Cruz grows up in win over Eagles

PHILADELPHIA -- To understand how an unknown, undrafted and unwanted football player named Victor Cruz suddenly grew up as a New York Giant, you have to understand how he suddenly grew up as a man.

He was walking toward the bus outside Lincoln Financial Field, the winners' bus, when Cruz disclosed that his father and hero -- a Paterson, N.J. firefighter named Michael Walker -- took his own life four years back.

"It was difficult at first," Cruz said, "but I understood it was my turn to be the man of the house and I had a lot of responsibility. So it weighed on me for quite a while. I had to overcome it someday.

"I had to do it. My mom, my sister, my older sister -- there were a lot of people I had to take care of. It was a big deal for me."

A much bigger deal than his very first time with the Giants' first team, when Cruz was the last playmaker on the field anyone expected to settle the NFC East score between the Giants and Philadelphia Eagles.

Back in Paterson, watching on TV, Blanca Cruz was talking on the phone with her son's girlfriend just as Eli Manning was about to drop back to pass. "I just want a regular-season touchdown so Victor can be validated as an NFL player," the mother told the girlfriend.

Then Eli threw the ball down the left side of the field. "And we just started screaming," Blanca Cruz said. "It was unbelievable. As soon as I said it, it happened."

Her boy was deking one Eagle, dodging another, and racing for paydirt. Cruz felt those two defensive backs -- Kurt Coleman and Nnamdi Asomugha -- collide in his wake, and it was only the best feeling in the world.

Cruz was actually doing a touchdown dance in an NFL end zone, celebrating a 74-yard score. "It was great to get all those negative comments off my back," Cruz said.

He looked bad in the Washington opener, and entered Week 3 with a lousy two catches and 17 yards to his name. He was still a nice little story before this game in Philly, still the receiver who didn't receive a single major-college scholarship offer out of Paterson Catholic, still the guy who was twice booted out of UMass and who needed to take online courses and classes at two community colleges to earn his way back to Amherst.

But the Giants couldn't afford for Cruz to be a nice little story anymore, a local kid who took a job at the Garden State Mall before he made good. With Mario Manningham out and Domenik Hixon done, with Eli desperate for the kind of difference maker Michael Vick had in full supply, the Giants needed Cruz to be a football player, and a dynamic one.

"It's your time to shine," general manager Jerry Reese told him before the game. "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 told his boss he was ready to go, the same thing he'd told his mother on a Friday night visit to Blanca Cruz's home.

"I'm so focused, Mommy," Victor assured her. "I'm so ready to do this."

He was ready to shock the Eagles, if not the world.

Cruz wasn't stopping at one touchdown, not when his Giants needed two. With 8:07 to go, Eagles up by a 16-14 count, Manning heaved a ball toward the goal line and regretted it on release. Asomugha -- the otherworldly cover man and a taller, more athletic player than the 6-foot Cruz -- was tracking the ball along with Eagles safety Jarrad Page.

It was a jump ball all the way. Cruz went up with the attitude, Manning said, "that either I'm going to catch it or nobody, and that's what he did."

Cruz recovered his own fumble after the ball crossed the line, and then sweated out the officials' review. The refs didn't take it away from him, not on this day.

"I see a guy who's got natural playmaking ability," Manning said of Cruz, "which is always a plus."

Eli had a big day, and so did Ahmad Bradshaw and the Giants' depleted secondary. Kevin Gilbride, offensive coordinator, pitched a near perfect gameplan, and Tom Coughlin badly outcoached Andy Reid, who played the fourth-and-1 fool in setting up the Giants' winning score and who allowed Vick to return to the game with an injured right hand.

Vick was twice hit in the head by pass-rushers, and was so battered afterward that he claimed to be the victim of a double-standard imposed by refs who protect other quarterbacks in ways they don't protect him.

The Giants didn't care. They only cared that they ended a six-game losing streak to their divisional tormentors, and eased the haunting memory of December's meltdown in the Meadowlands.

They only cared that they left town with a 2-1 record, and left the Dream Team Eagles a game south of .500. They only cared their former receiver, Steve Smith, cost Philly seven points on its first drive by letting an easy catch bounce off his hands and into the grasp of Aaron Ross, setting up the first touchdown.

The Giants only cared that a Smith replacement, Victor Cruz, grew weary of everyone reminding him that he needed to seize an unexpected opportunity.

"If I had a nickel for every time I heard that," said Cruz, who earns a salary of $450,000, "I'd probably be a millionaire. So it was just [driven] in every week, every day, every hour. Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity."

He lost his opportunity last year to a hamstring injury, this after LeBron James, of all scouts, watched Cruz shred the Jets in the preseason and tweeted that the undrafted rookie would make it in the league.

Cruz wasn't about to let this season get away from him. Before Sunday's game, he stepped into the end zone and said a prayer to his father, the Cowboys fan who would've loved watching his son make it as a Giant.

"I asked him to guide me throughout the game," Cruz said. "He's always on my mind. I'm glad he could see me from up above, see me do well today."

Blanca Cruz said the exact circumstances of Michael Walker's death remain unconfirmed, but that her son is very much living out his father's dream and drawing inspiration from his memory. Victor draws strength from his mother's love and wisdom, too.

From Paterson, Blanca Cruz said she helped shepherd her son away from gangs and drugs and toward baseball, karate and tae kwon do. And football. All these years later, Victor called her from a stadium in Philly as a grown-up star in the NFL.

"I just told my son, 'Wow, that was awesome,'" Blanca Cruz said. "We were so happy on the phone that we couldn't stop laughing.

"And then maybe I cried a little bit."

Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." Sunday Morning with Ian O'Connor can be heard every Sunday, 9-11 a.m., on ESPN New York 1050.