little bit instead of being home and having my mother around,” acknowledged Cruz. “It also kind of gave me time for some soul-searching and to better understand what I really wanted out of life.”
His career at UMass should’ve been a marker for NFL scouts everywhere, yet there he sat in vain waiting to hear his name called during the draft. Cruz finished his college career with 131 catches (fourth-most in school history) even though he wasn’t a regular starter during his first two seasons.
And while he now has every reason to puff out his chest and walk into Lucas Oil Stadium with a ton of swagger, Cruz likes the little guy tag he and Big Blue have carried all season.
“Every time we step on the field we feel we’re the underdog and it’s us against the world,” Cruz said. “Even when favored we like to come out and prove everybody wrong and keep playing with that same [underdog] mentality at all times.”
One of Cruz’s biggest fans has been quarterback Eli Manning. It’s no secret that Manning is enjoying the greatest statistical season of his eight-year career and a big reason for that was the emergence of Cruz.
Manning said that while he didn’t foresee Cruz being this good, this fast, he acknowledged Cruz had something special.
“I’m not trying to say that was the reason we’ve reached the Super Bowl and why he’s reached these heights,” Manning said of his impromptu workouts at Hoboken High School during the lockout. “But I definitely think we got some good work done. Victor was one of the guys who was probably at every one of those throwing sessions and a guy who did a lot of spot work and making decisions and reads and just talking through things with me.
“Obviously he’s had a great season [and] I’d like to think that that work paid off and we got better together. … We got to talk over some things and talk about adjustments and decisions. I’d like to think all that extra work helped him have a better understanding of our offense.”
Cruz was more than happy to show up at the local New Jersey high school when he first got the call.
“It was good for me to come in a build a rapport with Eli and a relationship with him on the field,” Cruz said. “It was good to come in and get used to catching footballs the way he throws them and get that early bead on how he likes to throw; get some terminology down and hearing his [cadence]. ... It was just good to get some work in with him, especially coming off a [rookie] year  where I didn’t play again after Week 3. I just wanted to get some of the rust off.”
Come Sunday, Cruz hopes to leave a suspect Patriots secondary in the dust.
Follow Giants beat writer Tony Williams live from Indianapolis on Twitter @TBone8.