EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Victor Cruz has had a season full of improbable moments, and the Super Bowl is set to be another.
In less than six months, the obscure second-year wide receiver from the University of Massachusetts has set a single-season receiving record for the Giants and become one of the most popular athletes in the New York area.
He catches a pass, and the crowd screams “Cruuuuuuuuuuzzzzzz!” When he scores a touchdown, he draws cheers with his celebratory salsa. People even mimic his dance moves in the stands.
Now, when the Giants (12-7) face the Patriots (15-3) in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5, Cruz will get a chance to face New England safety James Ihedigbo — who served as his recruiting host when he visited UMass 4½ years ago.
Ihedigbo exchanged text messages with Cruz before the Patriots defeated the Baltimore Ravens 23-20 in the AFC title game and New York edged San Francisco 20-17 in overtime in the NFC championship game, Cruz said Thursday.
“He goes: ‘We’re going to win our game, so I’ll see you in Indy.” I was like: ‘I’ll see you in Indy,’ and here we are.”
Cruz has fond memories of his time at UMass.
“It was a tremendous ride,” he said. “We understand how much of a small school it is, and how little guys get an opportunity to come out of that school.”
What Cruz has done with his opportunity is beyond belief. He missed most of his rookie season with a hamstring injury after making the team as a free agent — largely based on a three-touchdown performance in a preseason game against the Jets.
This year has been one eye-opening play after another, including five touchdown passes of at least 68 yards in length from Eli Manning. His 1,536 yards receiving are a single-season team record, along with his seven 100-yard games. His 82 catches in the regular season are tied for the second highest total in team history.
“That guy. Yeah, he’s a phenomenal player,” Ihedigbo said Thursday. “He really is. He’s having a terrific year. I’ve seen him do it before back in the old days in college and he’s really a terrific player. He’s having a great year, great go-to guy for Eli and Eli does a good job getting him the ball, not to mention the handful of playmakers they have across the board on that offense.”
The 25-year-old is coming into the title game after catching 10 passes for 142 yards in New York’s win over the Niners in the rain. He has never been more confident.
After recently speaking to another Paterson native — Mike Adams of the Browns — Cruz said it is finally sinking how much has changed for him this year.
Adams has played in the NFL for 11 years and has never made the playoffs.
“That really say a lot about how fortunate I am just to be here,” Cruz said. “For a guy like that, who has paid his dues in this league, and he’s never made it to the postseason, it’s tough. It shows you how tough this league is and how hard it is to win each and every week. I am just a fortunate guy and it is starting to sink in how rare my story is and how far I have come.”
Cruz understands how lucky he is. He was somewhat of a longshot to make the Giants in 2010 until he opened eyes with that preseason game against the Jets.
“I was a rook and I had to wait until the second half to get in the game,” he said. “It was just anxiety and I am waiting patiently and there were a lot of thoughts running through my head. I just wanted to get out there. Once I got out there, I let myself go and played the game. Playing in that game taught me a lot about the league and a lot about myself. It was an important game, especially with my family there.”
The big game for Cruz this season was the third one, when he got his first start with Mario Manningham out with a concussion.
Cruz caught five passes for 110 yards, scoring on touchdowns of 74 and 28 yards.
“It was huge,” Cruz said. “That was my first start and there were questions in the receiver room. I just want to come out and prove I could play. I just wanted to make sure I caught everything that came my way, every ball and I was fortunate enough to do some really positive things. That’s where it really turned my confidence up and my season around.”
Now there is one more game, and Cruz is taking it one day at a time, trying to get prepared for the Patriots and Ihedigbo.