- Ian O'Connor, Senior Writer, ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
INDIANAPOLIS -- Blanca Cruz told her son she wants one Super Bowl salsa -- at least one, to be exact -- and all things considered it is hardly too much to ask. Back in the Fourth Ward of Paterson, N.J., Blanca Cruz made a man out of her boy. She did not quit on Victor, and so Victor did not quit on himself.
Yes, he tested her resolve in ways only a mother could understand. It's hard to imagine that the Victor Cruz we now know, the thoughtful and agreeable 25-year-old star, the seemingly mature-beyond-his-years receiver for the New York Giants, was actually a garden variety college screw-up who nearly broke his poor mother's heart.
On the phone Sunday night, already booked to travel from her East 18th Street home to Super Bowl XLVI here in Lucas Oil Stadium, Blanca Cruz spoke of the two times Victor was kicked out of UMass and the considerable pain it caused her, a single parent, a woman putting in long hours at Benjamin Moore to pay her bills.
"I think the lowest point for us was when he lost his scholarship and really messed up in school," Blanca said. "Victor was the first one to go to college in our family, and it was really sad. I said, 'Oh my God, you're never going to play football again. And not only that, you need to have a career. What are you going to do?'
"He didn't realize that everyone wasn't as fortunate as he was. I said, 'Where did you go wrong that you didn't understand what it means to get a scholarship? Where did we go wrong?' Victor really, really disappointed me."
Blanca cried on the night of that conversation. She said Victor's father, Michael Walker, had already shed his own tears over his son's UMess at UMass. Walker was the Paterson firefighter who had introduced Victor to football over Blanca's objections. The mother preferred baseball, karate and tae kwon do for her son, anything to keep him out of trouble in a neighborhood where it was easy to find it.
Anything but football. "It scared me," Blanca said.
Just not as much as it later scared her to consider Victor's life without football, without college, without a larger purpose.
Victor said in September that his father took his own life, and that Michael Walker's death made him grow up and fast. He said he needed to look after his mother and sisters, and that he realized it was his turn "to be the man of the house."
Walker's stern warnings of the past, and Blanca's, had pushed him along the way.
"They were brutally honest," Victor said. "They said, 'If you don't do this you're going to be home with me, or you're going to be working at Wendy's. You're going to be working a mall for the rest of your life.'"
Victor had been enjoying everything about the college experience, except the college part of it.
"He got caught up in the partying, in just being away from home," Blanca said. "Victor was just immature, and so I was really hot-tempered with him."
So was Pamela Marsh-Williams. The assistant provost and dean for undergraduate advising at UMass met with Victor and Blanca and cut off the mother's attempt to speak for her son.
Marsh-Williams had a reputation for telling it straight, and for two hours she went at Victor in an all-out blitz.
"His mother was making a lot of personal sacrifices for him to be in school," Marsh-Williams told ESPNNewYork.com's Ohm Youngmisuk, "and I was very struck by a young man who appeared to be taking that for granted."
Sunday night, Blanca Cruz called that lecture "a wakeup call my son needed." Victor took online classes, summer classes, community college classes.
"I had to pay for this and it was very expensive," Blanca said. "Sometimes he had to go back and forth to UMass and he would take my truck and my credit card and gas was astronomically high. It was tough.
"But I stayed on him until he earned his way back to UMass. I was determined to push him as much as I could. I wanted him to fulfill his dream."
His dream, Blanca's dream, now unfolds before them. Victor Cruz is a record-breaking receiver for the Giants, a major concern of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. Undrafted and undaunted, Cruz has carried himself on and off the field like no New York rookie (and let's face it, this is really Cruz's rookie season) since Derek Jeter in 1996.
All by himself, Cruz made one New York season and destroyed another. The Jets were beating the Giants, 7-3, late in the second quarter of their all-or-nothing game on Christmas Eve, and it looked like Rex Ryan was going to walk his talk and effectively end Tom Coughlin's career.
The Giants faced third down at their own 1-yard line, still enough time on the clock for the Jets to field the punt and score (never mind that the Jets were also scheduled to receive the ball first in the second half). Cruz ran a simple hook pattern, and Eli Manning found him and hoped his receiver would fall forward for a first down.
Instead Cruz made Antonio Cromartie and Kyle Wilson miss before hitting the sideline and outracing Eric Smith, the same guy who couldn't catch Tim Tebow in Denver. Blanca Cruz was in the MetLife Stadium stands that day, savoring every precious inch of this 99-yard romp.
"You were running so fast," she told her son after the game, "that it looked like you were running for your life."
The Giants evolved into a Super Bowl team, and the Jets unraveled in a spectacular way.
Now Blanca Cruz heads to Indianapolis to see her longshot son try to become a world champ. She adores it when Giants fans at home and on the road salute Victor by stretching out his surname -- Cruuuuuuuz -- and hopes to hear that sound again Sunday night.
"When they first did that," Blanca said, "I thought they were booing him."
She doesn't think that anymore.
Born in Puerto Rico, proud that her son honors her roots with his touchdown dance, Blanca didn't need to see Victor perform the salsa on "Dancing With the Stars." She needs to see him do it on the biggest stage in sports.
"I told Victor, 'I'd like at least one salsa in the Super Bowl,'" Blanca said. "It's always been important to us that he acknowledges my heritage, and his grandmother's heritage, to let everyone know where he came from.
"It's another reason I'm so glad I never gave up on him."
It's another reason why Super Bowl Sunday is Mother's Day in the Fourth Ward of Paterson.
Ian O'Connor is the author of "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." "Sunday Morning With Ian O'Connor" can be heard every Sunday from 9 to 11 a.m. ET on ESPN New York 1050.
Blanca Cruz never gave up on her son. That has paid off in the long run.