It’s the smile you notice first—always expressive, often infectious. And on Thursday afternoon, as Victor Cruz sits on a blue folding chair in the Giants’ practice facility, preparing for a video interview with the team website, it’s a constant. He’s smiling as he fiddles with his phone before the cameras begin rolling. He’s smiling as he answers questions—about how his play this year has shocked everyone, about the upcoming matchup with Redskins cornerback Josh Norman, about a Giants team that now looks to be the class of the NFC East. The smile never wavers.
If you missed New York’s first two games this season, Cruz’s two game-clinching catches, the salsa dance redux or the news reports emphatically declaring his resurrection, that smile is all you need to see. It lets you know that Victor Cruz is back.
Wearing a grey short-sleeved hoodie and designer jeans tucked into black and grey Jordan sneakers, one laced and one not, Cruz seems at peace. After he finishes the on-camera interview, he happily settles onto a trainers table at the far end of the field—a piece of furniture he has come to know all too well over the past 20 months. There, he talks exclusively with SI.com about his journey back to the game after 700 days away and about the success he’s achieved so far this season, which has surprised everyone, himself included. But first, the kicks.
“They are the Jordan 12’s, with the wool. They ain’t out yet,” Cruz says, smiling of course. “God is good.”
To recap: Cruz, an undrafted free agent, secured a roster spot with the Giants after a three-touchdown performance against the Jets in the 2010 preseason that had Rex Ryan whisper into Tom Coughlin’s ear after the game, “I don’t know who the f*** [Cruz] is, but holy s***.” That game and that smile turned Cruz into an overnight sensation. Then came the superstar turn, the 1,500 yards, the Pro Bowl appearance, the touchdown catch in a Super Bowl win—all leading to the commercials, the endorsements, the fame.
Then, the torn patellar tendon. The arduous rehab. The first comeback attempt in 2015. The strained calf, which was at first thought to be a minor setback but in reality was a torn fascia that ended his season before it even started. Looking back now, it marked his lowest point.
“To go through the knee injury, and to come back from that, and then to have to battle something else, it was just a tough thing to handle,” Cruz says, smile temporarily sheathed. “And then to be back at home again, staring at the wall, staring at the TV, in a boot. Your whole life you play this game, and for that to be taken away from you for an extended period of time, again, it was just hard to swallow.”
Then the second comeback attempt. Another arduous rehab process. More two-a-day workouts. More doctor visits. The doubt and the pain and the unwavering determination. When it was all coming together, another minor setback; this time a groin injury in August. Yes, he heard the speculation that the cycle was repeating itself, that he was snake-bitten, that his career was over, that the Giants should cut him so he isn’t taking a roster spot away from someone who might actually play. But he never believed any of it.
And now he we are. The Giants sit at 2–0. Cruz is a finalist for NFL.com’s “Clutch Performer of the Week,” an early frontrunner for Comeback Player of the Year and New York’s most welcome surprise and most valuable player. Yes, he says again, God is good.
“This journey has been a roller coaster, I wish I had the words to describe it,” Cruz says. “There were ups and downs, ebbs and flows, but now I understand: God just wanted to show me why he put me on this earth. Make me prove why I deserve this moment.”
Cruz points to the Giants’ final practice before they played the Jets in the preseason as a turning point for him, when he first thought that this remarkable return could be possible. He practiced at full speed—running unmoored, cutting at the sharpest of angles, doing all of the things he used to do without second thought. But it wasn’t just that he could do these things again, but that he could do them without pain. The next morning he waited for the familiar aching to return. It never did.
“Right then, it was like, you know what, this is it,” Cruz says. “I felt relief. I felt that resolve. That was a moment it shifted.”
Ask Cruz’s trainer, Sean Donellan, the same question, and he recalls an earlier moment. It was in the off-season, right after the Giants finished OTA’s. Donellan had been building Cruz up for months for what he calls a “crossover run drill.” It incorporates sharp cuts, rapid acceleration and deceleration, all in a tight window of space, before breaking off into a sprint. It was on a Monday when Donellan was confident Cruz was ready to attempt it at full speed; he had trained the receiver since his rookie season and had seen firsthand the hard work he put into his rehab.
Cruz lined up, right leg in front, left leg behind. “And he just crushed it, just knocked it out of the park,” Donellan says. “When he finished the drill, I looked at him, and there it was. That big ol’ smile was back on his face again. Right then I knew he was back”
“The smile had been suppressed for a while,” Donellan continues. “After the knee injury, it was replaced with a more ‘business-like’ attitude. And then, coming back from the calf injury, again that smile was replaced by a real hunger that I hadn't ever seen from him. He wanted to prove that he was still what everyone once thought he was, and what they remembered him to be, and what he knew he still could be.”
Cruz downplays any external motivating factors that might have fueled this comeback. When asked what pushed him through the dark days and sleepless nights, he points to his family. He wants his daughter to have the opportunity to watch her dad play football in person—not just in highlight clips—and wants his mom to be able to brag about her son again.
Cruz also mentions the inspiration he received from his high school coach, Benjie Wimberly, who would text him nearly every day with motivational quotes, words of encouragement and bible verses. Wimberly would constantly tell Cruz to “think big,” a message he had been espousing since Cruz was in high school. He’d remind him that he’s overcome worse odds in the past; nobody even believed he would make it to the NFL in the first place. You’ve proved them wrong before, he’d reiterate.
“I kept telling him that this is just another chapter in your book,” Wimberly says. “He already lived the storybook just getting to this point. Now here he was was again, and I knew he was going to beat any type of odds against him.”
Wimberly never wavered in his belief that Cruz would return. But did he ever think that it could be this triumphant of a return?
“When I saw him right before the season started, and I saw that smile of his back, I knew he was ready for something [big],” Wimberly says. “You can see it all in that smile. It’s that sly, ‘they may not believe in me, but I believe in me’ look. His face always says it all.”
Before the Giants Week 1 game in Dallas, Wimberly eschewed the inspirational quotes. He didn’t think Cruz needed that type of motivation anymore. Instead, he texted: It’s showtime, you’re ready to go. Now it’s time for the comeback story.
Cruz caught his first touchdown in 103 weeks that day, the go-ahead score with 6:13 left to play. And then, as, Wimberly puts it, “the Salsa King was back.” The following week, against the Saints, Cruz showcased his old explosiveness with a 40-yard catch-and-juke-and-juke-and-run. Donellan doesn’t care that at the end of the play Cruz was hit from behind and fumbled. All he saw was the way Cruz moved, that same rare athlete he has known for years, accelerating and decelerating down the field on a dime, avoiding defenders. “That is his gift,” Donellan says. “That’s what makes him so special.”
Cruz capped off that day with a miraculous, mid-air, acrobatic grab at the two-yard line, prying the ball out of the hands of the New Orleans defensive back and setting up another Giants win. Vintage Victor, his old coach, Wimberly, remembers thinking at the time, harkening back to all of the circus catches he watched the receiver make in high school.
For Cruz, after so much time away from the game, he says the biggest change has been a mental one. He no longer worries about minor problems, focusing more on the bigger picture.
“My mindset now is that nothing can go wrong for me,” Cruz says. “I’ve already experienced the wrongest of the wrong, the worst of the worst. I know what that feels like, I know what it looks like. So now I’m just looking forward to whatever is next.”
Mention to Cruz that his Showtime documentary last year, which traced the story of his initial comeback from the knee injury, didn’t have a satisfying ending, and he agrees. The film concludes at the beginning of last season, with Cruz now beset by the calf injury, facing the daunting task of another year of rehab. Cruz knew then that it wasn’t going to be the end of his story, even if it was the end of his movie. Asked if this might now be the start of the ending that he seeks, and Cruz can’t help but smile.
“I think this is just the beginning of the second chapter,” Cruz says. “And I think this chapter is going to be my greatest chapter.”