EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. - Victor Cruz was just a guy when the Giants signed him the day after the 2010 NFL draft. That's the best way to describe what he was - an irrelevant name on a list of undrafted free agents with little chance to make the roster, and almost no chance to make an impact.
He could've been anybody. He was just a guy.
That's what made the Cruz story so remarkable, and so incredible to cover for its entire seven-year run. He came out of absolute nowhere, a UDFA from UMass, to become one of the biggest stars in the NFL for a time. And no one saw it coming. Not even him.
Remember, Cruz -- who officially announced his retirement from the NFL on Tuesday -- was just a guy for a lot longer than everyone remembers. The start of his career rise is always said to be his big breakout game on Aug. 16, 2010, when he lit up the Jets and shocked their coach, Rex Ryan, for six catches, 145 yards, and three touchdowns in a preseason game. And that explosion earned him a spot on the Giants' 2010 roster, to be sure.
But that's all it did. Cruz played three games that season and didn't catch a pass before landing on injured reserve with a hamstring injury - a move that sure seemed at the time like the end of his hopes for an NFL career. The next year, he did not have a strong training camp and was very close to being one of the Giants' final cuts.
He was kept around because the Giants had lost Steve Smith the year before to a knee injury and let him go in free agency and … well, because some in the Giants' front office really liked him. And still Cruz was only the Giants' fourth receiver, until an injury to Domenik Hixon in Week 3 finally opened the door.
That's when it all happened. For the rest of that season, Cruz was as good as Odell Beckham Jr. has been. He averaged about six catches for 108 yards and scored nine touchdowns over the final 14 games. He had that critical and electric 99-yard touchdown catch in a Week 16 win over the Jets. He was a key component in what became Eli Manning's finest season. He had 10 catches for 142 yards in the NFC championship game, and caught a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl.
And when it was over, he was running around the field in Indianapolis with his helmet off, screaming, in the moments after Super Bowl XLVI. It was perhaps the most remarkable thing in sports that many of us have ever seen.
There have certainly been better seasons than his 82-catch, 1,536-yard debut. And there have been better careers than his, which produced two outstanding seasons, one good one, parts of two others, and a total of 303 catches for 4,549 yards and 25 touchdowns.
But has there been a better, more unexpected story? There haven't been many, certainly not in Giants history. His is hard to match, given the sheer volume of anonymous undrafted free agents that have passed through the NFL, most of them very, very briefly. Plenty have gone on to Pro Bowls. Several (like Vikings DT John Randle) have even gone on to the Hall of Fame. Heck, even the Giants had an unlikely Hall of Famer in T Roosevelt Brown, who was a 27th-round draft choice in 1953.
Of course, drafting back then was less sophisticated, and nowadays, there are less places where good, talented, NFL-caliber players can hide. Yet somehow Cruz did, first at UMass, which had only produced a handful of players who managed to stick in the pros, and then in plain sight when for more than a year even the Giants didn't know what they truly had. They liked Cruz. Some thought he had some potential.
But no one saw anything in him that led them to believe he'd become a star.
That's what he was, though. His amazing, Pro Bowl-caliber play, his salsa dancing, and his infectious smile opened doors for him to the celebrity world. He started hanging with Jay-Z, sitting front row at fashion shows, presenting awards at the Grammys. His salsa-dance touchdown celebration became a fan favorite. His smile was a fan favorite, too. And somehow, as he rocketed to stardom, he remained outwardly humble, grateful, and cooperative. He always somehow seemed like he was just a kid from Paterson, NJ who couldn't believe how wildly his life had turned.
His career ended far too soon, of course. It was effectively over on Oct. 12, 2014 when he suffered his horrific knee injury and had to be carted off the field in Philadelphia, screaming and crying all the way. Two years later, he returned to catch 39 passes, but the truth is he was never quite the same.
His star dimmed, but his smile didn't. Because like a kid coming off a roller coaster at an amusement park, he had just had too much fun to be sad that it was over.
That's probably how everyone felt watching Cruz over the years, because the unexpected moments are always the best in sports. The big upset. The championship season that you never saw coming. The brilliant moment from a player who wasn't supposed to be brilliant at all.
Cruz was all of that, maybe moreso than any player in Giants history. In what now seems like the blink of an eye, he went from just a guy to just a guy enjoying an incredible ride.