When a dance instructor teaches the salsa to a beginner, she explains the steps in their most basic form. Whether it’s a front-to-back or side-to-side movement, the timing and rhythm are the same for each: quick, quick, slow, a 1-2-3, 5-6-7 count.
New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz is certainly not a novice salsa dancer—his Puerto Rican grandmother taught him the moves as a child—so as he prepares to play in his first NFL season since October 2014, he's taking a similar step-by-step approach.
“With every day I get stronger and I get more and more confident with every step I take, with every run and every drill,” Cruz says. “I think it’s all coming together.”
After tearing the patellar tendon in his right knee in a game against the Philadelphia Eagles in October 2014, Cruz underwent surgery, and his rehab schedule had him on track for a Week 1 return. But during Giants preseason camp last year, Cruz ran a standard route, made a sharp cut and instantly felt a twinge in his left calf. At first Cruz dismissed the pain and continued on as trainers later diagnosed him with a strained muscle injury. But when the pain persisted, Cruz received news that injury was more serious—a torn fascia, or connective tissue, in his calf muscle—and would require season-ending surgery. Cruz never even made it to the first snap of the season.
“It was really hurtful for me because I had worked so hard to rehab the knee and to have another setback was heart-wrenching,” Cruz says. “I thought I’d already won. I thought I already faced that challenge.... But I was like, maybe God is preparing me for something bigger. I need to take more time off to really build my way back, maybe I wasn’t there yet. I knew I had long road ahead of me but I just took it one step at a time, one day at a time.”
Cruz hasn’t played in an NFL game in more than 20 months, appearing in just six games in the last two years. This time around, the Giants have been cautious, keeping him out of most drills during spring practices. Through the first days of preseason camp this past week, Cruz has participated in practice with the team, some days with a reduced workload—“just part of the program,” Giants head coach Ben McAdoo says. Staying on schedule is what Cruz hopes will put him back on the field with his teammates for the regular season.
“The hardest moment for me was understanding the road ahead. I knew what it entailed, but once my training staff mapped it out for me and put together a schedule of the months leading forward, I knew it was going to be difficult, it wasn’t going to be easy.
“I had my work cut out for me.”
Along with the Giants training staff and coaches, Cruz worked with strength and conditioning coach Sean Donellan and the staff at Overtime Sports in Wayne, N.J., starting in February, after the Super Bowl. Donellan, who is also director of sports performance for the New York Islanders, has worked with Cruz since 2009. He says the 29-year-old’s workload consisted of less volume, but higher intensity, than in years past, all with the rehab process in mind.
“When you don’t need the volume of reps that a rookie needs, you can be a little more conservative,” says Donellan. “I think we’re going to see a very ready guy once the season comes along. Physically, he’ll be ready. And mentally, he’s hungry.”
Sessions at OT Sports with Donellan—and sometimes with former player and trainer Tank Daniels—began with a lengthy warm-up featuring skips, bounds, leg circles, walk-out push-ups, standard stretches and various hip mobility exercises. As he worked his way through his rehab schedule, Cruz built his strength up through various lifts—such as pistol squats with a weighted vest—before he was cleared to run routes and full sprints.
Just as a dancer making the first try at a spin in the salsa, for Cruz there came a moment in training when he had take a leap and try for the more advanced movements. That breakthrough came on a field in California in the spring, when Donellan had Cruz recreate the same pattern on which he tore his knee: a deep cut inside; a deceleration and plant on one leg, followed by a quick vertical jump on the other. The first time, Donellan says, Cruz was a bit skittish, understandably hesitant. But he instructed him to do it again.
“He needed to clear it. And on the second [try] he did it. He popped up tall, came down nice and smooth and he just turned and looked at me and gave me that big smile,” Donellan says. “It was about erasing the doubt, conquering the fear, knowing that the work you put in will be enough, that it won’t happen again. Those are hard hurdles to clear for any athlete.”
Donellan says one of his goals this offseason was to reproduce some of the chaos Cruz will see on the field in a controlled setting inside the facility. Other times, he tested Cruz with challenges to simply build his confidence, such as the 52" box jump.
“I hadn’t done box jumps since I injured my knee, let alone my calf,” says Cruz, who completed a 52" inch jump during his offseason training; his previous best was 50" in 2010. “It was something I needed to do in order to cross that hurdle. Little things like that keep my confidence high and keep me understanding that if I keep knocking down these barriers, I’ll be good to go once the season comes.”
Donellan says Cruz reported to camp fitter than he was last season—“last year it was literally like cramming for the SATs, pressing to try and get the knee ready but the body wasn’t perfect”—and says he looks forward to seeing him prove people wrong this season.
“Now that he’s been away from the game a little bit, I can tell you he’s angry. And he’s hungry. And he’s really going to enjoy showing people [that he is] better than he was,” Donellan says. “He’s got his eye of the tiger back. And it’s going to be a fun one to watch.”
For Cruz, he’s looking forward to that first sunny September Sunday when he can put on his number 80 blue and white jersey, lace up his cleats and run onto the field with his teammates.
“If I had to picture Week 1, coming out of that tunnel, I couldn’t put it in words. I’m going to be nervous, anxious, excited, scared—all of these feelings are going to be going through my body," Cruz says. “I cannot wait to get in front of that crowd, score a touchdown and dance in front of those people again.”
Not to worry—Cruz may have taken it slow in his return back to the field, but when it comes to dancing, he hasn't lost a step.
“The way my bloodline is set up, I don’t need to practice,” he says. “It’s all going to come naturally once I get in the endzone.”