The man from Paterson: Victor Cruz saves the Giants and himself, again and again

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Victor Cruz, making light of the Jets. (nfl.com)
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He was too excited to break into the salsa dance immediately.

Victor Cruz had just authored the longest play from scrimmage in Giants history, another in a long line of astounding plays he has made since he first appeared in a Giants uniform last season.

After running 99 yards, he staggered into a crow-hop and fired the ball against the back retaining wall of the field, which in this “road” game for the Giants, was adorned with Jets colors. Then he composed himself to perform his unique end-zone celebration.

Most touchdown celebrations take the form of in-your-face punctuation, like Ahmad Bradshaw’s leaping, turn-around spike, and Brandon Jacobs’ graphic hip-swivel. Cruz throws all this to the wind: His neck and head protrude one way and his ass protrudes the other, as his feet move and his pelvis swivels in rhythm to something old-timey and tropical, something as far removed from 80,000 fans in an ultra-modern coliseum on a 35-degree day as possible.

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The transformation from football player to salsero only lasted a few beats. Bradshaw, having caught up with Cruz, locked helmets with him and then whapped him on the head. Other Giants soon joined the party.

He hadn't merely turned the game around. Victor Cruz, who wasn’t recruited by any big-time schools or drafted by any N.F.L. team, a guy who came into last year’s training camp facing steep odds even to make the team, had just broken the Giants’ franchise record for most receiving yards in a season.

CRUZ LOOKED EXHAUSTED WHEN I CAUGHT up to him in front of his locker at the Giants' practice facility last Thursday.

The day before, Cruz had caused a stir when he, speaking of the Jets' superstar cornerback Darrelle Revis, said that teams “aren’t scared of him anymore.” (He later claimed that his “words were twisted.”)

That Thursday morning, Cruz had done a radio interview on the "Boomer and Carton" show on WFAN. Then he had to endure a Tom Coughlin-run practice before a game that could have ended the Giants' season, not to mention Coughlin’s career.

Cruz knew that after talking to me, he would have to face a pack of reporters who would try to draw out another soundbite for their “war of words” stories between the Giants and Jets. After that, he would have to do an interview with a multimedia reporter for Giants.com. And after that, he would have to do an interview with ESPN radio.

Cruz was a natural candidate to provide grist for the back-and-forth, because he'd already become part of the Giants-Jets rivalry. In last year's preseason game between the teams, Cruz, a little-known free agent from the small-time football program of the University of Massachusetts, had gone off. He made three touchdown catches, including a spectacular one-handed grab. Meaningless as it was, the game was on Monday Night Football, which prompted LeBron James to tweet about it. Rex Ryan’s reaction to Cruz was caught by HBO’s “Hard Knocks.”

“I don’t know who number 3 is, but holy shit!” Ryan told Coughlin during the post-game handshake between coaches, about a player who was so low on the totem pole that he wasn’t even given a proper receiver’s number.

So Cruz was tired, and our time was limited, and I knew I wouldn't be able to ask him about all the things I wanted to hear him talk about: his upbringing in high-crime Paterson, N.J., which he ultimately survived but whose temptations he wasn’t immune to (“I had my times where I would rebel and would be out and about,” he told the Daily News earlier this year); his complicated relationship with his father, who is believed to have committed suicide four years ago; his near-misses at the University of Massachusetts, where he was kicked out for a 1.7 G.P.A. and then given a supposed last chance by the school before being suspended from the football team and then reinstated again.

Given yet another last chance, Cruz was here, in the Giants’ locker room, and not back in the impoverished, drug-riddled Fourth Ward of Paterson. The Fourth Ward is the most notorious of the long-struggling city’s six wards. Jobs for under-educated minorities are hard to come by, let alone full-time ones that pay a living wage.

I tried to draw Cruz out with something his godfather and AAU basketball coach Jimmy Salmons told me about him: that Cruz’s roller-coaster experiences have rendered him “not afraid of the moment.”

That would certainly explain a lot about a receiver who lacks size and game-breaking speed, but seems to tap into an emergency reserve of willpower when the ball is in the air. From the moment Giants fans were introduced to him in the second half of a preseason game against the Jets last year, when he exploded, Cruz has seized his opportunities.

In response, Cruz limited himself to sports cliche: “Whenever the big moment seems to arrive, I want to make the big play," he said. "I want to be the one to propel our team to the next level."

He was more effusive on the subject of his high school coach, Benjie Wimberly, a kind of surrogate father figure to scores of Paterson kids who, like Cruz, grew up in single-parent homes.

“He was one of the first guys who believed in me playing football and believed in my talent and skill, and I still speak with him every day," Cruz said. "He texts me before every game, and he was, you know, very influential in my athletic career as well as my personal life."

I remembered Cruz being more effervescent and eager when I spoke to him last year for a feature on the Giants receiving corps. Back then, he had a sly smile on his face as I asked him to describe, in one word, his fellow receivers (e.g. Mario Manningham: “Jokester”).

It was consistent with a quality that Wimberly described to me this way: “He was that guy when he walked into a room or a locker room, he really lit the place up. He has that smile, he has that confidence, that swagger to him, that makes people attracted to him.”

A minute after I started talking to Cruz, a pack of beat reporters formed a semi-circle around us. Tape recorders and microphones were extended into Cruz’s face, which was illuminated by the unnatural yellow glare of several cameras.

“What do you think of some of their players calling it ‘Jet-Life Stadium?’” a reporter asked.

A FEW HOURS EARLIER, WIMBERLY AND I HAD DRIVEN BY CRUZ'S childhood home. The houses were shabby, sure, but not exactly shelled out. Like most inner-city neighborhoods whose reputations precede them, the Fourth Ward seemed surprisingly normal. There are horror stories about crime and drugs in these neighborhoods, but in the middle of the day, they look like most other ones: places where people get up in the morning and go to work.

“It’s pretty quiet right now,” Wimberly told me. “But at night…” he paused. “It gets pretty lively.”

Wimberly was giving me a tour of Paterson, where he has lived his whole life, save for four years of college. He is a compact, in-shape black man in his 40s. He spoke knowledgeably and engagingly about Paterson, with an easy-going and sure-footed demeanor. He was the longtime coach at Paterson Catholic, an athletic powerhouse that won seven state championships during his tenure. But the school, from which former N.B.A. player Tim Thomas graduated, closed after the 2010 school year.

When it did, it became one of ten Catholic schools in Paterson to close in the past three years. The diocese—which covers all of Passaic, Morris, and Sussex Counties—is still reeling from a $5 million settlement in 2005 from a lawsuit brought by 27 victims of sexual abuse. There are now zero Catholic high schools in Paterson, further burdening a public school system that has for the last 20 years endured the indignity of being under state control.

Wimberly was for a long time the head of the city’s recreation department: Between that post and the coaching job, he had built up his share of capital around town. Last year, he ran for City Council, and won. Then, last month, he won an election to become the area's state assemblyman.

We passed by a corner with an abandoned lot and several old men standing around.

“We’re getting right here to the worst of the worst,” Wimberly said.

In our phone conversation two days before, Wimberly had used euphemistic political phrases like “economically disadvantaged” to describe the Fourth Ward. But now he was being more direct.

“Drugs is our biggest thing: drug sales, a lot of open-air drug situations,” he said.

In a city whose median household income of $34,000 is less than half of that of New Jersey as a whole, and whose per-capita income is $15,000, there are plenty of factors pushing people into drugs. Paterson has also become something of a drug-transit hub for large-scale dealers pushing product west into Pennsylvania and to points south.

“And it doesn’t count that last year we laid off 125 cops just to beat the budget,” Wimberly said. “Which is just at total oxymoron. I mean, you figure, how the hell can a city like Paterson lay off one cop, better yet 125? But basically, we were given an ultimatum from the governor that you meet the budget or you don’t get the transitional aide.”

Two years ago, Paterson’s leaders considered a nighttime curfew in the wake of a spate of shootings. The story made national news, and Wimberly, who did not hold elected office at the time, seemed a little embarrassed about it.

“It was a heat-of-the-moment thing, and then it kind of went away,” he said, adding, "Besides, we don’t even have the policing to do it."

Paterson has an $8 million budget deficit this year, which means that its after-school and recreational programs have not been running since September. There are private organizations that provide these programs—the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA—but no publicly funded programs. Wimberly, as recreation director, has scratched together a few activities.

“Football, I did volunteers," he said. "Basketball we’re doing now with volunteers. We have an after-school program where I have a grant, so we have staff for that. But it’s crazy. It’s unbelievable. It’s like a Molotov cocktail here."

"I mean, I don’t wanna make it a partisan thing, a Democrat-Republican thing," continued Wimberly, a Democrat. "But there’s a blatant disregard for the inner city.”

Two days later, at the game on Saturday, Fox cameras trained on New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Fox analyst Tony Siragusa, a Florham Park resident and former N.F.L. player who is active in Republican politics, took the opportunity to switch his expertise from football to politics.

“Unbelievable. He just went after everybody,” he said glowingly, as if describing a no-nonsense coach who used piss and vinegar to turn around a team of underachievers. “He said, ‘Nope, this is how we’re gonna do it, we’re gonna do it my way, and if you don’t like it, too bad.’”

CRUZ IS GENEROUSLY LISTED AT SIX FEET, 204 POUNDS. He’s muscular, of course, but he’s not big at all, even by non-football standards. The fact that he is life-size contributes to his accessibility and consequent popularity: He really does look like a kid from Paterson. Giants fans know guys like this.

The old cliché goes that you can’t measure an athlete’s heart, and of course this applies to Cruz and his success. Small-school players who didn’t even get drafted don’t hold team records in their second year without trying really, really hard.

But just as applicable in Cruz’s case is that you can’t measure spatial acuity, anticipation, intuitiveness and creativity.

These attributes were on display during Saturday game, during which, as everyone knows, Cruz resuscitated a seemingly dead Giants team and possibly saved their season.

First was a 29-yard reception, with the Giants down 7-0 in the second quarter. The play came on a crucial third-and-11, without which the Giants would have had to settle for a long field goal attempt they had around a 50 percent chance of making. On the play, Cruz felt out a soft spot in the zone in front of Jets safety Brodney Pool, and hauled in Eli Manning’s pass. Sensing that Pool was coming from behind him even though his back was turned to him, Cruz pivoted around Pool to get into the open field. He did a little schoolyard juke to make cornerback Antonio Cromartie miss, getting to around the 10-yard-line before being engulfed by linebacker David Harris' tackle attempt, which he finally succumbed to at the 2-yard line.

The play silenced the pro-Jets crowd and sent Cruz into arm-flailing convulsions. “Lets go!” he screamed as his mouthpiece bobbed out of his mouth, as if trying to shake off the lethargy the entire Giants team had brought to the game.

Many times this year, the Giants have appeared to be going through the motions like a desk-job drone who didn’t have his coffee. Many times, the kid from Paterson has jolted them to life. While the Giants couldn’t get into the end zone, they kicked a field goal to get on the board.

But that play was merely an appetizer before Cruz’s 99-yard reception, the longest pass play in Giants history. Cruz wasn’t even Manning’s first option on the play, (an appropriate metaphor for Cruz's career). First, Manning looked to his left. But nobody was open, so he looked to his right and saw Cruz running across the field a step ahead of defensive back Kyle Wilson.

While Manning’s throw was in the air, Cruz had already started making his next move. This is something Cruz does often, and sometimes it backfires, when he fails to secure the catch.

In this case, Cruz made a small vertical leap to stop his momentum from taking him toward the sideline. When he came down with the ball, he was in position to propel himself directly up the field. This defied the expectations of both Wilson and Antonio Cromartie, another Jets defender who was converging on Cruz for what looked like an easy tackle. Cruz split the two Jets and headed up the field, in the clear. (According to the Pro Football Focus website, Cruz leads all N.F.L. receivers with 16 tackles either broken or eluded.)

He only had one man to beat, Jets safety Eric Smith, who was closing in on him on the sideline. Smith dived for him, but Cruz, with perfect timing, made a little leap to clear his legs from Smith’s arms and hands. He was gone, an improbable play for an improbable player. It was time to dance.

I ASKED CRUZ WHETHER GROWING UP HALF-BLACK, half-Puerto Rican in Paterson was at all difficult.

No, he said.

“When I grew up playing basketball, you’re with the predominantly African-American crowd. But growing up, in my area it was a lot of Spanish people, so I was liked by both sides, being half-and-half.”

Wimberly confirmed that whatever problems Paterson has, ethnic strife isn’t one of them. This applies to the schools, where 25 languages are spoken among students from 30 countries, and to the streets.

“We’re no L.A. when it comes to gangs,” he said. “Gang activity is based on economics and making money through the drug market. That’s the reality of it all. It’s not like West Side Story. It’s strictly about finances; it’s strictly about these guys making money.”

We passed by Eastside High School, or rather, what was formerly called Eastside High School before the school was split into separate academies. Eastside is where Lean on Me, the 1989, based-on-a-true-story movie starring Morgan Freeman, takes place. Freeman plays Joe Clark, the controversial principal who rules by fiats issued through his bullhorn, expels students he suspects of drug use, makes the ones who stayed memorize the school song on pain of suspension, fires teachers who questioned him, and, through other such tactics, turns the school around to complete the movie’s inner-city-redemption arc.

Cruz’s sister goes to one of the academies, and Wimberly taught there for several years starting in 1989, a year after Clark left.

“I remember when I took that job, people were like, ‘Are you crazy? Lean on me! Are you nuts? You’re gonna get hit in the head!”

“But I get to school every morning, and the floors are sparkling clean, there’s no graffiti in the building," he said. "It was … I mean Joe Clark was a genius.”

“He literally built himself up to something that.” He trails off. “I mean, there were issues, of course. But to this day, he’s making $20,000 for speaking engagements, that type of thing. But he was like that, he really was. He was—theatrical.”

Then we pass by the Great Falls, the 77-foot high waterfall on the Passaic River that was made into a National Park in 2009 and is the raison d’etre of Paterson. In 1791, attempting to establish independence from British manufacturers, Alexander Hamilton founded the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers, which helped harness the Great Falls and turn Paterson into an industrial powerhouse for the next 150 years. Paterson was America’s first planned industrial city, and the identification with gritty, blue-collar mentality persists to this day.

“It’s never been a middle-class city—it’s always been a working-class city,” Vincent Parrillo, a professor at William Paterson University, told me.

First it was locomotives and cotton. That gave way to silk in the 19th century, which gave Paterson the moniker of “Silk City,” a name that, in its old-school grandeur, now seems cruelly ironic. Wright Aeronautical had a plant in Paterson that built the engine for Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis. The Wright Aeronautical plant also produced many engines for World War II planes.

But after the war, Paterson suffered the same fate as so many other small to mid-size former industrial centers: Factories were shuttered, the middle class fled to the suburbs, and movie theaters, shopping centers and office parks opened along the highways.

The city’s largest employer now is St. Joseph Hospital. The unemployment rate in Paterson is 16 percent, and 25 percent of its residents live in poverty, officially.

“I always add 10 percent to whatever they say when it comes to Paterson,” said Wimberly.

In 2003, amid great optimism, the Center City mall was conceived.  The mall finally opened in 2008 and, in keeping with Paterson’s run of luck in the past fifty years, the economy duly tanked. Whatever purchasing power had once made the mall seem viable dipped precipitously, and the mall’s stores have struggled. It hasn’t been nearly the engine of job creation Paterson hoped for.

THE LATEST TRAUMA PATERSON'S LOW-INCOME RESIDENTS have had to endure was the flooding of the Passaic River from Hurricane Irene, which displaced 6,000 residents and forced the closure of several schools.

I accompanied Wimberly to one of those schools, Public School 28, for a giveaway of 200 winter jackets for the students. The jackets were purchased by Keith Hamilton, the former Giants standout defensive tackle whose son, himself a top high school football recruit, is friends with Wimberly’s son.

Hamilton was a member of the 2000 Giants team that made the Super Bowl, when they were summarily stomped by the Baltimore Ravens.

Die-hard Giants fans will remember a critical play early in the second quarter: With the Ravens up 7-0, Giants linebacker Jessie Armstead intercepted a short pass and returned it for a touchdown, seemingly tying the game at 7-7. But the touchdown was nullified by a controversial holding penalty on Hamilton.

I asked Hamilton how many times the 2000 Giants would beat the 2000 Ravens if they played each other ten times. Hamilton didn’t answer, instead saying, “That was a b.s. call, man. That could’ve turned the whole momentum around.”

SO WHAT WOULD VICTOR CRUZ BE DOING if UMass had actually kicked him out for good? He got to UMass in the fall of 2005 after spending a year in prep school. He redshirted his freshman year, but by the next fall, he had a G.P.A. of 1.7 and was academically ineligible to play. The following spring, in 2007, he was kicked out for poor grades, before the school let him back in. He was later suspended, and then got another reprieve. He flourished as a player in his senior year.

“Probably working for me, doing something in Recreation, not making a lot of money," Wimberly said. "I mean, it’s a whole different world. He owes UMass a lot for sticking with him. A bigger program when there’s not so much invested in the kid, I don’t know if that happens.”

If Cruz and Wimberly had had their druthers, Cruz would not have even gone to UMass in the first place. Cruz wanted to go to Rutgers, but they elected to give their last available football scholarship to a kid from Montvale in Bergen County, named Devin McCourty, who went on to become a first-round draft pick of the New England Patriots in 2010.

“But I always had, like, a faith in him,” he added. “Like this guy, come on! Like, come on! And he always had this smile, like, 'Don’t worry about it, I got this.'”

Cruz has made his fair share of mistakes on the field this year: His near-fumble against Arizona, in which he seemingly forgot the rules of the N.F.L. and dropped the ball after he fell without being touched down, is the most obvious example. (Cruz was bailed out by a rulebook technicality saying that a play is over when a player gives himself up voluntarily.) He has dropped eleven passes, tied for fourth most in the league, according to Pro Football Focus.

But at no point has Cruz lost his focus, or his swagger.

“So many of our kids who come from such adverse circumstances have these sunny dispositions, because they know there’s only one way: You have to be optimistic," Wimberly said. "Regardless of their situation, you see, ‘I’m gonna beat this.’ Over the years, you see it makes them such better people because of their adversity.”

CORRECTION: The original version of the article mistated the year in which the Society for Establishing Useful Manufacturers was founded. It was 1791, not 1892.

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