EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Victor Cruz had heard the cheers before, and the way the fans love to stretch out the sound of his last name. But this time it seemed to feel different to him, more meaningful than it had been in the past.
And he felt it the first time he heard "Cruuuuz" from the stands as he walked out onto the field for his first NFL game in nearly two years.
"It kind of gave me goosebumps, especially that first walk out onto the field," Cruz said. "To have the fans do that, it was just humbling. It really showed how much I mean to the fan base here in the tri-state area and all Giants fans across the world, how much they've anticipated this moment and how much I've anticipated this moment to be back in front of them.
"It was a pretty surreal moment, to say the least."
It was a surreal moment and a welcome one in an otherwise forgettable 21-20 win by the Giants over the Jets in the teams' third preseason game. It was a hideous offensive performance overall by Cruz and his Giants teammates. In what most likely is their final real tune-up before the regular season opener, the first-team offense put up 61 yards in just over one half of action, and for the second straight game couldn't score a single point.
Try to forget all that, though, because the more important aspect of the game was the "big step", in Giants coach Ben McAdoo's words, taken by the Giants' former star receiver, now 29 years old and 22 months removed from his last NFL game. For all the hype of his second comeback, he was largely an unknown quantity after knee and calf injuries ruined his last two seasons and then a groin injury cost him two weeks of camp this year.
But in this game "He looked comfortable and confident," McAdoo said. He caught one pass for four yards on the first play of the third quarter, and came up empty on a deep pass earlier on a ball that quarterback Eli Manning underthrew. But he looked fast and sharp and he was able to get open. And, perhaps most importantly, he emerged "unscathed".
"I just wanted to see myself get open," Cruz said. "You know, continue to go out there and do the things that I'm accustomed to doing. And I felt that way. I felt good about the things I was putting out there, how I was running my routes and what I was doing.
"So Step 1 was definitely being out there with my teammates. And Step 2 was not just being out there, but making an impact."
He didn't really make an impact, but he was close in the second quarter when he made a double move and seemed to get open downfield. Under pressure, Manning's pass wasn't strong and Cruz had to turn twice to try to give himself a chance to catch it. In the end, it turned out to be too underthrown and was knocked away by Jets safety Marcus Gilchrist.
It was an important missed opportunity, though, because up until then Cruz admitted he was still feeling some rust.
"A little bit," he said. "Obviously you're just trying to get your feet up under you again. But on that one move where Eli just missed me, I felt like I was shaking some of the rust off a little bit. So it was definitely a good feeling."
The better feeling, though, came on the first play of the second half when he ran a simple route into the flat and Manning fired a quick pass in his direction.
"That ball felt like it was forever in the air before it got to my hands," Cruz said. "But it was good to catch that ball and get a little contact, get a little hit out of bounds. Hopefully I can build on that."
The fans were clearly hoping that too as they serenaded him with "Cruuuuuuz" again - a familiar sound that so many are hoping to hear all season long. Even despite this disaster of a preseason - in which the Giants have put up just 556 yards of total offense in three preseason games - they remain convinced they can have a Top 10 offense this season. Even Saturday night McAdoo said things will get better when they start gameplanning he said they remain "confident that we'll be able to get it fixed."
It will be so much easier if Cruz can be even a fraction of the player he once was. The Giants have a legitimate all-pro in Odell Beckham and what they believe is a future Rookie of the Year in Sterling Shepard. What's missing is the third receiver, the elusive, quick, explosive player out of the slot - exactly what Cruz used to be.
If they can add him to the mix, they could finally have the dynamic offense they've been dreaming of since just before Cruz was carted off the field in Philadelphia in Oct., 2014. One preseason game and one catch doesn't mean he's back, and there's no way to know if his body will hold up all season or if he can be the same player he was in the past.
But on an otherwise dismal night, Cruz gave everyone hope that "The Return" he's been trumpeting for so long is finally about to happen - hope that he can add a dimension that the Giants' offense clearly lacks.
"It felt good," is how Cruz described his long-awaited comeback.
It felt to everyone else, too.