By Don Banks
February 02, 2012

INDIANAPOLIS -- There are at least two questions that come to mind when beholding the out-of-nowhere monster season turned in by salsa-dancing second-year Giants receiver Victor Cruz:

Where in the world would this New York team have been without him? (Already home, immersed in the offseason). And when was the last time you heard anyone who cares about Giants blue bemoaning the loss of veteran slot receiver Steve Smith to Philadelphia in free agency? (Early September 2011, give or take a week).

The sensation that has been Cruz's breakthrough season is one of the best plot twists in the NFL this year, and probably its most unexpected. And here he is in the Super Bowl, sporting the game's best smile, quickest feet and most appreciative mien.

"Never in a million years would I think I'd play in a Super Bowl,'' said Cruz, the undrafted and overlooked former University of Massachusetts receiver and Paterson, N.J., native who led New York this season in receptions (82), yards (1,536), touchdown catches (nine) and charisma (boatloads of it). "It's just been an amazing experience. Nobody expected this kind of performance from me, including myself.''

With the buildup to this year's NFL Draft having already begun, you've got to love the reminder that Cruz's rise provides. He was deemed too much of a fringe prospect to warrant an invite to the league's scouting combine in Indianapolis two years ago -- not even listed among the top-rated 60-plus collegiate receivers -- but he made it to Indy for this week's event. And now he merits the star treatment, with his own podium for media sessions, and more questions than he has time to answer.

Ah, the vagaries of NFL life. But Cruz gets it. He really is the victor in this tale, and he's not consumed with the notion of seeking vindication for his once lowly profile.

"Being from a small school (UMass is Division I-AA), I understand how that whole thing goes,'' Cruz said this week. "I wasn't 6-5, 220 pounds, or I didn't have off-the-wall statistics. But I'd rather be here for the Super Bowl now than the Combine.''

Talk all you want about the career year turned in by Giants quarterback Eli Manning, who has been magnificent at times, Cruz's heroics saved the season in New York, more than once. And his teammates know it. If there was a signature moment in this remarkable Giants run, it was Cruz's back-breaking 99-yard touchdown catch and run (and run, and run, and run) in their crucial Week 16 "road'' win against the Jets, the victory that snapped New York out of its 7-7 funk and sparked its current five-game streak of elimination-game wins.

"Vic bailed us out, and he bailed us out in a lot of our games,'' said Giants receiver Mario Manningham, who lost his starting job early this season as Cruz's emergence began. "It didn't come out of the blue, though. We saw what he can do. We saw it in practice. He made plays. That's what he does. He's a playmaker.''

He's a playmaker who happened to end his first two NFL preseasons as the 53rd and final guy to make the Giants regular season roster. Team officials this week even confirmed to the Newark Star-Ledger that New York had decided to waive Cruz at the end of the 2010 preseason, and hopefully sign him to its practice squad, but changed course because it feared the Jets would snatch him up. That's because Cruz had turned heads with a three-touchdown showing against Rex Ryan's team in the New York-New York preseason game that doubled as the first game ever in new MetLife Stadium.

"I hope they cut him,'' Ryan said that night. "I know one team that would be ready to sign him, and that'd be us.''

Can't make that plot twist up. Cruz was nearly an ex-Giant, and perhaps a Jet. If you could reverse the outcome of that 99-yard touchdown catch he made on Christmas Eve, you might just reverse the course of two teams' seasons. But, alas, the Giants retained Cruz, who played in just three games as a rookie, with no receptions and largely a special teams role before having most of the year wiped out by a hamstring injury.

This season, Cruz again went without a reception in Week 1, and didn't fully emerge as a weapon until Week 3, when his 74-yard touchdown grab helped New York win at Philadelphia. Cruz did his now-patented salsa end-zone celebration dance after that score, and with that a new star was born in New York. He wound up setting a new team record for receiving yardage, and has added another 17 catches for 244 yards in the playoffs, including a 10-catch, 142-yard day in the Giants' 20-17 overtime defeat of San Francisco in the NFC title game.

Someone asked Giants general manager Jerry Reese this week how much Cruz's play this season has surprised him? Reese didn't try to bluff his way through it. He knows the team didn't fully realize what it had in the local kid who once had to attend tiny Bridgton Academy in Maine to get his grades up and enroll at UMass. Surprise isn't a strong enough word for what Cruz has wrought.

"We had Victor Cruz ranked just like everyone else,'' Reese said. "We had him ranked as a [collegiate] free agent, and he was a free agent. He has surpassed all of our expectations with respect to what he has done. That happens. We got lucky with Victor and I'm happy for him.''

It happens every year, of course. New England's roster is littered with undrafted players, not the least of which is Cruz's counterpart on the Patriots, slot receiver Wes Welker. The Giants gave Cruz a look, a chance, and he did the rest, taking the opportunity and running with it.

"There are so many guys out there and there are so many guys that you're essentially just taking a chance on,'' Cruz said of the scouting process and its high-profile misses. "Some guys just slip under the radar. Once those hidden gems kind of get figured out and somebody sees them, then it's a great opportunity. Then it's a great shot they took. If they don't [make it], then it's another one bites the dust.''

At least once a month, Cruz said he calls former UMass teammate Vladimir Ducasse to thank him for drawing the NFL scouts to the Minutemen pro day in the spring of 2010. Ducasse was a highly-touted offensive tackle/guard coming out of UMass that year, and wound up going in the second round to the Jets. But without the draw of Ducasse, Cruz wonders if he would even have generated free-agent interest?

"It's about having just incredible persistence, and not taking no for an answer,'' Cruz said. "[And having] a little bit of luck, and being at the right place at the right time, and understanding what type of player I am and using every tool in my possession, every resource I had. I used it all, and that's what brought me here.''

One of the ways Cruz increased his chances to make an impact this season was by showing up for the players-only offseason workouts in Hoboken, N.J., organized by Manning during the lockout. Manning called Cruz and urged him to be there, and the two worked on their timing and rapport during those long days of waiting out the league's labor strife.

"That was huge for me,'' said Cruz, who is half Puerto Rican, and has entertained the media this week by conducting many of his interviews in fluent Spanish. "It definitely gave me a lot of confidence going in, knowing that he wanted to come to me and get some timing down. It was just good for me to get that one on one time with Eli.''

And look where it has all led. Cruz is the talk of the town in New York, his dance moves have Dancing with the Stars beckoning him to Hollywood, and he's the go-to big-play receiver on a resilient Giants team that has somehow persevered all the way to Super Bowl XLVI. It's almost as if you can't tell the story of New York's fight to the top this season without echoing Cruz's meteoric rise.

"It's just been an incredible ride,'' Cruz said. "I can't even put it into words. Sometimes I kind of think back to where I was a year ago and where I am now, it's just a complete 180. It's been amazing.''

This much I know: The Giants wouldn't be taking this ride without Cruz. And, funny, but no one seems to missing Steve Smith in New York any more.

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