Cruz, Nicks spell double trouble for foes

A New York story: On Tuesday night, 90 minutes away from the chaos of the city, all hell broke loose at the largest mall in the Hudson River Valley. Victor Cruz, a young receiver with model-esque looks and his very own place in the New York Giants' record books, was in Poughkeepsie for an autograph signing. Thanks to a breakneck football schedule, a newborn daughter and an inability to say no, Cruz was running late. "He's coming!" yelled a gray-haired man standing near the Piercing Pagoda as Cruz finally bounded down the steps, flanked by police officers. When he got to the bottom, Cruz looked around and flashed an embarrassed smile. The lines snaked all the way up the second floor.

According to at least one observer, Cruz has a problem. He takes too long to sign autographs. While most athletes keep their heads down and scribble away, Cruz insists on making eye contact with the fan and carefully swooping through his name. Because of that personal touch, the lines were still backed up past 9 p.m., when the mall was about to close. But Cruz said he was staying. He wasn't going anywhere until everything was signed.

"This is fun, man," he said. "You get to hang out with the people.

"I remember a time when nobody wanted my autograph. When nobody knew who I was and nobody cared."

That time wasn't much more than a year ago.

A New York story: Ramses Barden has the most unfortunate of locker stalls at the Giants' facility. He is situated between Cruz and Hakeem Nicks, which means he can barely towel off after practice without having 50 cameras and digital recorders invading his space.

Nicks was the one to blame Monday. He is officially a superstar, a recently turned-24-year-old whose Hail Mary catch this past weekend was the defining moment in the Giants' 37-20 win over the reigning Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers. Nicks is more low-key than Cruz. For years, despite his massive talent, Nicks was so quiet that he faded into the background. His high school coach mistakenly called him "Hassan" for two seasons, and Nicks just sheepishly smiled back.

Sometimes Nicks will say something that in print might sound cocky, but it's delivered in a matter-of-fact, monotone voice that is meant to be humble.

He has 280 receiving yards and four touchdowns in two playoff games, and on Monday, in the afternoon scrum that kept Barden from his locker, Nicks said something about how he is 60 minutes from his dream -- a trip to the Super Bowl -- and that yeah, the Hail Mary was great, but he can do better.

"Honestly," he said, "I don't think you've seen nothing yet."

Separately, they were just two random stories swallowed up by a giant city before this 2011 season. Collectively, they've now changed history. Cruz and Nicks each eclipsed 1,000 receiving yards this season, which might not seem like a big deal in NFL circles, but it's the first time in Giants franchise history that it's been done by two receivers in one year.

They have helped change the identity of an offense that for decades was built around a bruising ground game. They have helped quarterback Eli Manning to his best season and will play in their first NFC Championship Game at 6:30 p.m. ET Sunday in San Francisco.

"They've got to be one of the most formidable, most productive receiving corps in the league," former Giants receiver Amani Toomer said.

"It's amazing when you think about the Victor Cruz story. At the beginning of the year, he barely makes the team. [Nicks] was a first-round draft pick, but when they drafted him, I think a lot of people were like, 'Huh? Who?'"

Receivers, traditionally, are some of the loudest and most temperamental characters in an NFL locker room. Cruz and Nicks, who are close friends, do not spout off, nor do they seem to crave the New York spotlight that has found them these days. They are alike in many ways, from their hardscrabble backgrounds to their knack for shaking defenders to their deep affection for their daughters.

They know how close they came to never being a story at all.

For proximity's sake, we'll start in Victor Cruz's hometown. It sits just three highways and 15 minutes from MetLife Stadium, in a town called Paterson, N.J. Paterson isn't exactly a place where young NFL players go to settle down -- it has an unemployment rate of 16 percent and a median household income of $34,000. Women are often the head of the household in Paterson, and Cruz's home was no exception.

His mother was quiet and strong, and clearly the biggest influence in his life. It was Blanca Cruz who worked and scrimped to send Victor to Paterson Catholic High School in the hopes that he wouldn't be lured into drugs and gangs, and it was Blanca who provided her son with the appropriate kick in the rear when he was flunking out of college at UMass around the time of his father's death in 2007.

"I think Vic has always fed off of her," said Benjie Wimberly, Cruz's coach at Paterson Catholic. "Sometimes, you have parents who aren't always positive. I think she always saw a bigger picture for him."

Wimberly is probably the best person to talk to about all of this, about Paterson, about the kid he always calls Vic. He's known Cruz since he was a little kid and considers him family. Paterson Catholic was shuttered a couple of years ago, but Wimberly is still active in a lot of his boys' lives.

On Monday night, he wants to meet at the old high school. It's not much.

It's funny, now, the efforts they undertook to get that old football field ready for ballgames. The field sat at the bottom of a hill, and of course there was no money for a drainage system. So after any measurable rain, there were giant puddles everywhere, and a volunteer coach would pour gasoline in the puddles and light them on fire.

"That's a true story," Wimberly said. "It was in such bad shape."

Oh, there were stars who came through Paterson Catholic, big, athletic football players who went on to major-college football. Cruz just wasn't one of them. He'd probably say he was bigger, but Cruz stood just 5-foot-9 and 160 pounds, and every time a coach came in to look at another player, Wimberly pushed Cruz hard, and the visiting college coach usually smiled and dismissed him by saying, "Thanks. Send us a tape."

If one of them would just watch the tape, Wimberly knew they'd love him. The kid, he'd tell them, could dunk a ball at 5-9. And he could make just about any catch on the field. He was fast and tough. Nothing ever got to him. Whenever things looked bad, Cruz would simply say, "I got this under control, Coach."

The University of Massachusetts and Delaware were the only schools to offer scholarships. Cruz picked UMass, a school in Amherst, Mass., that is highly regarded for its academics but not-so regarded for its football. "You're not going to get the same shot as the guys at the bigger schools," said former UMass teammate Jeromy Miles, who did get noticed and is now a safety for the Cincinnati Bengals. "You look at all the opportunities to make big-time plays, and hopefully you get on TV and somebody notices you."

Cruz made big-time plays. And nobody, it seemed, noticed. He waited through two days of the draft in 2010 and never got a phone call. The Giants were the only team that rang in the hours after the draft. And when New York gave him that tryout offer, there were no guarantees, just an offseason with the team to prove what he could do. Cruz was elated. All he wanted was a shot.

The preseason opener was mind-blowing. He scored three touchdowns against the Jets, which prompted a tweet from LeBron James. Cruz survived the final cuts, played three games, then hurt his hamstring and went on injured reserve. In the summer of 2011, after dropping a number of passes in camp, there were whispers of Cruz being a one-hit wonder, and he had to know he was playing for his life. The Giants brought in veteran receiver Brandon Stokley, which worried Wimberly. He knew it meant Cruz was in trouble.

But Cruz said he never felt the pressure. He had this under control, Coach. Injuries to Mario Manningham and Domenik Hixon vaulted Cruz from being the No. 4 receiver to a man who had to deliver, and he did. He made three catches for 110 yards and three touchdowns against the Eagles. He wound up breaking an eight-decade-old franchise record with 82 catches for 1,536 yards. And Paterson's excitement over the Giants grew with each game.

On Monday night, Wimberly sat at a barbershop in Paterson while three of his sons got haircuts. One of the kids was playing "Madden NFL 12." Victor Cruz was on his team.

"He's like a city investment," Wimberly said. "I don't want to put the weight of the world on him, but he really is like the picture of hope right now for us. Because you're talking about a multicultural kid, half-black, half-Puerto Rican, a great personality, a story of perseverance.

"He wasn't a first-round draft pick, he didn't go to the University of Miami. You can say, 'Look, if Victor can do this, if Victor can remain humble, if Victor can overcome all these obstacles, you know what? You kids can, too.'"

A quick glance at Hakeem Nicks' bio page would suggest that he's the one who had it easy. He grew up in the warm climes of Charlotte, N.C., collected a number of accolades at the University of North Carolina and was selected by the Giants in the first round of the 2009 draft. This is where, if Nicks had his way, his background would end. He prefers not to dwell on the other stuff.

The first thing most people notice when they meet Nicks is that he has massive hands. Cruz noticed them when they shook hands and introduced themselves. Nicks' middle school football coach got to calling them "bear paws." Albemarle Road coach Thomas "Frosty" Farrior met Nicks when the kid was in sixth grade. He approached Farrior, said hi and told him he was going to play football for him next year.

"Son, don't talk me to death," Farrior recalled telling Nicks. "Just play football and show me what you can do."

Farrior eventually learned more about Nicks' home life, how he grew up in a bad neighborhood full of drugs on the west side of Charlotte, how some people around Nicks had run afoul of the law. (Nicks' two brothers have spent time in prison.) "I won't let you slip through the cracks," Farrior used to tell Nicks. He gave the kid his phone number and said he was available anytime. They talked about things, about life and dreams and staying on a straight path.

When Nicks began high school at Independence, a powerhouse football school in Charlotte, he needed all the support he could get, especially when he got lost on a loaded team that didn't lose a game in Nicks' four years of high school.

Today, former Independence coach Tom Knotts, one of the most successful high school football coaches in the country, will chuckle and say he was a bad talent evaluator back then. He did not start Nicks at wide receiver until late in his high school career. But Independence already had a star receiver in Mohamed Massaquoi, a future Georgia recruit and NFL draft pick. Most kids had a Pop Warner coach who bragged the kid up. Nobody did that for Nicks. So Knotts knew only two things about the underclassman: He was freakishly strong in the hips, an asset that would make him a devastating blocker; and he said very little. So Nicks played tight end, rarely getting the chance to showcase his leaping ability, his strength or his speed.

"He played tight end very well for us, and didn't talk about [his life] very much," Knotts said. "By all appearances, he did lead this little quiet, charmed life. But as it turned out, there were quite a few issues that he dealt with."

And when Knotts accidentally called him by the wrong name, Nicks didn't say a thing except, "Yes sir." He apparently didn't mind being in the background because it meant he didn't have to talk. But the summer of his junior year, in 7-on-7 drills, Nicks was no longer anonymous. Everywhere the ball was lofted, Nicks seemed to catch it.

Eventually, Knotts introduced him to then-North Carolina coach John Bunting, and when Bunting saw what he could do, he immediately offered him a scholarship. Nicks broke the freshman receiving records at North Carolina, then Bunting was fired and the Tar Heels hired Butch Davis, who had coached Michael Irvin, Reggie Wayne and Andre Johnson during stints in Miami and Dallas.

"He was 18, 19, 20 going on 40," Davis said. "He was just serious. I can't tell you where that came from, whether he was forced to grow up fast and accept responsibility on his own. Some kids you worry about. When it was nighttime, I never lost any sleep worrying that he was going to be a guy on the front-page headlines. He just had a great sense of maturity."

Oftentimes, coaches try to talk underclassmen out of leaving school early to enter the NFL draft. But Nicks' case was different, Davis said. He had a baby daughter to support. He knew it was time.

Nicks was selected with the 29th overall pick in the 2009 draft and started six games as a rookie. In Week 1 of the 2010 season, he caught three touchdown passes against the Carolina Panthers. He spent extensive time in the film room and finished with a 1,000-yard season.

In 2011, Nicks clearly established himself as one of the best receivers in the NFL. He finished the regular season with 1,192 receiving yards despite missing a game with a hamstring injury. Manning trusts him and has gone to him often in the postseason. Nicks' 37-yard catch in the end zone Sunday came in the final seconds before halftime. In different parts of the South, Butch Davis, Tom Knotts and Thomas Farrior watched Nicks jump up for the ball in a pile of jerseys. Each of them knew that Nicks would catch it.

Farrior jumped out of his recliner when it landed in Nicks' hands. He couldn't help it. He yelled.

"What a catch!"

The visitors locker room was thinning out Sunday night when Cruz stood at his stall, impeccably dressed in a suit, trying to make sense of what had just happened. The Packers had come into the night with a 15-1 record and were seemingly unbeatable; the Giants nearly didn't make the playoffs.

The mood was celebratory but not over the top, almost as if they had known this was going to happen. Actually, they had. A few players laughed and randomly cracked on about Aaron Rodgers' "discount double-check" commercial. Cruz was calm and collected. He did an interview in Spanish with a Latin-American outlet, then dissected The Catch. Cruz had locked in on the ball and was about to jump for it, too. But then he saw Nicks sort of by himself.

"And then I'm like, 'No, I'm going to let Hakeem do what he does,'" Cruz said.

Nicks caught the jump ball and cemented himself into Giants history. And Cruz found his friend and slapped him on the helmet. They are genuinely happy for each other's success, they say, and it actually sounds believable.

"You can sense a brotherhood amongst the receivers," veteran kicker Lawrence Tynes said. "They don't have the typical diva No. 1 wideout kind of persona. Neither one of them. They both study a lot of film; they're both very quiet.

"But they're both good teammates. It doesn't matter who gets the ball, who gets the yards. They are, to me, two of the most solid guys in this locker room."

They pored over film and caught footballs from Manning at Hoboken High School during the summer, just to develop a special connection. They are so smooth together now. Nicks might be quiet, but he has offered a couple of pieces of advice for Cruz. When Cruz was a rookie and trying to survive, he told him to play his game and everything would work out. He had no doubt Cruz was going to make it. He was too talented not to.

And when Cruz's daughter, Kennedy, was born earlier this month, Nicks' advice was simple: Stay calm.

Nicks figures there will be a time, someday, when they sit down together and talk about deep stuff -- where they've come from and how it helped get them here.

But he doesn't really want to talk about any of that stuff right now. It's time to play football. Sixty minutes to his dream. Twenty-four very hard years to get there.

"Everybody got a story in their life," Nicks said. "Everybody's got a testimony. I feel like we've been placed in a situation that we've been very blessed to be a part of each other's lives."

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @MerrillLiz. Follow ESPN_Reader on Twitter: @ESPN_Reader.