The sense of camaraderie developed between Players, Coaches and Fans during professional sports events can make it easy to forget that they are actually businesses. Participants are often blinded by a feeling of passion and emotion, which pushes performance statistics out of their minds. Smart teams, however, try not to let emotions overrule logic. So when the New York Giants cut Victor Cruz, many realized that it was the right choice for the team overall. Somehow, that does not make the fact any easier to swallow.
The move was made on Feb. 13 as part of a salary dump in which the Giants cut both Cruz and halfback Rashad Jennings to clear over $10 million in cap space. Jennings was the obvious choice to be released, seeing as he was coming off a disappointing season and his likely contribution to the team next year would have been minimal. Cruz, on the other hand, was a bit more surprising and a lot more newsworthy.
The dynamic wide receiver is one of the fantastic underdog stories in professional sports. He entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent who grew up only a few towns away from MetLife Stadium, but he unexpectedly burst onto the scene and became a star.
It was a longshot for Cruz to even crack the starting lineup in 2011. After a dazzling preseason, he found himself not only with a secure place on the roster, but also as a fixture among the receiving core. Cruz hauled in 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns that year, inserting himself into the conversation for top wide receivers in the league. His spectacular season was packed with monumental moments, including a miraculous touchdown on Christmas Eve against the Giants’ intra-city rival, the New York Jets, that spanned the entire length of the football field. If there was any doubt beforehand, it died at that moment. Every fan in New York City knew for sure: a star had arrived.
Cruz’s breakout year ended as spectacularly as it began, ending with a touchdown catch in the Giants’ Super Bowl victory over the New England Patriots. As his impressive statistics continued to mount on the field, so did his popularity off it. Even music legend Madonna jumped on the Cruz bandwagon, saying on live television that she is very inspired by him and his story.
The following season was just as impressive for Cruz, resulting in his only Pro Bowl appearance to date. After that, things quickly started to go downhill. Numerous injuries rendered Cruz incapable of recapturing the magic that made him so elusive in seasons past. After grabbing 19 touchdowns in his first two seasons, Cruz has only managed just one touchdown each in his last two seasons.
Yet, Cruz’s struggle to stay healthy and his extreme drop in production have been forgotten by his fans, largely due to a new offensive phenomenon who has taken the city and the nation by storm. Wide receiver Odell Beckham, Jr. has replaced Cruz not only on the depth chart, but also in fans’ hearts. New Yorkers quickly traded in their number 80 jerseys for a 13, as Beckham replicated and surpassed the dominance that Cruz once displayed. The need for the undrafted underdog who capped off each touchdown with a fun-loving salsa dance has been eradicated in the wake of an aggressive first-round draft pick with a bad temper.
These two men whose meteoric rises could not be more different were once considered the scariest one-two punch in football.
Now, Cruz is searching for employment somewhere else. Sentimental fans will miss his salsa dance, but forget all about it once that newly-freed cap space is put to good use.
Still, there is plenty of room for sentimentality. Like most fans, Jerry Reese, the general manager of the Giants, will look back on Cruz’s tenure fondly.
“He came in here and earned everything that he’s gotten,” Reese said in a Giants’ statement. “It has been amazing to see him grow from an undrafted free agent to a Pro Bowl player and one of our go-to guys during the Super Bowl XLVI run. He will always be one of the great Giants.”
But sports, like life, are not played just on paper. Fans will remember Cruz as the player who barely made the team, yet still managed to salsa dance his way into the Pro Bowl, into the Super Bowl and their hearts. They will remember the player who took a significant pay cut last year just to play one more season with the team he grew up rooting for from only a few towns away. They will remember the player who, even after being released by the franchise he loves, only had good things to say afterward.
Cruz will end his Giants career with 303 receptions, 4,549 yards, and 25 touchdowns. Although these are numbers no one would call remarkable by any stretch of the imagination, Cruz’s work ethic, demeanor, background story and personality will stick with fans for years to come.