INDIANAPOLIS — Before Victor Cruz became the breakout player of the year in the NFL, before Cruz regained his football edge at the University of Massachusetts, there was Bridgton Academy

Columnist Steve Solloway recently documented Cruz’s journey from Paterson, N.J., to prep school in Maine, to UMass, and finally to the New York Giants, where this year he blossomed into one of the NFL’s leading men. (“Steve Solloway: Bridgton did its part to help hi reach Cruz control,” Jan. 6, 2012.)

Solloway was unable to speak to Cruz because of a heavy interview demand at the start of the playoffs. But Monday, after the Giants arrived here for Super Bowl XLVI, Cruz earned a station at the team’s first media session at their downtown hotel.

As expected, Cruz was extremely popular, gathering a crowd that rivaled quarterback Eli Manning.

And, when asked, he fondly recounted his one year, 2005, at Bridgton.

“That was a good time man,” said Cruz, chuckling as he looked back. “It was really cold and it was a time where I really got to focus on football. There’s nothing else going on up there. It’s just a weight room and a field and you just get to play football

“I met some really good friends up there. It was a really unique time.”

But Cruz didn’t go to Bridgton Academy just to play football. He needed some help in the classroom.

“I had to take my SAT (exams) a few times while I was there,” said Cruz. “So it was definitely an experience for me, one that I will never forget.

“It was definitely challenging being in Maine, being away from home for the first time, eight, nine hours away. It was definitely a good experience.”

Cruz, who missed all but three games of his rookie year in 2010 because of a hamstring injury, was almost cut again this year. But he stuck with the team and became Manning’s favorite target.

Cruz caught 82 passes for 1,536 yards – an amazing average of 18.7 yards per catch – and scored nine touchdowns.

Among those TDs was a 99-yarder against the New York Jets on Christmas Eve, sparking the Giants to a pivotal win.

Of course, the Patriots had their own 99-yard touchdown play this year — a pass from Tom Brady to Wes Welker in the season’s opener against Miami.

Welker is one player whom Cruz watches closely.

“Yeah, he’s a guy that I’ve looked at growing up,” said Cruz. “You always watch the best in the league and he’s definitely one of the best at his craft and his position. He’s definitely a guy that I take a few things from and you can add it to your game.”

Cruz has certainly gained the notice of the Patriots.

“He’s like a complete receiver,” said Patriots safety Patrick Chung. “He can do it all and we’ve just got to contain him.”

BILL BELICHICK said that tight end Rob Gronkowski did not practice Monday. Gronkowski suffered an injury to his left ankle – his father has told the media that it is a high ankle sprain – in the AFC championship game win over Baltimore.

Everyone expects Gronkowski – who set NFL regular-season records for touchdowns and receiving yards by a tight end – to play Sunday.

The Giants are preparing for him.

“This is the biggest game of the year,” said Giants safety Antrel Rolle. “(The Patriots) wouldn’t be in this position if it wasn’t for him, so he’s going to do whatever he has to do to make sure he’s ready for the game.”

Gronkowski seems to be in fine form off the field. He resumed tweeting Monday night, telling followers that he was “chilling with my bro (Chris) at his crib in Indy!”

Wonder what Belichick thought about that.

RIGHT TACKLE Sebastian Vollmer, the projected starter entering the season, is close to returning, according to Belichick.

Vollmer hasn’t played since Nov. 27 at Philadelphia because of a broken foot. Belichick said Vollmer, replaced by rookie Nate Solder, started practicing before the Denver playoff game but simply hasn’t been ready to play in a game.

“This week he is further along than where he was before the Denver game,” said Belichick. “He practiced today so we will see how the week goes and see how he holds up. But I think there is definitely a possibility (that Vollmer will play). We will just have to see how he tolerates the added work.”

The question about Vollmer – a native of Kaarst, Germany – was asked by a reporter from Germany, who informed Belichick that the entire German nation will be Patriots fans on Sunday.

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: [email protected]

Twitter: MikeLowePPH