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Sunday, December 16, 2012
Updated: December 19, 3:19 PM ET
Cruz, Giants play with heavy hearts

By Ian O'Connor
ESPNNewYork.com

ATLANTA -- Victor Cruz said he was saddened by the whole Georgia Dome experience, disappointed that he was held to three catches and 15 yards on a day he wanted to go deep like never before. Cruz was playing for a much larger cause than first place in the NFC East on Sunday, and the box score said he had come up painfully small.

The box score was a liar. Up in Newtown, Conn., inside the home of the late, great Jack Pinto, the devastated family of the 6-year-old fan who moved Cruz to tears, moved him to turn his uniform into a shrine, understood why the receiver was a big winner in a 34-0 defeat.

A woman who answered a call to Pinto's home and who identified herself as Jack's grandmother said the boy's parents needed more time and space before talking to a reporter about Friday morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But before she excused herself, the boy's grandmother did want to say one thing about the Giant who had spoken with Dean and Tricia Pinto and who had written tributes to their murdered son on his cleats and gloves.

"What he did was a wonderful, wonderful, incredible thing," Jack's grandmother said, "and we're so blessed that the entire world feels the same way."

Victor Cruz
Victor Cruz wrote Jack Pinto's name on his game cleats.

So it really didn't matter that Cruz lost a football game to the Atlanta Falcons, or that the Giants found themselves shut out in a regular-season game for the first time since 1996.

America is a broken place right now, broken over Sandy Hook, and the country needs simple acts of kindness a lot more than it needs the weekly holiday that is an NFL Sunday.

All the Giants did their part, carrying the elementary school's initials on their helmets and on Tom Coughlin's cap, and observing a moment of silence in their Saturday team meeting and on the field before Sunday's kickoff. But Cruz became the face of his wounded team, the Giants' unofficial ambassador to Newtown.

He was Jack Pinto's favorite, and the child's parents told Cruz that Jack would be buried in the jersey he wore while watching the Giants on TV. No. 80 in your program, No. 1 in a lost boy's heart.

"I told them I was honored," Cruz said. "I couldn't even express to them how great that made me feel, and how big of an honor that is. … No words describe the type of feeling you get when a kid idolizes you so much that they want to, you know, unfortunately, like put him in the casket with your jersey on."

Yes, Cruz was having trouble saying the words; he is, after all, the father of an 11-month-old girl. Friday night, after trying to fathom the Pintos' unfathomable pain, Cruz had 11-month-old Kennedy sleep in his bed. "We slept together that night," he said, "and it was a good feeling. It was one that I cherished."

In his hotel room the following night, after finding his Twitter feed backed up with messages about Jack Pinto and his affinity for a certain undrafted wideout, Cruz ended up on the phone with Jack's parents and 11-year-old brother. Elaina Watley, Cruz's publicist and the mother of his child, found the Pintos' number, reached out to the family, and patched Cruz into a three-way call.

As the Giant fought back tears, he heard Pinto family members crying in the background. "It was tough to listen to," he said.

Cruz said he told the Pintos to stay strong. The surviving brother, Benjamin, was too distraught to say much to the famous athlete on the phone, the man who promised the family that Jack's memory would be as much a part of Giants-Falcons as Cruz himself.

"I'm going to do whatever I can to honor him," the receiver pledged.

Before the game Cruz tweeted, "Today's game is for you Jack," and attached photos of his cleats and gloves. One shoe carried Jack's name and the words, "My Hero," and the other carried the message "R.I.P. Jack Pinto." Jack's full name was written again on one glove, and the dedication "This one is 4 u!" was written on the other.

Cruz said he was ready for this game, ready to win it for Jack. But maybe the weight of the moment was too heavy for Cruz and the same circle of teammates that tried and failed to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers for a region battered by Hurricane Sandy.

Coughlin said his players were "greatly saddened" by the Newtown tragedy, but refused to offer their emotional state as any sort of excuse. On his way out of his postgame news conference and toward his locker room, Coughlin stopped to hug and kiss two of his grandchildren, both dressed in the jerseys of their father, Chris Snee. The coach held both of the boys extra tight.

"Everybody played with a heavy heart," said Osi Umenyiora, who would add that "nobody came out here with any joy at all."

Cruz had one chance to score in the third quarter, but Eli Manning's wayward pass over the middle left him vulnerable to an unnecessarily cruel hit. Atlanta's Chris Hope launched his helmet into Cruz's, a personal foul that left the receiver down and out for a few plays.

It was a tough day all around. On the bench, as the Falcons scored and scored some more, Cruz kept staring at his cleats and his tributes to Jack. He didn't want to win this game to shut up Roddy White, who tried to marginalize him in a September interview, or to enhance his bids for a new contract and a first Pro Bowl appearance.

He wanted to get to 9-5 for one 6-year-old fan who couldn't watch.

"I'm sad about it," Cruz said of the final score.

Had he caught a touchdown pass, Cruz figured he would've pointed to the sky, or tapped his shoes, as a gesture for Jack. "Just to let him know I was thinking of him," the receiver said.

But Cruz wouldn't have abandoned his salsa dance, even if the scoreboard suggested he save it for a more competitive game. "I think that's probably one of the things he loved the most," he said of Jack, "probably as a kid, seeing me dance in the end zone. So I definitely would've kept that."

No touchdowns on this Sunday, no dancing, and yet Cruz isn't even close to being done with Newtown. He said he's hoping to visit the Pintos this week to give them his cleats and gloves, and to spend an hour or three with them face to face.

So for anyone fretting a bit too much about the NFC East, this is how you win while losing a 34-0 game. This is how you never step foot in the end zone and still manage to score the biggest points of the day.