Friday, December 13, 2013
Victor Cruz is hot. The New York Giants' wide receiver with the golden hands that make eye-popping catches was the must-have interview this week. So many requests, so little time, especially with the Giants preparing for Sunday's NFL playoff game with the Atlanta Falcons.
Victor Cruz of the Giants took a long road to become one of the NFL’s top receivers, but one road led through Bridgton.
AFC: Cincinnati (9-7) at Houston (10-6), 4:30 p.m. (NBC)
NFC: Detroit (10-6) at New Orleans (13-3), 8 p.m. (NBC)
NFC: Atlanta (10-6) at New York (9-7), 1 p.m. (FOX)
AFC: Pittsburgh (12-4) at Denver (8-8), 4:30 p.m. (CBS)
Maybe next week, I was told by someone on the Giants' media relations staff after I asked for time with Cruz. Try again.
The Cruz story need not wait. Raised by a single mom in the gritty New Jersey city of Paterson, he grabs a lifeline in the form of an offer to play football at the University of Massachusetts. To hone his classroom skills, he enrolls at Bridgton Academy in 2005.
Makes a positive impression at this Maine outpost of learning. Likable kid. Hard worker on the practice field. Talented receiver who even then made catches that left his fans gasping and grasping for descriptive adjectives.
Heads to UMass in the fall. Is declared academically ineligible to play football. In the spring of his sophomore year, the university tells him to take his 1.7 grade-point average and take a walk. Goes home to Paterson, not too far from where the Giants play their football games.
His dreams of reaching the NFL are harder to imagine. He's about to become just another failed jock. He did listen to Rick Marcella, his football coach at Bridgton: after all, the school's mission is to help its student-athletes bring balance to their lives, now and in the future.
But Victor Cruz dropped the ball.
In life, as in football, there are other pass routes to run. According to an ESPN: New York story from August 2010, Cruz was smart enough to understand the failures and disappointments were his doings.
He got a job, enrolled in classes at a community college and took online courses. He earned the credits he needed and knocked on UMass's door again. He was readmitted. In 2008 he led his team with 71 catches for 1,024 yards and six touchdowns. He left UMass with a degree in African-American history.
Cruz wasn't drafted. He signed with the Giants in 2010 as a free agent. He made the team but a hamstring injury put him on the shelf after three games. He hadn't made one catch.
Injuries to teammates opened the door this season. After the Giants beat Dallas last weekend, Cruz had a season total of 82 receptions for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns. One of the touchdowns was a 99-yard catch and run against the Jets on Christmas Eve.
For perspective, Wes Welker of the Patriots had 122 catches, but for 1,569 yards and nine touchdowns.
Marcella was in the middle of a recruiting trip through Connecticut when he returned a phone call Thursday. He had spoken to a writer from the New York Post earlier in the week. ESPN called, looking for video from the 2005 season.
Yes, said Marcella, he drops Cruz's name on prospective recruits, realizing it's a cautionary tale. This player got the wake-up call and didn't ignore it. Cruz did the necessary things to take back his opportunity. That's the best part of his story.
"I'm very happy for him," said Marcella. "I remember him as a gifted athlete. He was a hard worker on the field. Off the field he was a bit laid-back."
He was the city kid finding his way in pastoral Bridgton. "We get 185 guys in here for one year, and 55 to 60 of them are football players. They come from everywhere to become better students.
"It's a misery loves company mentality. They provide a tremendous support system for each other.
Bridgton schedules football games with university junior varsity teams from schools such as Holy Cross, Navy Prep, and three or four from the Ivy League.
Only two of the 10 games on this year's schedule were played in Bridgton.
"Not everyone knows (Cruz) went to Bridgton," said Marcella. Jermaine Wiggins, the former Patriots tight end out of East Boston, prepped for a year at Bridgton before enrolling at Marshall. He later transferred to Georgia.
Jordan Stevens graduated from Mt. Blue for a year at Bridgton after Cruz left. Stevens became a football captain at the University of Maine. Four players from Maine high schools, including Jonathan Higgins from Greely and Connor McAleney from Cape Elizabeth, were on this year's roster.
Marcella can't always predict his players' futures. He can't say he made Cruz the player or the man he is today.
But he helped.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: