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CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist

Giants' Cruz takes fast track from anonymity to limelight


Likeable Victor Cruz enjoys his time in the media day limelight. (AP)  
Likeable Victor Cruz enjoys his time in the media day limelight. (AP)  

INDIANAPOLIS -- Victor Cruz calls his friend once a month just to thank him for making his come-out-of-nowhere story even possible.

Without that friend, who knows if the New York Giants receiver would even be in the league, let alone a big part of a Super Bowl offense?

That friend is New York Jets offensive lineman Vladimir Ducasse, who was one of Cruz's teammates at the University of Massachusetts. If not for Ducasse being a highly scouted NFL prospect, the amazing Victor Cruz story that has played out this season, a kid going from nowhere to a Pro Bowl-worthy player on Super team, might never be happening.

Cruz wasn't invited to the NFL Scouting Combine after his senior season, which meant he had to shine for the scouts at his Pro Day workout. It just so happened that Ducasse was projected as an NFL starter along the offensive line, which led to 15-20 scouts coming to the UMass Pro Day.

"Because of him, we had a bunch of scouts there," Cruz said. "I almost call him every month for having such a great career at UMass."

That day didn't help Cruz get drafted, but it helped him get signed by the Giants as an undrafted free agent. That makes him one of the best stories here at Super Bowl XLVI, a starting receiver who is now a fan favorite for the Giants as they ready to play the New England Patriots.

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It's hard not to like this kid -- really hard.

Even the most jaded sportswriters -- OK, I'm in that group -- love hearing these kind of feel-good stories, especially when they involve one of the most likeable players who actually seems to be wide-eyed at the idea he's even here at the Super Bowl.

Two years ago, Victor Cruz was hoping for a chance. Now he's a Super story.

He was asked if he had to pinch himself all the time to make sure it was real.

"I think I still have the sore mark right here on my arm," he said. "It's been an amazing ride for me."

As a rookie, he didn't catch a pass, playing in only three games. This season, he wasn't expected to do much. He certainly wasn't a fantasy-football must-have when the season started.

He is now.

Cruz, the local kid from Paterson, N.J., which is an Eli Manning pass away from the Giants home stadium, has become popular for a lot of reasons.

The hometown angle is nice. The undrafted-to-star story is also nice. And then there's his heritage. He mother is from Puerto Rico -- that plays to a large Latin fan base.

It certainly has made him a favorite here. During a meet-and-greet Monday night with the media, Cruz had as many questions asked in Spanish as he did in English. And he seemed to love answering them, even if it made it tough for those of us who don't speak Spanish.

His salsa dance after touchdowns has made him even more popular, and got him an invite to

Dancing With the Stars

, which he turned down.

When he catches passes at home games, the crowd chants: "Cruuuuz."

"I can't even put it into words," Cruz said. "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 just amazing."

Watching him play, it's amazing to think a kid this good in only his second season slipped through the scouting cracks. At a listed 6 feet and 200 pounds -- that's kind -- Cruz was thought to be more quick than fast, which isn't a good combination when paired with his size.

What he has shown is that he is much faster than anticipated. Ask the New York Jets. He took a short out against them and turned it into a 99-yard touchdown.

It's why he's different from Wes Welker, the more heralded slot receiver in this game. Welker led the NFL in catches with 122 and gained 12.9 yards per catch. Cruz averaged 18.7 on his 82 catches.

Even though he's more of a big-play threat, Cruz had 27 catches on third down, while Welker had 26, which sort of disputes the notion that Welker is the best go-to slot receiver in the league.

"He's a guy that I've looked at growing up," Cruz said. "You always watch the best in the league and he's definitely one of the best at his craft and at his position. He's definitely a guy that I take a few things from and you add it to your game."

The difference is the speed. Cruz can run. Welker is more quick than fast.

"He is not one of those just-quick guys who wants to avoid contact and make guys miss," Patriots corner/safety Devin McCourty said. "He is able to be physical and still has that shifty ability. He definitely can run. I think just the physical nature of what he brings at wide receiver helps him inside and outside."

That speed was on display in the summer of 2010 when Cruz became one of the boys of summer. He lit it up in a preseason game, but didn't catch a pass in the regular season, missing time with a hamstring injury.

But a call from Manning during the lockout helped him gain some confidence. When the call came, Cruz was wondering why Manning was calling. He was doing so because he wanted Cruz in the workouts, even if he didn't catch a pass the previous season.

"It meant a lot," Cruz said. "Because of the lockout and me being gone basically all last year, it helped me familiarize myself with the playbook, and that was huge for me. And getting chemistry down with Eli and knowing where he's going to throw the ball on certain routes was big. That gave me a lot of confidence, understanding he wanted to come to me and get some timing down."

Now as he readies for the Super Bowl, he is a reminder to all those college players out there just needing a chance to keep fighting and keep working.

Two years ago, Lucas Oil Stadium was filled with college hopefuls chasing a dream. Victor Cruz was back in Massachusetts just wanting for a chance.

"There are so many guys that you're essentially just taking a chance on," Cruz said. "Some guys just slip under the radar. Once those hidden gems kind of get figured out and somebody sees them and they get their opportunity to make the best of it, then it's a great opportunity. It's a great shot that they took. If they don't, then it's another one bites the dust."

This one didn't bite the dust. This one has made it.

The Giants thank you, Vladimir Ducasse, from the bottom of their hearts.

Pete Prisco has covered the NFL for three decades, including working as a beat reporter in Jacksonville for the Jaguars. He hosted his own radio show for seven years, and is the self-anointed star of CBS Sports' show, Eye on Football. When he's not watching game tape, you can find Pete on Twitter or dreaming of an Arizona State national title in football.

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