A football season can end well before the schedule concludes. It can be evident from the very first snap that a team is bound for the bottom of the league, or a series of miscues in a crucial game can sink its playoff hopes. Or it can be a really bad call. But for Giants receiver Victor Cruz, the end of his season last year was definitive, shocking, and very, very public. Reaching up for a routine touchdown catch, a catch Giants fans have seen him make on the regular ever since he broke onto the scene in 2011, Cruz suddenly staggered. On the national stage, a Sunday night game against the rival Eagles, Cruz fell to the ground, clutching his knee. He was soon carted off, weeping with the emotion that came from knowing his season had just ended.
“I knew that year was pretty much over at that moment,” Cruz told Maxim, reflecting on the seconds after injury. “I knew then that I wasn’t going to be in the locker room with my teammates, I knew I would no longer be traveling with the team. I mean, the games are great, but what you love is those times in the locker room, dancing, joking around. That’s the stuff you end up telling your kids about.”
Tearing his patella tendon kept Cruz off the football field for a few months, but that doesn’t mean the 28-year-old slowed down one bit. During the offseason, Cruz went on to appear on HBO’s Ballers, and star in his own Showtime documentary, which traces the path Cruz took from star athlete at a catholic school in Paterson, New Jersey (only minutes away from the stadium where he now plays) to being the face of one of the most storied franchises in professional football.
“I pinch myself every day. To grow up near the stadium, to be playing at a high level in that stadium, even to win a Super Bowl for your home town, it’s just a dream come true, man,” Cruz said only days before the beginning of the season. “Winning in New York City and New Jersey is a big deal. You take it seriously.”
Unlike his counterpart, the reigning rookie of the year and Madden cover star Odell Beckham Jr., Cruz’s entrance to the league wasn’t heralded. In fact, it was barely a footnote. After going undrafted following graduation from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (a school not renowned for its football program), Cruz was invited to training camp by the hometown Giants.
“I had about two or three more teams that offered me just a tryout, but the Giants were the only team that had a contract available for me if I was able to make the team.”
It was a breakout preseason game against the Jets that introduced Cruz to fans, beginning a meteoric rise in the organization that ended with a 2011 Super Bowl victory, where Cruz caught a touchdown pass as the Giants shocked the heavily favored Patriots. In just 18 months, Cruz had gone from unemployed college graduate to doing a celebratory salsa dance in the end zone during the Super Bowl, a tribute to his grandmother that resulted in an invite to appear on Dancing With The Stars (which he politely declined).
“I didn’t want to do anything to jinx that whole season. I knew that the things I was doing that year were pretty special,” Cruz reflected.
For a league that has its fair share of questionable characters, product shills, and strange courtroom dramas, there’s a lot to like about Victor Cruz. He’s still with his high school sweetheart, Elaina Watley, who he proposed to last year. He seems to always be wearing a smile. He’s religious, but not in an overbearing way. He just seems very aware of the breaks he’s had and how, even though he works hard, luck still plays a part. Add to the fact that he’s a very handsome guy, and it’s no wonder he’s a good match for the New York stage.
“I want to be in a position to do things like acting, hosting shows after my career in football is over,” Cruz said, sitting on a couch of the 51st floor of the New York Palace hotel. ”Guys like Michael Strahan and Frank Gifford, Giants had long careers in entertainment inspire me. This game isn’t forever -- you have to be able to hone in and build on those opportunities you now have — they can take you a long way.”
From the window, one could see clear across the Hudson to where Cruz grew up. No. 80 is showing off a new partnership with Hugo Boss as part of its “Boss Bottled” campaign, which is promoting an athlete’s success beyond the game itself. In an advertisement for the line on an iPad in front of him, Cruz stares into the camera, giving a smoldering look we’re more accustomed to from male models and not the grinning athlete living out every kid’s wildest dreams. Even Cruz thinks it’s all a bit funny, but sitting there in his Hugo Boss suit, looking every bit the fashionable gentleman and not the jock-turned-pitchman, it all kind of works.
“The more exposure the better, man,” Cruz joked. “It’s such a cool opportunity to act like things in Ballers, hang out with The Rock. I think I would give myself an A+ for the role.”
But today’s fashion are tomorrow’s giveaways, and likewise Cruz has already been upstaged on the field by his younger teammate, the aforementioned Odell Beckham Jr.. Beckham’s electrifying grabs (and his possible best-catch-ever) have already replaced Cruz’s patented cutbacks as the move-du-jour for receivers in the league. Cruz seems to be taking this all in stride though, starring in a series of Foot Locker ads that poke fun at the young receivers' meteoric rise while Cruz was nursing an injury.
For Cruz to come back from such a devastating injury and play at his previous level will not be enough to return him to the Giants number one receiver role (nursing a bum heel, Cruz might not even play the season opener this weekend in Dallas). But Cruz has faced even longer odds before and at this point, it’s probably ill-advised to begin betting against him. He’s already done the near-impossible once, and this time he seems prepared to do it with even more style.
Photos by Hugo Boss