|Cruz: '... There's always more to go for, always more to reach for, always more to accomplish.' (Getty Images)|
ALBANY, N.Y. -- A year ago at this time, Victor Cruz was relatively anonymous, a former undrafted free agent who had flashed in the preseason before, but was fighting to make the roster. Now, he's a household name, a celebrity pitch man, Super Bowl winner, one of the biggest bargains in the NFL, and, with Hakeem Nicks out injured and Mario Manningham departed, one of the deans of the New York Giants receiving corps.
At age 25, he's already made a rapid transformation, becoming a darling of the largest media market on the planet, winning teammates and fans over with his big smile and big plays and salsa celebrations. As the Giants head toward their preseason opener this week -- a few weeks from beginning their defense of the Lombardi Trophy -- the issue of Cruz's contract extension is one of the few pieces of unfinished business for this ever-efficient franchise, and everyone around here seems to think Cruz will duplicate his breakthrough 2011 season, or exceed it.
For him, it's been as much about continuing a dedication to football, and his on-field development, as it's been refusing to allow this sudden fame to go to his head. It's about calling back on his family and upbringing and remaining humble and enjoying these perks for what they are, but not letting it sway him from the work ethic and humility that forged his rise in the first place.
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"It's important not just to me, but to my family," Cruz said. "I'd be like expelled from my house if I came home and I was like this different cat who had this big head. My mother wouldn't allow that. She doesn't care about any of this football stuff.
"She knows when I come home I'm Victor Cruz that takes out the garbage and helps her carry things across the living room. That's part of the reason I don't change. It's just not in my character."
That doesn't mean Cruz didn't revel in some of the opportunities, however. First of all, it helps supplement the modest $540,000 he's set to make this season. And there are worse ways to spend an offseason, after playing such a brutally demanding sport, than to hobnob with models and actresses and enjoy a jet-setting lifestyle that didn't seem possible just a few short months ago. In fact, Cruz had a difficult time picking out a favorite experience with so many cool things coming his way.
"The Daily Show was fun and John Stewart was hilarious," Cruz said, smiling while reflecting on the winter and spring. "Going to the Grammys was fun, the ESPYs were a ton of fun. Doing all of these photo shoots and spreads and commercials were fun. The Campbell's Chunky Soup commercial was fun. I'm excited to see all these things come out in print and see how everybody likes it."
You see, for Cruz, this is the best time possible in the locker room. His offseason of modeling and acting is behind him, but the fruit of his labors have been largely not yet on display for his teammates to dissect, mock and riff on.
"Once it comes out and it's in the magazines and the commercials are on TV, I know it's going to be bulletin board material," Cruz said. "So it should be fun."
In the words of the illustrious Triumph The Insult Comic Dog, the Giants kid, because they love. If Cruz was not such a beloved figure, the kind of guy you root for, then his dalliance with the limelight might not be as well appreciated. This is a league filled with diva receivers after all, and it doesn't take much to fill a young wideout's head with delusions of grandeur.
But instead, Cruz's path has become something of a beacon for the other young receivers. Guys like Ramses Barden, a third-round pick in 2009 yet to find his way in this offense, could see some of themselves in Cruz.
"You know these kind of things can happen fast," Barden said of Cruz's rapid ascent, "but you can't chase somebody else's experience. We are extremely proud of Victor. I am extremely proud of what Victor has done, and he hasn't let it go to his head. Everybody changes some, but he's done a great job of handling it all."
The Giants' brass has been watching as well. Coach Tom Coughlin came away impressed with how the youngster handled the late night television circuit.
"I always kidded him that he led the league in rubber chicken dinners," Coughlin said. "America's greatest guest was Victor Cruz. Every time you looked up he was on somebody else's show, and he did a good job with it. He didn't let them blow too much smoke up his tail."
Coughlin did worry about the rigors of all the travel -- though that was eased when he made highlight plays like the bomb he caught down the left sidelines at practice today -- but the Giants didn't have much trepidation about how Cruz would respond to it all.
"This is a humbling league," general manager Jerry Reese said. "This league can build you up, and tear you down really quickly, and he understands that whole concept and he's a pretty level-headed kid, and I think his focus is, 'Offseason is offseason and now it's time to play football again.'
"And I think he's totally focused on trying to help the New York Giants win another Super Bowl and when you do those kinds of things, and if he has a big year like he did last year, then you let your work do the talking."
Cruz's work spoke a whole lot a year ago, and what it said was music to Reese's ears. He entered 2010 with three career appearances and not a single catch. Then all he did last year, in a crowded receiving group no less, was catch 82 balls for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns, a small-school breakout campaign reminiscent of what Miles Austin did in Dallas a few years back.
For Cruz, it's now about refusing to plateau, or fall off, and continuing to become a vital cog in this robust passing offense.
"I understand this offense a lot more than I did a year ago," Cruz said, "so it's just continuing to build my confidence and continuing to go forward. Once you win a Super Bowl you tend to get complacent, but there's always more to go for, always more to reach for, always more to accomplish."
With such achievements will come better spoils, perhaps sooner rather than later.
Cruz, who played football at UMass, is one of the rare vestiges of the old CBA, a restricted free agent to-be following his third season, a la Mike Wallace. So the reality is the Giants could in essence have him for 2013 on a low, first-round qualifying offer, then still have the ability to franchise him in 2014 and 2015.
Both sides would prefer a long-term solution in the near term, but these quirks complicate things.
"We're always open with respect to dialogue to extending a player," Reese said, "but it has to make sense for us, and it has to make sense of them. It takes two to dance. We're always open to those things, but we really try not to let things like that be a distraction to what we're doing on the field in the season."
Cruz hired a new agent this offseason, Malik Shareef, to handle his contract talks. It's not something he is sweating. There was no threat of a holdout and he's working hard at camp. His brief career has already created a world of opportunities he never imagined and he is well aware of the Giants' history of not letting their young talented players get away.
"I don't really think about the contract," he said. "I've hired people to think about that stuff for me, and to work that side of my career, and my life. I don't really worry about it. I know the Giants are a great organization and a great program, and they do right by their players. I'm not worried about that at all."
Nope. These days, for Victor Cruz, life is good. And only getting better.
- Coughlin was encouraged that corner Terrell Thomas, dealing with another potentially serious knee injury, was prescribed rehab rather than a procedure after being evaluated by Dr. James Andrews and other specialists. There is definitely a sense he is far from out of the woods, but is returning to camp to begin a rehab assignment
- Reese said he is very confident that Nicks will be back in plenty of time for Week 1 and also expects him to play in a few preseason games. "He's chomping at the bit right now, but we don't want to have any setbacks," Reese said
- Left tackle William Beatty, another big injury concerns, continues to rest his back but Coughlin said the team still expects a full recovery.