It happened midway through the third quarter of a Week 6 game.
The New York Giants had tumbled down a deep, dark hole against the Philadelphia Eagles, from which there seemed no return. They trailed 20-0, a deficit that made Giants head coach Tom Coughlin crave quick points. A field goal on fourth down from Philly’s three-yard line was still a failure.
Eying a desperately needed touchdown, the Giants lined up in a three-receiver set with Victor Cruz in the right slot. Quarterback Eli Manning waited for the snap in shotgun.
Cruz stutter stepped before easily shaking Eagles cornerback Brandon Boykin on a corner route. He had a full step on Boykin, and at that point the play was routine: Cruz had to elevate slightly to secure both the ball and a touchdown.
The result, however, was far from routine. Instead it was rare and excruciating.
When Cruz rose to meet the ball his right knee buckled. He didn’t face any contact from Boykin (or anyone), which was the first sign of coming injury doom. Then screaming in agony and not being able to put pressure on the leg were the next clues.
But this wasn’t just your garden-variety muscle rip. He tore his patellar tendon, which attaches the kneecap to the lower leg. Your understatement for today: The patellar tendon is pretty important for any fully functioning human body.
A 2011 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed that between 1994 and 2004 there were only 21 patellar tendon ruptures in the NFL. That’s from Justin Shaginaw, an athletic trainer who writes for the Philadelphia Daily News. He also noted that it takes a force of roughly 17 times your body weight to tear the patellar tendon. Such a freak incident can come through contact, or in Cruz’s case, an awkward plant as he was generating the power to leap.
The initial timetable given for Cruz’s recovery was four-to-eight months. When he spoke to the media through a conference call less than a week after suffering the injury, the 28-year-old was determined to be ready for training camp and Week 1 of 2015.
"I don't have any doubt in my mind,” he said, via Jordan Raanan of NJ Advance Media. “I don't have any doubt that I'll be back.”
So the mending is progressing as planned then, right? I started there in a conversation with Cruz that touched on his rehab process and a still-lingering drive from being an undrafted player.
Bleacher Report: You suffered a rare and severe knee injury. Where are you now in the recovery process? Is Week 1 still a realistic goal?
Victor Cruz: Next week will be six months since surgery, and I’m feeling good. My leg is getting better and stronger every day. Week 1 is definitely still the goal, so we’re working every day to make sure we reach that goal.
B/R: What’s been the toughest challenge in the recovery process?
Cruz: Probably just a little bit of everything. Obviously, when you have surgery on your knee the atrophy kind of takes away all your muscles. It’s like starting from scratch and starting to build muscle around your knee while doing leg lifts, presses, squatting, box jumps and one-leg squats.
You’re just building the entire hamstring, quad and VMO (note: If you want to impress your friends at parties, that’s the Vastus Medialis Oblique, and it’s one of four muscles that make up the quadriceps). All those muscles, you’re building them from scratch. Just having to do that every day, seeing results little by little and really being diligent and disciplined to the process is the hardest part.
B/R: It sounds like you’ve reached a mindset and a positive one. Did it take you some time to reach that point immediately after the injury happened?
Cruz: It took me time when the injury initially happened. I’ve never faced an injury like this before, and I didn’t know what to think. The biggest thing I was thinking about: my teammates.
I couldn’t be around them as much as I wanted to. Obviously, while rehabbing in the training room I’d see them. But I couldn’t be around them in the way I was in weeks past, or in years past where I’d be there every day in meeting rooms and traveling.
That was the first thing that went through my mind. Next was figuring out the best rehabilitation process, understanding my injury and understanding what the process was in terms of getting back to 100 percent health.
B/R: Often the physical aspect of an injury is obvious, but we overlook the mental hurdles. Being away from your teammates has been one of your toughest challenges then?
Cruz: I love my teammates to death, and it was the first year of me being named team captain. Aside from winning a Super Bowl, that’s probably one of the greatest accomplishments I’ve had in my life. I’ve never been a captain on any team that I’ve ever been on.
So to be captain of a professional football team with my teammates choosing me was significant. It was something I held very dear. Being away from them for that year was tough, and now I just want to come back, be around them, be stronger and be held accountable for my actions while continuing to be the captain they entrusted me to be.
B/R: Before your injury you were part of a new-look offense that stumbled at first, then clicked. How much of an adjustment was Ben McAdoo’s system for you throughout training camp?
Cruz: It was tough. The biggest challenge was the terminology, the verbiage and the vocabulary you have to learn, wrapping your head around that and then applying it to the routes and the football field.
Football is a repetitive process. You hear things over and over and continue to do them in practice, then as time goes on you get better at those things.
I think as time went on last season you saw guys—especially in the receiving corps—get more comfortable. They were better at catching the football, understanding the checks and changes that Eli was making at the line and adjusting to that.
|New York Giants offensive progression in 2014|
B/R: It seemed like your offense simply needed time to establish familiarity with a new approach.
Cruz: Exactly. It’s all about just continuing to get on the same page, building a comfort level with the offense and understanding that it takes time, practice and working with Eli.
We all need to be on that same page verbally, as well as physically on the field. And I think we did that as the weeks went on.
B/R: For you especially, is it an offense that optimizes your skill set?
Cruz: Absolutely. Week 6 is when I got hurt, and prior to that I had two 100-plus yard games already (107 receiving yards against the Houston Texans in Week 3, and then 108 yards in Week 4 during a win over the Washington Redskins). I was definitely still wrapping my head around the offense at that point, but I was doing fairly well in those games.
I wanted to continue to do well and get better each week. I was getting more comfortable with the offense as the weeks went on. I think it’s definitely a system I can benefit from.
B/R: Is going undrafted still a source of motivation for everything you do in the NFL, whether it’s learning a new offense or recovering from an injury?
Cruz: It is every day. Each day I understand that I’m blessed to be in this position and where I am today after going undrafted. I chose a team that was the best fit for me, and at the time the Giants had a lot of proven receivers on their roster. I understood that but was able to overcome it.
It definitely serves as my motivation to work hard every day. I have to continue that same undrafted-free-agent mentality to be better than I was before and to never be complacent. I think complacency is a negative in any sport and in any career for that matter.
B/R: You went undrafted in 2010, and we’re deep into draft season now. The undrafted path presents difficult challenges and long odds. What’s your advice for prospects who aren’t drafted this year?
Cruz: Do your homework. I remember when I was getting ready for the draft I wrote down every team’s receiving corps, keeping track of how many receivers they had, how many of them were entering contract years and how many were rookies.
Do your homework on every team. Then if you go undrafted and have to make a decision in free agency, you can pick a team that has the fewest receivers and guys either in contract years or coming up to that point. That’s how you give yourself the best opportunity to play.
And choose a team you feel has the best offense for you to showcase your talent. Sometimes it’s sort of a gift to go undrafted, because from whatever teams are interested you can pick wherever you want to go and wherever you have the best chance to get on the field.
B/R: It sounds like you were very prepared for the possibility of going undrafted and had already done quite a bit of research.
Cruz: I was a realist. I knew I wasn’t 6’3” or 6’4” with 4.29 speed (Cruz is 6’0”, weighs 204 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds at his University of Massachusetts pro day). So I had to do the little things and show the effort and skills to make it to the next level.
Cruz’s optimism about his recovery is echoed by Giants coaches and front-office executives. But they also speak with caution.
“When a guy has a big injury like Victor had, you can’t put all your eggs in his basket,” said Giants general manager Jerry Reese to reporters at the NFL Scouting Combine.
“Our doctors say he looks good. I see him down in the training room, working out with our trainers and our medical people, and he looks good. But his game is quickness. And until you get out there and move around, you never really know how he's going to recover from that."
Though his progress is encouraging, uncertainty will hover over Cruz during the 2015 season and possibly beyond. Will he be able to cut abruptly, accelerate with short-area burst and generally be the same Victor Cruz who’s recorded 1,000-plus yards as a receiver twice over four seasons?
We’ll know in five months. Meanwhile, Cruz will keep plowing ahead with that undrafted drive, just as he has throughout his entire career.
Victor Cruz spoke with Bleacher Report while attending the Samsung Galaxy S6 launch party.