PISCATAWAY – Long before he was salsa dancing his way to breakout a season and a Super Bowl championship, Victor Cruz was playing pickup games on the streets of Paterson.
Soon enough he was playing AAU basketball for his godfather Jimmy Salmons and the Playaz Club before playing football and basketball at the now defunct Paterson Catholic.
Along the way he met Seton Hall’s Jordan Theodore and Fuquan Edwin and Rutgers' Myles Mack, who all played for the Playaz Club and attended PC. The friendships quickly blossomed into what’s now an unbreakable bond.
So amidst what’s been a whirlwind of a week — winning the Super Bowl and having the parade, appearing on Jimmy Kimmel and getting ready to fly out to Los Angeles to appear on Ellen — Cruz made sure to be courtside at the Rutgers-Seton Hall game last night with Salmons.
“It’s sick man. Just to realize how Paterson has come so far and how kids that come from Paterson and come from the inner city like that are able to go to college and do some really good things,” Cruz said at halftime of the game. “I’m happy they’re playing ball but I’m happy they’re able to get themselves into college and get a degree.”
Something Cruz almost didn’t do. Having flunked out of UMass once, Cruz had to work his way back through community college.
Not spending as much time on his studies as he probably should have, Cruz is a reminder of how quickly things can unravel for a college athlete. His overcoming of his adversity by getting back into school and making the Giants roster after going undrafted is a testament to his work ethic and inner drive.
So having a guy like Cruz come to games and stop by the locker room after games is something Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard enjoys.
“I love him because he’s a great reminder to all these kids of what being humble and hungry and passionate about something is all about,” Willard said.
But big-time athletes don’t always stay so connected with their hometown and people from the neighborhood. Especially when they blow up as quickly as Cruz did.
“That’s a credit to Vic because he’s never big-timed anybody,” Salmons said. “He comes back to the high school and our AAU events and stuff so he’s been real good with that.”
It’s also a testament to how strong those bonds made years ago really are. Despite becoming one of the most famous players in the NFL in a matter of months, his head isn’t any bigger.
“That says that our friendship was really true and we don’t hold each other down,” Mack said. “We’ll just stay friends forever.”
But the All-Pro wide receiver isn’t just a friend. He’s the mentor for the trio. They see him as an older brother, especially Edwin and Mack who are six and seven years younger than Cruz, respectively.
Cruz is well aware of this and happily assumes the role.
“I feel like a guy they look to for advice and just things they need to watch out for as they’re growing up because I’ve went through the same ranks and I’ve have my downfalls and things like that,” Cruz said. “So I definitely look at myself as an older brother to those guys.”
While Edwin and Mack have a few more years before they think about playing at the next level, Theodore is nearing the end of his senior season.
With his eye on a basketball career, Theodore’s not getting much attention from NBA scouts despite being one of the top point guards in the Big East. So who better to know than a guy that barely made the Giants' roster this year?
“It’s definitely motivation because he went undrafted. He had to work hard to get where he’s at and all his hard work is paying off,” Theodore said. “You got to work hard to better yourself to achieve your goals and I think of him. He just motivates me. I talk to him everyday. We text everyday. He tells me to keep grinding everyday because it’s going to pay off.”
But obviously Cruz didn’t care who won. He and Salmons were probably the only ones in the RAC that were hoping the teams could somehow tie.
Cruz was there to see one thing. His three protégés play on the same court at the highest level of college basketball for the first time, in front of 6,603 of their home state fans and a nationally televised audience.
Said Edwin: “I know it keeps a smile on his face to come back and see us play basketball against each other.”