"I never thought this would be my life...It's a dream come true."
That's how New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz explains his ascension from undrafted wide receiver to salsa-dancing superstar. Receivers from the University of Massachusetts don't exactly have a fast track to the NFL, so Cruz never had any feelings of entitlement.
Let's take one more step back into Cruz's past.
Until his junior year at UMass, Cruz didn't even start a game. Before the 2010 NFL draft, teams weren't hot on his trail—even as an addition after the draft. Cruz wasn't invited to the combine, but what little publicity he received, he was able to get from his pro day workout. About that workout, NFL.com's Gil Brandt later wrote:
Cruz worked out at two different pro days ahead of the 2010 NFL Draft—once at his own school and once at Boston College. He didn't have great speed (running the 40 in 4.52 and 4.47 seconds at Boston College), but teams got to see what he could do as a route runner; they got to see that he had quickness and the ability to catch the ball.
Everyone remembers Cruz's preseason explosion against the New York Jets, but Cruz focuses on a practice just prior to that game as the turning point in his career:
"Rookie year during training camp: I was practicing really well and making some great catches. I think right before that Jets preseason game, I made a one-handed touchdown grab in practice. All of a sudden, it wasn't just a dream for me anymore."
Fast forward a few years, and Cruz is partnering with iTunes to create his own station on the brand-new iTunes Radio service. Saying that he relishes the opportunity to connect with fans, Cruz describes his personal station as, "My playlist that I listen to before games or when I'm on the way to the stadium." It will consist of music from artists like Jay-Z, Drake, J. Cole and Wale.
Cruz has also partnered with Pepsi to ask, "Are you Fan Enough?" He says that his own bona fides are clear when it comes to football fanaticism. He described playing football in the middle of the street—full tackle, of course—and bringing that same passion to the game today.
Yet, through three weeks of the 2013 NFL season, the Giants haven't displayed a lot of that passion to their fanbase. Are you fan enough? It might be difficult if the Giants are your team of choice these days.
Cruz didn't mince words when it came to the root cause of the Giants' problems:
"We're going through some ups and downs. Eli and I are on the same page...It looks like he and I are on the same page. As a whole, we're not getting the type of energy and intensity that we're accustomed to playing with.
"[We're] getting guys excited again, trying to build that camaraderie again. We've gotten away from doing some of the things we used to do to get that camaraderie up."
Cruz cited things like receiver-only dinners and other family-type activities as efforts that the Giants are making to get things back to normal. He also said that head coach Tom Coughlin was more excitable than usual before the Giants' 38-0 loss to the Carolina Panthers—"trying to get [the Giants] pumped up."
Bleacher Report recently put it up for debate and included Coughlin among the names of coaches that could be the first to be fired this season. Cruz immediately went to bat for his coach:
"Coach Coughlin is Giants football. He's the epitome of what the Giants represent. To see him go would be a tremendous blow. Personally, I've taken such a liking to him. He doesn't sugarcoat things. As an athlete, you respect that and try to instill that in your own life."
I asked Cruz, straight out, why Giants fans should stick around for a team that has let them down three weeks in a row and tremendously so against Carolina. Cruz replied that this isn't a long-term problem for Big Blue:
"The Giants always put their backs against the wall, but they always come out fighting. We're going to keep on fighting. It's just a bump on the road we have to get through."
For his part, Cruz gets through times like this by consistently remembering a time when he was sitting on his couch, watching the NFL draft and was witness to 255 names (including 27 wide receivers) being selected before him.
He doesn't let the fame, fortune, spotlight or Pepsi/iTunes deals cloud his focus, saying he still prepares and practices like the undrafted free agent he was a couple of years ago.
As for his famed salsa dance, Cruz promises to add something to it this season—"maybe a spin move or something"—but refuses to do so until the Giants win a game.
Even the salsa isn't just a celebration for Cruz. It's a reminder of who he is, and a call-back to a time when scoring a touchdown meant running past parking meters rather than pylons. It's a sign of his excitement for the game and his passion to continue to better himself.
If this team continues to play flat and uninspired, it will be the start of more bad times and less dancing for Cruz and his teammates. But if the rest of the Giants squad can tap into some of that passion and excitement that Cruz embodies, winning a bunch of games in 2013 shouldn't be much of a problem.
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.