Cruz was an afterthought in his first three seasons at UMass, including a redshirt year, and he struggled at first to get on the field due to academic struggles. He never earned All-America honors at the FCS level despite a pair of productive seasons. And he wasn't one of the 27 wide receivers taken in the 2010 draft.
Not only that, but Cruz went to camp with the Giants, who had Hakeem Nicks, Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, Domenik Hixon and 2009 third-round pick Ramses Barden at the position. To crack that roster, Cruz needed to leave the coaching staff with no doubt about his ability.
"Anything is possible with hard work, and that was my goal," Cruz said. "Just to come in, work hard and win a spot on this roster. That was the first goal. From then, it was just finding a spot on this team, finding my niche, understanding what I can do. If my opportunities came, then I would be ready. I overcame some things, and I was ready."
Those "things," Cruz said, were the difficulties of adapting to the NFL lifestyle. He really struggled with the playbook at first, and there was a definite transition to life as a professional athlete.
"From a mental standpoint, the NFL is a lot different from college," Cruz said. "There's a lot more time in the film room and the meeting room. I just had to understand that this is a business now and not just sitting around, going to class, playing football. It's more of, this is your life, this is what puts food on your table, so I had to take it seriously."
Then, Cruz announced himself to the world. The Giants and Jets squared off in a heavily-billed matchup on the Monday night preseason opener in August 2010 that also served as the first game at the New Meadowlands. And due to some bad blood between the teams' ownership groups, there was more attention on the game than normal for any type of preseason contest.
Cruz broke loose for six receptions, 145 yards and three touchdowns in the Giants' victory, and his performance was among the league's hot topics for a few days. Heck, even LeBron James tweeted about him.
Cruz closed out the preseason with a league-leading 297 yards to go with 15 receptions and four touchdowns. And as the blueprint read, Cruz had to make sure head coach Tom Coughlin had no choice but to keep him on the team.
"I'd like to think he's a sponge," Coughlin said. "He just learns every day, learns more and more about his position, his role, learns about coverage, learns about the way people are playing him. He will go get the ball, and he does have a capacity to make plays."
However, after failing to register a catch in his rookie season, he was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury in a transaction that helped make room for kicker Shayne Graham, who needed to fill in for Lawrence Tynes for a game. After Cruz's preseason accolades, he crashed back down to the harsh reality of the NFL, though he said he made the best of the situation.
"It was tough at first," Cruz said. "Definitely coming out, having such a good preseason, putting yourself on the map a little bit as a rookie free agent and things like that, then being injured and going to IR. It was kind of a blessing in disguise because I was able to spend a lot more time in the film room, spend a lot more time in the playbook and really see different defenses and what they do and things of that nature. It was kind of a blessing. I kind of took that year to just mentally prepare myself for what the NFL is like and the NFL lifestyle. It was definitely beneficial for me.
"I knew if I was ready coming into the season — physically, mentally and emotionally — then I could do some good things. If I had some opportunities, I would take advantage of them and make the best of them. I was able to do that this year so far."
That might be the more impressive part of his development since entering the NFL. After all, as an undrafted free agent from a small program like UMass, Cruz was the ultimate underdog. Players like that aren't expected to contribute, and he truly had nothing to lose during camp.
This season, the expectations were higher. He had to prove he wasn't just a preseason all-star. Not only that, but the coaching staff needed to see some tangible development from last year to the current one.
Cruz didn't start off as quickly in 2011, though, and Coughlin noted he was probably behind due to the lockout, which erased offseason camps and hurt players like Cruz — the guys who truly needed the extra time to develop — the most. He only had six receptions for 64 yards in the preseason, but there was still enough present to give him a spot on the 53-man roster.
Once again, it's continued to pay off for the Giants. After recording just a pair of catches through two weeks in the regular season, the 6-foot, 204-pounder has 26 receptions for 480 yards and four touchdowns in the Giants' last five games. In that span, Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is the only player in the NFL with more touchdown catches than Cruz.
This season, Cruz ranks first on the Giants with four receiving touchdowns, second with 497 receiving yards and second with 28 receptions, and he's been a valuable slot receiver for quarterback Eli Manning's spread offense.
"Victor has done great," Manning said. "He's made a lot of plays. He's a young guy who each week is learning the ins and outs of this offense, and he has a natural playmaking ability. He's stepped up to make big plays in key situations."
Cruz attributes it all to a devotion to his hardworking mentality, which he developed at UMass. Now, he's ready to put on a show Sunday when the Giants visit the Patriots at Gillette Stadium — Cruz was there two weeks ago for the Colonial Clash between UMass and New Hampshire — and he'll have a number of friends in attendance.
They knew him from his days in Amherst, so they won't be surprised to see how much his hard work has transitioned to success in the NFL.
"We really had to grind [at UMass]," Cruz said. "It takes a lot of hard work and dedication, going to UMass every day, day in and day out, really being prepared to understand as a [Division] I-AA guy that you're not going to have everything handed to you. You have to work for it. UMass definitely taught me to be resilient, never back down, and keep working hard and good things will come."
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