Cruz still stands as the tallest Giant

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- One year later, Victor Cruz still sounds awestruck when discussing the power of the professional athlete, the staggering impact he or she can have on the kind of fans Cruz found in Newtown, Conn., four days after a shooting at a school broke America's heart.

One day after 6–year-old Jack Pinto, one of 20 first-graders killed at Sandy Hook Elementary, was buried in a replica New York Giants jersey bearing Cruz's No. 80.

"I heard their cry," Cruz said Thursday.

So that's why he made the drive to Newtown on Dec. 18, 2012, to spend more than an hour with Jack's mother, father, and older brother. Undrafted and unwanted by the NFL, Cruz never thought he'd be in a position to use the tools of fame and fortune to help a devastated circle of strangers cope with something that cannot be coped with.

But after he was done at his locker addressing the double-teams he's faced all year, and the challenges presented by a suffocating Seattle defense, and his bid to become only the fourth receiver in Giants history to deliver three consecutive seasons of at least 1,000 yards, Cruz told ESPNNewYork.com he was thankful that his improbable success allowed him to connect with Jack Pinto's parents, Dean and Tricia, and older brother, Benjamin, in a way that's changed his own life.

"It obviously taught me that as much as we play this game and think it's about ourselves and our own families," Cruz said, "there are kids and people out there that look up to us and respect us and try to emulate us. And that was the purest form of that example, meeting with Jack Pinto's family. It was definitely an eye-opening experience I will never forget.

"You can just never take the normalcy of the day to day for granted, because tomorrow is never promised to you. You've got to be grateful for everything you have. ... And with kids out there treating football players as their heroes, we have a large responsibility to keep a positive influence, because they want to follow everything that you do. Whether we want it or not, whether you consider yourself a role model or not, you are one when you're in front of that camera."

Cruz was not looking for the cameras Thursday, or for any credit for the role he played in temporarily easing a family's pain. With Saturday representing the anniversary of the shooting that took 26 lives at Sandy Hook, the receiver was approached to talk about his emotions and actions in the wake of the tragedy, and he agreed to field some questions about the simple kindness that made him, at 6 feet, the tallest Giant of all.

Yes, he has been thinking a lot about the Pintos lately. Yes, he remains in contact with them by phone and email. No, he doesn't plan on that ever changing.

"I think I'm going to take them to a Knick game coming up pretty soon," Cruz said.

He first paid tribute to Jack's memory after finding countless messages about him and his favorite Giant -- Cruz himself -- on his Twitter feed the day after the killings. From his hotel room in Atlanta, preparing to face the Falcons the next afternoon, Cruz ended up on the phone with Jack's parents promising to do whatever he could to honor their lost boy.

Cruz dedicated the game to Jack in a tweet and posted photos of the messages he'd written on his game-day cleats and gloves. One shoe was graced with Jack's name and the words "My Hero," and the other with the message "R.I.P. Jack Pinto." The boy's name and the words "This one is 4 u!" were written on the receiver's gloves.

Cruz planned to do his salsa dance in the end zone, and to point toward the heavens as a gesture for Jack, but the visitors were blown out and Cruz was held to three catches for 15 yards. The Giants were emotionally drained before the opening kick, even if they didn't want to admit it. They played a joyless brand of football that left Cruz feeling sad.

Two days later, when he arrived at the Pinto home with his fiancée and their baby daughter, Cruz encountered an entirely different level of sadness.

"I'd heard what they did for their son," he said of the family's decision to bury Jack in his jersey, "and I wanted them to know that I was so humbled by that. I wanted to send my condolences in person, and really meet the family and explain to them how I felt. ... It just felt like the right thing to do. It felt like the thing I should've done."

Cruz sat with the Pintos in the same room where they'd watched him win the Super Bowl the season before. He gave his cleats and gloves from the Atlanta game to Jack's brother. He played Madden NFL video games with Benjamin and some neighborhood friends, and tossed around the football with them in the front yard.

"For that short snapshot of time," Cruz recalled, "those kids weren't thinking about what happened to them. They weren't thinking about the negativity that was surrounding their lives at that point. They were just enjoying their time with me ... and it was cool to see, cool that they were able to relax and enjoy that moment."

Some tears were spilled, of course. Cruz and the Pintos would talk about matters of everyday life, but before long the conversation always turned back to Jack.

"They were telling stories about how Jack felt about me and the Giants, and things he would do," Cruz said. "Just intimate stories from the family, stories that helped you bring it full circle and helped you understand it's bigger than myself, or football, or the Giants. It was about everything the Pinto family embodies."

Back at work the next morning, Cruz found his coach, Tom Coughlin, making a beeline his way. Coughlin couldn't wait to tell Cruz how incredibly proud he was of him for making the trip to Newtown, for showing everyone how true winners act after a 34-0 defeat.

"The fact that he went and did that," Coughlin said then, "speaks volumes about what he has inside."

Cruz saw the Pintos again Dec. 30 when the Giants hosted some 400 residents of Newtown during their victory over the Eagles, and again at a Knicks game. Sometime after he gains the 27 yards he needs for that third consecutive season of at least 1,000 receiving yards, a mark he'll almost certainly hit Sunday against Seattle, Cruz hopes to get the Pintos back to Madison Square Garden.

The family didn't respond to a phone message left Thursday at their home. But when a call was placed to the Pintos an hour after Cruz played in Jack's memory in Atlanta, two days after the shooting, Jack's grandmother answered the phone and said, "What [Cruz] did was a wonderful, wonderful, incredible thing, and we're so blessed that the entire world feels the same way."

So in the middle of another difficult end to another playoff-free season, Victor Cruz, at 6 feet (barely), still stands as the tallest Giant. He made his profession proud by hearing a broken family's cry.