ALBANY, N.Y. -- Long before he shredded Rex Ryan's defense and had LeBron James tweeting about him, Victor Cruz sat in Pamela Marsh-Williams' office and wondered whether he would come out in one piece.
His college football career hadn't even started and Cruz was failing miserably in his classes at UMass. Now, he and his mother, Blanca, had to sit before the school's assistant provost/dean of undergraduate advising, who wanted to know why Cruz showed little regard for school.
Marsh-Williams demanded accountability, had little sympathy for one of UMass' best athletes, and told Cruz that he had failed to take advantage of the school's academic resources and now was on his own.
For two hours, Marsh-Williams lectured Cruz with more tough love than the no-nonsense Tom Coughlin ever could. If Cruz ever wanted to become an NFL player, he had to become a student first and had to help himself first.
"You know how you are a mother and you go in there to talk your child back into a school and you think you are going to do all the talking," Blanca Cruz said. "The lady just shut me down and said, 'I want to talk to him.' And she was so on point with him that my mouth dropped. She gave him a big discipline lesson. She was really, really strong with what she was telling him. [People] knew she was the meanest dean the school had."
Before Cruz became an overnight sensation and one of Google's top trending topics after a three-touchdown performance against the Jets in the preseason opener, the wide receiver almost didn't make it onto the UMass football field. He nearly became another academic cautionary tale of a talented athlete who never made it because he didn't take school seriously.
Raised by a single Puerto Rican mother in Paterson, N.J., Cruz signed a letter of intent to play at UMass in February 2004. But he would not make it to Amherst until 2005 because he didn't qualify academically and had to attend Bridgton Academy, a postgraduate school in Maine.
When Cruz finally got to UMass, he spent his redshirt year enjoying college too much. Cruz was ruled academically ineligible in 2006 and, by the spring of 2007, he was kicked out of UMass for his 1.7 grade point average. Cruz and his mother visited with Marsh-Williams to see whether there was any way he could stay in school and ask Marsh-Williams and UMass for academic help and a second chance.
As one of the toughest parts of her job, Marsh-Williams had to enforce the academic rules. But she also demanded answers from Cruz, grilling him for more than an hour about why he failed classes and let his single mother down. Blanca, who raised Cruz and his sister, watched as her son sat there and didn't say much at all.
"His mother was making a lot of personal sacrifices for him to be in school, and I was very struck by a young man who appeared to be taking that for granted," Marsh-Williams said. "It was up to him. He had to grow up and take care of his business, and there were no guarantees that he would come back. He had aspirations to play in the NFL, but he really had to be a student first and wasn't really doing anything to uphold his responsibilities in those areas."
Now a college dropout, a humbled Cruz returned to New Jersey and attended Passaic County Community College and County College of Morris. He took online classes, went to summer school and held a job at a store in the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., just to get back to UMass. At any point, he could have strayed and never made it back to college -- like so many others. But Marsh-Williams' message stuck with him like a stingy cornerback.
"It definitely scared me straight," Cruz said. "I went home and took all these classes and did what I had to do to dig myself out of that hole. Ever since that day, I have been different."
"I was in those classes at home, and I just couldn't see myself just being home and not playing football anymore. I had to get myself in order. I told myself, 'Can't take no for an answer anymore.'"
When he was accepted back into UMass for fall 2007, Cruz had one final slip-up and was suspended for the first five games of his redshirt sophomore season for an unspecified violation of athletic department policy.
He used that time to concentrate on his studies and would finally get on the field in November 2007. Three years after he committed to UMass, Cruz made his first college catch for 26 yards on the day before his 21st birthday. It was his only reception of the season.
The next year, Cruz led UMass with 71 receptions for 1,064 yards and six touchdowns. He had the single greatest game by a UMass receiver with 13 catches for 262 yards and his first two touchdowns of the season against James Madison.
After being an honorable mention All-American after his senior year, Cruz, who is half African-American and half Puerto Rican, graduated with a degree in African-American history.
However, Cruz went undrafted despite several NFL personnel visiting UMass to scout teammate Vladimir Ducasse, the offensive lineman taken in the second round by the Jets.
Only the New York Giants offered Cruz an invitation to their rookie camp. The little-known long shot made it out of rookie camp and into training camp, where he has impressed coaches and teammates daily with his work ethic and his play.
Taking advantage of the opportunities presented by injuries to other wide receivers, the personable 6-1 wide receiver stood out despite arriving with little chance to make a roster crowded with wide receivers.
And then, in the first game at the new stadium at the Meadowlands, Cruz introduced himself to the country with one hand. With cornerback Dwight Lowery draped all over his right side, Cruz somehow caught the ball with his left hand, stayed in bounds and sprinted 64 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown in the third quarter.
Marsh-Williams had the game on her television and happened to look up when Cruz made the catch. She had not been paying attention to the game, and when she heard the announcer say "Victor Cruz," she remembered the kid she had lectured in her office years ago.
"How exceptional," she thought. "I had no idea he was doing as well as he was."
With his mother and sister sitting in the stands and his half-brother on the sideline working as part of the Giants' video department, Cruz caught two more touchdowns, terrorizing Ryan's defense as HBO cameras documented the night for the network's training camp show, "Hard Knocks."
When Ryan shook hands with Coughlin at the end of the game, he said, "I don't know who No. 3 is, but holy [bleep]!"
"Justice has been served," Coughlin said to reporters after the game about Cruz's performance. "Cruz really had an outstanding camp. He has worked his tail off every day."
Cruz had become an instant household name. James tweeted about Cruz's debut, and Cruz had 700 new followers on his own Twitter page within hours. He didn't want to check his Facebook page because he had been flooded with so many friend requests. He received 200 text messages and had 70 missed calls on his cell phone.
"It's crazy," Cruz said. "Never in a million years did I even ever think about this. First I was worried about even graduating from college, let alone to be at this level and have that kind of performance on 'Monday Night Football.'"
On Saturday against Pittsburgh, Cruz will somehow have to come up with an encore. Blanca will be in the stands again, likely thinking back to how her son could've ended up anywhere in New Jersey but in the new Meadowlands stadium wearing a Giants jersey.
"He never gave up," said Blanca, 52, a customer service representative for Benjamin Moore. "I never gave up on him. I paid for a lot of classes that he had to take, classes that were $300 a credit and community college. He could have easily taken a different route. I never gave up on him, and he never gave up."