Reporting from New York -- They stood so close there was barely room to breathe, their cellphone cameras raised and at the ready. Hundreds of New York Giants fans crammed into a Times Square sporting goods store last week, some waiting for three hours, hoping to catch a glimpse of the city’s newest Super Bowl-bound sensation.
Some fans wore crisp Victor Cruz jerseys, while others sported newly minted T-shirts reading “Cruuuuuuuz” on the front — the Giants cheer that sounds like booing — with a diagram of salsa steps on the back, the star receiver’s touchdown celebration of choice. Eight TV cameras were there to capture the scene too, with reporters giving live updates.
“Cruz just has a charisma to him,” said Arkady Krutkovich, a devoted Giants fan since his family moved to New York from Russia in 1982. “He’s a hometown story.”
Or close enough. Cruz was raised in Paterson, N.J., a blue-collar community about 22 miles northwest of Manhattan — a city now festooned in Giants blue. In four months, he has gone from a guy just happy to be on an NFL 53-man roster to a secondary-smashing, salsa-swiveling rock star, who was escorted into this appearance by two beefy New York police officers and an entourage that included a publicist and Roberto Clemente Jr., son of the late baseball icon.
“A year ago, I was just trying to make the team, to show the coaching staff I had some talent,” said Cruz, who signed with the Giants last season as an undrafted rookie from the University of Massachusetts. “Now, to come in and be the guy that the team looks to to make a play, it’s been an amazing journey. Man, I don’t want it to end.”
Nor do the Giants. Cruz, who this season replaced Steve Smith at slot receiver, scored nine touchdowns — including a 99-yarder in a pivotal victory over the Jets — and has emerged as a blisteringly fast go-to guy for Pro Bowl quarterback Eli Manning. He probably will figure prominently Sunday when the Giants play New England in Super Bowl XLVI.
Cruz punctuated many of those touchdowns with salsas, celebrations that even earned him an offer to compete on the next season of “Dancing With the Stars,” which begins in March. He declined, saying it’s too much of a time commitment at the moment and he wants to focus on football.
The celebration dance only heightens the popularity of Cruz in the Puerto Rican community, Clemente said. Cruz’s mother, Blanca, is from Puerto Rico, and the receiver is fluent in Spanish.
“Him coming up and doing the salsa thing, it’s something that Puerto Ricans are obviously very proud of,” said Clemente, who plans to visit that island with Cruz this off-season. “They identify with him immensely. Football has been taking off there in the last 20 years in Puerto Rico. The kids there are loving football and coming up with scholarships to colleges.”
Although he appeared in three games in 2010, Cruz didn’t make his first NFL catch until Week 2 of this season. As a rookie, however, he quickly got the attention of the Giants’ crosstown rivals with three touchdown catches in a 31-16 exhibition victory — the first football game at the team’s new stadium.
“I don’t even know who No. 3 is, but he looked like Randy Moss out there with those three touchdowns,” Jets linebacker Bart Scott said at the time of Cruz. The Giants changed the receiver’s number from 3 to 80 when he made the final roster.
Said Jets Coach Rex Ryan after that six-catch, 145-yard performance: “I was telling Tom [Coughlin], ‘I don’t know who this No. 3 is, but he’s pretty darn good.’ So I hope they cut him. I know one team that would be ready to sign him, and that’d be us.”
The memory of that exhibition game is still vivid for Cruz, who missed much of his rookie season because of a hamstring injury.
“I still remember it like it was yesterday,” he said last week. “I remember warming up before the game and being really, really nervous, having a lot of butterflies. I was a rookie then, so I had to wait until the second half to get into the game. It was just anxiety and I’m waiting patiently. There were a lot of thoughts running through my head. I just wanted to get out there.
“Once I got out there, I just let myself go and let myself play the game.”
Having a flair for the theatrical is nothing new for Cruz, who spent much of his time on basketball courts during his teens, honing an elusive crossover dribble that’s the stuff of legend in Paterson.
“That was his signature move,” said Jimmy Salmon, his godfather and AAU basketball coach. “He was dunking early too, in ninth grade. He’s got baseball gloves for hands; I always joked with him about that.”
Cruz’s mother relied on Salmon and others to lean on her son when his focus would start to wane. Cruz wasn’t a particularly serious student, and at least once was sent home from college because of poor grades.
“Vic’s always gotten over because of his smile,” Salmon said. “Adventurous to a fault. He always liked being where the action is, and as a teenager sometimes that’s not a great thing. He was the life of the party.”
Some distractions were far more troubling. Four years ago, Cruz’s father, Michael Walker, a firefighter in Paterson, died of an apparent suicide. Father and son were close, even though Cruz also had other male figures he turned to for guidance.
Cruz and his family have had their share of joyous moments too. On Jan. 9, his longtime girlfriend, Elaina Watley, gave birth to their daughter, Kennedy.
Asked about being a new dad, Cruz positioned his arms as if protectively cradling a football and told reporters: “Turns out I’m a natural. My hands are so big, she just fits right in.”
Even though Cruz gets the superstar treatment in Manhattan, he’s just Vic in Paterson, the smiling kid it seems everyone knew, the guy people still see when he’s stopping by to visit his mom at her apartment, or in the supermarket or the dry cleaners.
“It means a lot to have a guy that walked the same streets they walk, went to the same schools they went to, to understand that if he can do it anybody can,” he said. “It’s definitely a testament to where I’ve come from. Hopefully, they can look up to me as a role model.”
At Mr. G’s, a popular diner in Paterson, regular customers gather each morning and talk politics, talk sports and, naturally, swap stories about the local kid who has taken the Super Bowl by storm.
“Some people look down their nose at this town,” said Roy Jones, who sidled up to the breakfast bar at Mr. G’s. “But he shows that something good can come out of Paterson.”
And if Cruz has the occasion to salsa at the Super Bowl?
“This place will go nuts,” Jones said. “He’s a homeboy. Any time you have a homeboy like that, you can’t be anything but proud.”