PHILADELPHIA -- Three years ago, Victor Cruz introduced himself to America in the Philadelphia Eagles' end zone. He was an undrafted kid out of UMass making his first NFL start, and he did not end his day by outjumping and outrunning the home team's secondary on the way to two scores.
No, Cruz had more to say and do on Sept. 25, 2011, the first day of the rest of his life. On his way to the New York Giants' bus, Cruz talked about his hero and father, a Paterson, New Jersey, firefighter named Michael Walker, and explained how Walker's suicide had forced him to become a man.
Cruz helped the Giants win the Super Bowl that year, their run really starting on his 99-yard touchdown and punctuating salsa dance against the Jets on Christmas Eve. He became a star and later a team captain, and when he went up for that fourth-down ball in the corner of the end zone Sunday night at Lincoln Financial Field, Giants down 20, everyone figured Cruz was about to put his desperate team back in the game.
Everyone figured Cruz was about to dance like he did in Philly in 2011, when he was an NFL nobody about to become a big somebody back in New York.
But there would be no catch and no rhythmic celebration on this night. As he ascended toward Eli Manning's lob, Cruz tore the patellar tendon in his right knee and crash-landed in a heap.
He grabbed his knee as teammates rushed to his aid near the far pylon, circling him and taking a knee and praying as it quickly became apparent that this was no strain or sprain.
"It was tough to say anything to him," Manning said. "I kind of went there and patted him on the shoulder, but he was in some pain. It wasn't a great opportunity. Anything I would've said he wouldn't have heard me."
Cruz was loaded onto the back of a cart, his head buried in his gloves as he sobbed over the pain and the season stolen from him on an innocent leap. As the cart slowly passed the Giants' sideline, players and staffers reached out to touch him. Cruz wrapped his left hand around the shoulders of the trainer riding with him, Byron Hansen, and kept crying into the right hand planted hard against his eyes.
Soon enough the cart was down the stadium's tunnel and out of view. NBC's Josh Elliott would tweet that he saw Cruz order his stretcher on wheels to stop so he could "cheer up two NYG fans watching him pass."
As soon as this 27-0 defeat was complete, Giants coach Tom Coughlin was calling Cruz's loss "incredible" and "huge" and spoke of the respect the receiver had earned among his teammates.
It was a freak injury under freak circumstances. The Giants had already scored a touchdown on that third-quarter drive on Larry Donnell's juggling act, only to have it wiped out by a holding call. On fourth-and-goal, his Giants trying to recover from the Will Beatty penalty, Coughlin almost decided to play it safe and kick the field goal.
Had the Donnell touchdown counted, or had Coughlin gone for the three points, the Cruz injury doesn't happen. At least not on that play.
But happen it did. And when Cruz went down, nothing else about this nightmare night in Philly really mattered.
"When something like that happens," Coughlin said, "everyone is grieved."
It was a devastating end to a strange week. The trash-talk leading into this game amounted to a low-rent drama, starting with the Giants defensive backs who posed for a photo with a superfan bent on mocking Philly's empty Super Bowl trophy case. The Eagles tweeted out a Bradley Cooper video that ridiculed New Yorkers, and another video that reduced Manning to a cowering, cartoonish wreck, and Jason Pierre-Paul used some not-so-funny math to make the point the Eagles were a fortunate bounce or two away from being a winless team.
The Eagles were the ones who ended up walking the talk. Even on a cool October night, playing defense against Chip Kelly's fast break was as tough on the lungs as running an afternoon's worth of wind sprints in the middle of August.
Things were worse for the Giants on the other side of the ball. A few days after Manning's father, Archie, spoke of the tremendous respect his son has for the Giants' offensive line coach, Pat Flaherty, Eli took a vicious pounding from the Philly pass rushers who were blasting through Flaherty's boys as if they were swinging doors in a Wild West saloon.
Manning did look about as frightened as he was in that Eagles video, and who could blame him? Connor Barwin was tormenting Justin Pugh on his way to tormenting the quarterback Pugh is paid to protect, and Barwin finished with half of the Eagles' six sacks of Manning. Giants left guard Weston Richburg became the reddened face of the line's frustration by committing a hopelessly dumb 15-yard offense.
"These aren't the '85 Bears we're playing," Coughlin told NBC at halftime.
It only seemed that way.
"I take full responsibility for it," Coughlin said of the shutout.
But in the losers' locker room, the loss of Cruz hurt more than the final score ever could. Long after the receiver was sent to the hospital for an overnight stay, the Giants' medical staff gathered in a room and studied the images of Cruz's wrecked knee.
It was hard to believe that Cruz could be hurt so badly on a non-contact play, or that he suffered so dearly in the same building where he had first made his name.
Before that September game in 2011, Cruz walked into the end zone and prayed to his late father, asking him for guidance. The Giants' general manager, Jerry Reese, had already told Cruz what was expected of him, undrafted or not.
"It's your time to shine," Reese said back then. "You're going to be out there with the first group. If you're going to do anything, it's time to do it now."
Cruz scored on a 74-yarder after Nnamdi Asomugha and Kurt Coleman collided with each other in pursuit. Later, when Manning heaved one up toward the goal line, Cruz beat Asomugha and Jarrad Page to the jump ball. The Giants' touchdown-maker then called his mother, Blanca, who had been watching on TV in her Paterson home.
Three years later, back at the Linc, Victor Cruz couldn't make the play in the end zone. His knee gave out on him, gave out on his million-to-one story, and now the reeling Giants are the ones facing the longest of odds.