- Ohm Youngmisuk, ESPN Staff Writer
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EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Long before he made salsa dancing in the end zone hip, and way before he became a celebrity who appeared on BET's "106 & Park" and was asked to be a contestant on "Dancing with the Stars," Victor Cruz had to work on the most important moves of his football career.
It was at the Hoboken High School football field in Hoboken, N.J., where Cruz was one of a handful of Giants who joined Eli Manning for workouts during the lockout back in May.
Here, sometimes in the rain, Cruz took advantage of quality time with Manning that he would have never seen in a minicamp or training camp practice. The kid who grew up in Paterson, N.J., not too far away from Hoboken, picked Manning's brain, trying to soak up as much of the quarterback's knowledge of the Giants offense as possible while working on his route running, including in the slot.
Eight months later, Cruz is in the Super Bowl as Manning's top big-play threat. He had 82 receptions and set the team's all-time record for receiving yards (1,536) in a season. He scored four of his nine touchdowns on plays of 72 yards or longer this season.
Not too shabby for a guy who says he was stunned when Manning called to ask him to join in on the Hoboken workouts.
Cruz remembers staring at the caller ID -- which read "Eli Manning" -- and doing a double take.
"I was like, 'Eli Manning? Is this working right?'" Cruz recalled as he pretended to look down at his cell phone with a quizzical expression.
"You never know who Eli is going to call up," he added. "So to be one of those guys he calls up, it was huge for me, for my confidence just to have him call my phone."
At the time, Cruz was coming off a rookie season that was mostly spent on IR. The unproven and undrafted free agent out of UMass was best known for being a preseason legend after destroying Rex Ryan's Jets in a 2010 exhibition game. LeBron James was so impressed he tweeted about Cruz's performance, which was on national television. But that felt like ages ago.
But with Nicks participating sparingly in the Hoboken workouts, Smith recovering from knee surgery and Manningham working out on his own, Cruz got the kind of valuable reps first-team receivers get with Manning.
This is where Cruz learned the nuances of the slot. He got a better grasp on the offense and gained an inkling of how Manning's brain ticks and what he wanted from his receivers.
Remember, during the lockout, players did not have access to the facility, the coaching staff or playbooks.
"It was out there, a chance to hear the terminology again; after a while of not hearing the plays, you kind of lose it a little bit," Cruz said. "So it was good to hear the terminology and the play-calling and knocking the dust off your legs a little bit and get some route running in.
"Around the third or fourth time we were out there is when it really got intense and we were really getting some good workouts."
As it turned out, Smith signed with the Eagles, leaving a gaping hole in the slot. Tight end Kevin Boss, one of Manning's most trusted targets and who also attended the Hoboken workouts, signed with Oakland in free agency. Opportunity was there for Cruz, who got reps in the slot during training camp with Hixon. Hixon then tore his ACL in the second game of the season. The Giants had signed Brandon Stokley, but he was injured.
So Tom Coughlin turned to Cruz, who got his first real crack at receiver in Week 3 in Philadelphia. Cruz exploded for three catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns with one of the scores coming as Manning lofted the ball for Cruz against two defenders, including Nnamdi Asomugha.
"I kind of just sensed that he could trust me a little bit more," Cruz said of that game. "And he really liked my ability.
"It raised my confidence sky-high man just to understand that a guy like that really believed in my talent and believed that when I get the ball in my hands I can do some really positive things."
The rest has literally been history, as Cruz had a franchise-record-setting season with most receiving yards, most 100-yard games (seven) and longest touchdown in team history.
And perhaps it all started with a phone call and invitation from Manning to come out to Hoboken.
"I am not going to say that is the reason why we reached the Super Bowl, but we definitely got some work done," Manning said of the Hoboken workouts. "[But] one of the guys that was at every one of those was Victor Cruz. We got close. He did a lot of slot work and making decisions and reads and talking through things.
"I would like to think that work paid off."
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