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Giants' Victor Cruz finally feels like an athlete again

Giants receiver Victor Cruz has reclaimed his primary identity after two grueling years. Michael Reaves/Getty Images

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Victor Cruz would rather not think back to last November. That might have been the low point from a deep pool of difficult moments he has faced throughout the past two years.

The thought of being stuck on his couch watching television, his left leg in a boot following calf surgery which ended his 2015 season for the New York Giants without a single snap, still stings.

At that point, the imprints on those couch cushions were still fresh. A year earlier, Cruz was laid up in that same spot, only with his right leg dangling following knee surgery. Cruz tore the patellar tendon -- one of the worst injuries possible for an explosive wide receiver -- in his right knee on Oct. 12, 2014, when he went to make a catch in the corner of the end zone during a Sunday night game in Philadelphia. It was so gruesome and painful, his shrieks still echo in the heads of some of those who were on the field.

That was the beginning of a long journey that threatened Cruz’s identity. As he rehabbed his knee, then his calf (and even to a degree when he dealt with a groin injury this summer), it prompted a strange, unfamiliar reaction. For the first time in his life, he didn’t even feel like an athlete.

“Because you’re always recovering,” Cruz reminisced last week as the Giants prepared to face the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football. “You’re always rehabbing, always coming back from something, so you don’t necessarily feel like an athlete during those times.”

It was a sad feeling he hid well for the better part of two years, always flashing that trademark smile. But Cruz is back now, leaving his impression on the field rather than those well-worn cushions. He has made key fourth-quarter catches in each of the Giants’ first three contests, which included the Week 1, game-winning touchdown against the rival Dallas Cowboys in his first regular-season game in 700 days.

It’s only appropriate that Cruz’s return from such an extended layoff included a storybook ending. This is a player who almost never received his opportunity in college, who went from an undrafted and unknown wide receiver from UMass to salsa-dancing New York Giants star and Super Bowl champion. The Victor Cruz story was already flush with improbable tales.

The patellar tear was supposed to close that chapter. It is right up there with the Achilles tear as a skill players’ worst nightmare, and it was Cruz’s right knee that disbanded that ugly night in Philadelphia. Throw in the calf injury and the groin problem, and Cruz’s on-field successes appeared more improbable than ever.

But Victor Cruz's career path is one that always seems to defy logic. It’s trending that way again.

Cruz has 11 receptions for 195 yards and a touchdown after three weeks of what is taking shape to be a remarkable comeback. Very few -- if any -- skill-position players have returned from a patellar tear to play at close to their previous level.

Cruz and his longtime trainer, Sean Donellan, are aware. They researched and studied the injury and returned with few promising names and cases. Former running back Cadillac Williams was one of the few they found to have moderate success upon his return.

It didn’t matter. Somehow Cruz remained upbeat, never once believing others’ assessment that his career might be over.

“There are certainly days where you see it’s tougher than others. But never to the point where … put it this way: I’ve never, ever, in seven years we’ve been training together during training or rehab or any of the situations, I’ve never had to stop and be like, ‘Hey, get your head out of your ass and let’s go,’” said Donellan, director of sports performance for the New York Islanders. “Never. Not once.”

The grind

Training can be enough to make players retire. But it’s nothing compared to rehab, the ugly stepchild to training. There are few things less enjoyable to an athlete than concentrating strictly on fixing their body instead of playing their game of choice.

Cruz, 29, faced the unenviable task of doubling up on rehab. One offseason it was the knee; the next it was the calf. That constant strain can mess with many minds.

“Nobody wants to not play football after you worked all your life to get here. And for damn sure you don’t want to be doing rehab for hours and hours,” fellow wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. said. “While people go home, you’re working with doctors somewhere for 2 ½ hours somewhere after working all day, just trying to get back on the field. Nobody would go through that for the fun of it. To be reinjured over and over again and consistently fight to get back on the field, I really admire his determination, his grit, his perseverance. He overcame a patellar tear. If it’s not the worst, it’s No. 2 behind an Achilles tear of injuries.”

The rehab of the knee took Cruz right up until training camp in 2015. It was a long, grueling process in which the entire leg needed to be retrained to do even the most basic things.

The calf injury pushed into the start of offseason workouts this April. Cruz and Donellan were dealing with a small, tight left calf that was weak in comparison to the other leg.

The difference this year was that Cruz was able to rehab and train before showing up to Giants training camp. Last year it was all rehab until the start of camp.

“We just didn’t have enough time [last year] to get him back to a level where we could work on his performance training,” Donellan said. “Having the surgery when they had it last year, as hard as it was for him to swallow that the calf had cost him an entire year, it was the smart thing to do because it gave him enough time to rehab and recover, and it gave him enough time to get back into the preparation and performance-training aspect of it. That served him very, very well.”

This year had a different vibe that even the groin problem couldn’t spoil. That was considered a casualty of football.

Cruz was in shape, but it’s a whole other level to be in football shape. There’s no way to really prepare for being out on the field day after day in pads in the summer heat.

“I felt different [this year] mainly because I was out there and wasn’t focused on getting through workouts,” Cruz said. “I wasn’t focused on making sure I was getting through them. I was going through these workouts getting better, feeling better, working on my craft. It didn’t feel like, ‘All right, I made it through, now I’m OK.’”

Still, his patience was tested. Cruz had practiced last summer. He did the same early this year in training camp before the groin problem surfaced. But that elusive game remained a constant ghost he continued to chase.

Despite the continual setbacks, Beckham, a close friend and teammate, refused to doubt it would happen.

“Never, ‘cause I know how he is, what kind of person he is," Beckham said. “He was going to do whatever it took to get back on the field. He took a lot of criticism during that time period as far as people not understanding football is only one part of your life. It’s everything, but it’s not everything in a sense. At the end of the day, there will be life without football. He’s set himself up well after football. People took that that he doesn’t care about football that much.”

Cruz cares. He has things to do before he’s done. Among them were making sure his 5-year-old daughter Kennedy remembered her father as a football player, not a hospital patient.

“It helped me keep my focus right. It reminded me who I do this for and why I do this and who I want to watch me out there on this field,” Cruz said. “That was a big thing for me, making sure she knew her father was a football player and was able to watch these games and show that her father was out there playing.”

"While people go home, you're working with doctors somewhere for 2 1/2 hours somewhere after working all day, just trying to get back on the field. Nobody would go through that for the fun of it. To be reinjured over and over again and consistently fight to get back on the field, I really admire his determination, his grit, his perseverance."
Odell Beckham Jr., on Victor Cruz

Finally back

The groin strain KO’d Cruz’s first two preseason games this summer. His return appropriately came against the New York Jets in late August. Some of Cruz’s biggest games and moments came against the Jets.

For the first time in almost two years, he made it on the field in a game setting. Cruz saw enough to feel optimistic. There was a double move that got him open deep and a few body movements that had him encouraged. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step in the right direction.

“I thought he was rusty, but moving well,” Donellan said. “I saw him accelerate well or put the brakes on well.”

Cruz played again several days later against the New England Patriots. It was little more than a tune-up for the real thing. In Texas against the Cowboys would be the real return, almost 23 months in the making.

Cruz started against the Cowboys in Week 1. He didn’t do much, until the Giants needed him most. On a third-down play with 6:13 left in the game, Cruz sidestepped traffic across the middle of the field and floated himself open for the game-winning touchdown.

Cruz dusted off the salsa, celebrated with his teammate and jogged to the sideline. There he yelled to the crowd and released almost two years of pent-up frustration which he hid so well.

“It just felt like a relief,” Cruz said. “I was finally able to exhale and say, ‘OK, I got my feet back under me. I’m out here playing again and I feel good.’ That was the biggest thing for me. Not just being out there, but feeling like you can do the same things, feeling you can achieve the same things you’ve done in years prior. That was the biggest thing for me.”

Cruz made the play of the game again in a Week 2 win over the Saints. He caught a contested deep pass down the right sideline with a defender draped all over him with 1:49 remaining.

Two games, two times coming through when the drama level was highest. Only Cruz.

In Week 3, he made a key third-down reception on the Giants’ final drive. Even though that comeback fell short, as a whole, it has been quite an enjoyable start to a comeback he envisions only getting better.

“[These three weeks have] been great,” Cruz said. “It was an exhilarating feeling just being able to come back and feel like an athlete again, to feel part of this team again. I’m just building off that.”

The future

Of the doubters who were there throughout the climb, some still remain. Can Cruz keep it up? Is he the same player? Can he be anything more than a contributor, they ask?

It’s all part of the territory coming off the patellar tear, given the limited examples of success. Williams is the best there is to offer at this point. Not that Cruz seems to care.

“I want to break the mold on other things. Not on injuries,” he said. “But I’m aware of it.”

The results have been encouraging. Cruz is making plays and filling an invaluable role as a leader.

“Just feeling I can do all these things I always did and continuing to build on that,” Cruz said. “And getting better each and every week.”

One by one, he seems to be making those doubters disappear. Who cares if he suffered the dreaded patellar tear?

This is Cruz’s opportunity to rewrite history. Opportunity is knocking to write another unexpected storybook ending.

And why not? It’s what Cruz has done his entire career.

“There’s always a first,” Donellan said. “Well, soon there will be some poor guy going through [a patellar tear]. And there will be a coach who can turn around and say, Vic Cruz did it. Him and Sean got through it together; we can get through it together.”