- Allison Glock, Senior Writer, espnW
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THE RED BULL ARENA in Harrison, N.J., smells like soup. Campbell's Chunky Jammin' Jerk Chicken soup, to be more precise, vats of which simmer while awaiting disbursement into identical white bowls, which are then artfully arranged
to look as irresistible as possible. Not that it
matters. Victor Cruz, Giants wide receiver and intended recipient of said bowls, is happy to swallow any soup he is served, irresistible or
not. This is less because Campbell's has selected Cruz to be the sole face of the relaunch of its famous Mama's Boys campaign and more because Cruz is, by definition, game.
"Bigger laughs, ha ha ha!" instructs the director.
"Ha ha ha!" replies Cruz excitedly.
He's a natural performer, a quick study.
"More!" commands the director. "Crazier!"
Cruz complies, unburdened by self-consciousness. The extras try not to giggle. Then he adds the coup de grâce, flashing a
look of comic incredulity, a moment of incisive theatrical improv that tips the scene into Jammin' Jerk gold.
"Fantastic!" shouts the director, shaking his head. "Again! Again!"
Never let it be said that Cruz doesn't seize his moments. Since his first full season, in which he exploded out of football nowhere to grab
82 passes and set a franchise record with 1,536 receiving yards -- and nabbed the Giants' only receiving TD in their Super Bowl XLVI win, inspiring Madonna to salsa -- Cruz has seized a lot. He's started a successful clothing line, written a memoir, planned a wedding to his longtime sweetheart, modeled for GQ, stumped for President Obama and the NFL (as a face of the league's Latino outreach program) and ingested countless bowls of lukewarm, color-corrected Jammin' Jerk Chicken soup under a numbing midday sun with a smile as big as Broadway.
Along the way, the 25-year-old New Jersey native and his fiancée, Elaina Watley, who is both the mother of his 6-month-old daughter, Kennedy, and his very astute publicist, have turned his prior invisibility into an asset. This while doing whatever it has taken for Cruz to
be seen. Because, let's face it, whoever sees Victor Cruz seems destined to love him. He is handsome and good-natured, half Puerto Rican (on his mother's side) and half black, with the juice to launch a dance craze but without the glare that scares off the suits who approve endorsement deals. In the wider world, where Jay-Z personally invites you to the 40/40 Club to watch the Mayweather fight, or Calvin Klein wants to accompany you to Milan, or the president has your cellphone number and knows all about your tragic relationship with your father, Cruz already eclipses real superstars.
Once the underdog of all underdogs, he is now the fantasy. Like the nerdy librarian who removes her Coke-bottle glasses and morphs into Bardot before your eyes, Cruz -- who came of age in a single season -- set the field afire, did a salsa through the flames and dared people not to look.
"Victor is just being who he always was," says Watley, monitoring the shoot from the sideline. "Only now, everybody is watching."
Back on the Campbell's set, lunch is called. Cruz thanks the crew, then turns and heads toward the green room, spitting discreetly behind him. He walks a few paces, then freezes, wheels back. He finds the glob. Rubs it fast into the grass with his cleat.
Spend any time with Cruz and you immediately realize two things: 1) He is small (sample size, to be exact, which is to say built like a model, not a jock). And 2) he is sunshine in spandex. A man without edge. Malleable. Unfailingly pleasing. Perhaps the most perfectly pre-engineered celebrity athlete ever.
The training started early.
"Victor was never disrespectful to anyone," says his mother, Blanca Cruz, who ensured that he wasn't. Blanca had a plan. No downtime. Downtime in Paterson, N.J. -- a largely impoverished 8.4-square-mile town crammed with 52 nationalities and the resulting economic dissonance -- was the devil's playground. Says Cruz: "It was very easy to fall into bad situations in Paterson. You didn't find them; they found you." Especially if you grew up where he did, one block away from the infamous "murder row" on Tenth Avenue.
"We have a 50 percent dropout rate for black and Hispanic boys," says Cruz's high school coach, Benjie Wimberly, now a New Jersey state assemblyman. "Major drugs. In the area where Victor grew up, you never knew what time it was because people are there at all hours, walking like zombies."
Blanca was Wimberly's favorite parent. "She made sure Victor did what he needed to do, and she was never a pain in the ass," he says. "Blanca never quit on Victor. She had a bigger dream for Vic than Vic."
At 8, Cruz was enrolled by his mother in taekwondo. "He was so awkward," she says. "I wasn't sure he was going to make it." She made him practice combinations in the living room. He improved. Then came baseball, basketball, flute. "Anything to keep him moving, busy," she says. "I didn't want him standing on the corner."
The multiple diversions suited Cruz, manic by nature. "He always had so much energy, since he was a baby," recalls Blanca, 53, seated on the sofa inside the tidy row house where Cruz grew up and where Blanca still lives with her daughter, Andrea, a recent high school graduate. "The teacher in day care used to have trouble because he kept crawling out of the crib."
The risks increased substantially in Cruz's high school years. By the time he was a sophomore, four of his best friends from the neighborhood had become fathers. Other acquaintances were already incarcerated.
Rival gangs controlled the streets.
But Cruz wasn't there. While his mom worked in customer service for Benjamin Moore paints, he stayed home, scrubbing the sinks and toilets, his only transgression playing his hip-hop too loud. When girls came around, sure as sunrise, Blanca sussed them out. "Don't play games," she told her son. So he didn't.
Instead, he met Watley.
Founder and CEO of her own publicity firm, Watley, 27, has steered Cruz's career since they met in a Jersey club when he was 17. "It was love at first sight; I squeezed my sister's hand and said, 'I'm going to marry that man,'" she recalls. "He had the curliest eyelashes. Laser-beam eyes. His face was lit up."
Like countless others to follow, Watley saw what she calls "the smile" and knew she had a winner. In short order, the teens committed to each other.
Also raised in a rough Jersey neighborhood, Watley refused to be hobbled by circumstance. A Latina Tracy Flick, she overachieved enough for the both of them, joining forces with Blanca to clear Cruz's path. She sweated the small stuff, like college forms and applications, while Blanca built her son's character. Playing backup was Cruz's maternal grandmother, Lucy Molina, who imbued him with history and culture and a sense of responsibility for things bigger than him.
Cruz thrived through high school. "He took criticism well," says his ex-coach Wimberly. "Unlike other boys his age, he never said, 'It's not my fault.'" His mom thought he would become a professional comedian. "Victor has always had it," Wimberly says. "Like a rock star." Which was also a way to describe his father, Mike Walker, a firefighter and local lothario, and the only man in town more popular than Cruz.
"Mike was flashy. He had an appeal to him," says Wimberly.
Adds Watley: "He always wore a hat, blasted his music, kept his shirt unbuttoned to his navel. He was just cooler than everybody else."
There were, of course, complications. This was Paterson, not Eden. Walker was married, but not to Blanca. He largely had been an absent parent until Cruz was 7. When Cruz was 11, Walker introduced him to football, enrolling him in the Fireman's League. "The first year, his father said he was a mess," remembers Blanca. "But by eighth grade, he was team captain, and they won a championship."
She sighs and looks away. "I don't know if Victor ever would have played without his dad urging him to do so."
At Paterson Catholic High School, competing on what was called "the
swamp," a busted, grassless field with more holes than the moon, Cruz broke records, and the team was unbeaten. The games drew standing-room-only crowds of more than 2,000 fans, including Walker, who yelled "That's my son!" every play, loud as Christmas.
After graduation in 2004 and a semester of postgrad school in Maine, Cruz headed to UMass, where, unsupervised by the familial sorority for the first time, he fell apart. His GPA dipped to 1.7. "He got caught up drinking, staying out all night," Blanca says. Before playing a single game, he was expelled. His father wept at the news. The two exchanged words and eventually stopped speaking.
"They were very dark days for all of us," says Blanca of the year-plus when Cruz twice failed at college; Watley, weary of playing schoolmarm, took a break from the relationship. "His lifelong dream was happening," says Blanca. "And he was throwing it away."
Eventually, Cruz found himself selling designer jeans in the Paramus Park Mall,11 miles north of MetLife Stadium. "It was so difficult," Cruz recalls. "I was afraid I would see someone from my past who thought I was this big athlete, and then I end up being just normal. I was ashamed."
It was around this time, on March 1, 2007, that Cruz's half brother Malik called bearing shocking news. Their father had killed himself in his home. Walker had been depressed after losing his job, but there was no warning. "I hadn't spoken to him for over a month," Cruz says. "For him to be gone, it was unreal to me."
Cruz looked at his life. He saw the opportunities squandered. Saw too how alike he and his father were, what happens when the fantasy becomes what could have been.
Cruz resolved, in that moment, to "be a man." He would commit to Watley, graduate from UMass, fight his way into the NFL and finally embody the star
everyone believed he was -- even if sometimes he didn't believe it.
Unlike most NFL stars, Cruz was overlooked: no heavy recruiting, no draft-day psychoanalysis. Despite a high school reel shooting off more fireworks than Katy Perry's nipples, no one cared. His best offer came from UMass, where two seasons of pyrotechnics and a fine performance at Boston College's pro day led to his being drafted by ... nobody. He was too small. Too green. Finally, at the Giants' local
pro day after the 2010 draft -- the tryout for dreamers and long shots -- Cruz's efforts (and endearing attitude) were at long last noticed, and the Giants invited him to training camp.
When Cruz arrived in Albany, N.Y., Watley sent him a goody box to share with the veterans -- sunflower seeds, jelly beans, gummy bears. "I told him you do what you need to do, even if that's driving to Walmart and buying them 1,000 yards of tape," she says. That preseason, Cruz showed glimpses of what was to come in a memorable three-TD exhibition game against the Jets, but then he missed all but three games in 2010 because of a pulled hamstring. As the 2011 season began, he was near the bottom of the Giants' WR depth chart.
It wasn't until early-season injuries to others elevated Cruz's role that QB Eli Manning discovered Cruz's brilliance at creating space for himself and finding holes in opposing secondaries. Further, Manning began to notice what he later called Cruz's extraordinary "knack for making a little tick on a play designed to net five yards and turning it into 60 and 70 yards." Says fellow Giants receiver Ramses Barden, "It's his ability to start at top-end speed and accelerate out of cuts and create separation."
Last season, Cruz finished with 25 receptions of at least 20 yards. By the time Cruz had scorched team after team and had scampered 99 yards for a breathtaking score against the Jets on Christmas Eve, his post-touchdown salsa celebration had become a nationwide meme. He did it for Jimmy Fallon. He did it onstage at the Grammys, then was seated inches from Adele. He
was parodied on SNL. Then there was the Puerto Rican Day parade in New York City in June, when he jumped off his float to salsa with a female police officer.
Blanca was on the float watching. Beside the officer was a woman who dissolved into tears when Cruz stopped dancing long enough to give her a hug.
"My mother gave me one of those looks like, This is what our lives have evolved to now," Cruz says. In that moment, he believes, "she felt like all her hard work had paid off, that her little boy had finally grown up." As if, he adds, he had any choice.
"Victor was born for this," says Watley, honking the horn of her Range Rover on the Jersey Turnpike. Then she mentions the dance.
"People think it's this gimmick." Instead, she insists, it came out of Cruz's relationship with his grandmother Lucy. "It was Hispanic Heritage Month, and Victor wasn't planning on doing anything if he scored, and we were like, 'You have to!' " So when he got to the end zone after catching a 74-yard pass against the Eagles on Sept. 24, 2011, she says, "the first thought he had was the salsa." Lucy, 76 and watching at home with an illness that eventually cost her her left leg, went bananas.
"As a kid, my grandma would be dancing all the time," Cruz says later. "Three o'clock on a Tuesday and she's got her record player on. She'd pick me up and dance with me.
"She asked me to keep doing it for her," Cruz says wistfully. "She says it keeps her alive."
Says Watley: "She's dramatic. It's a Latin thing."
Cruz visits his grandmother often. And then there are the weekly family dinners in Paterson. Blanca makes his favorites: pork chops, rice and beans, sweet plantains, bacalao.
"The other day he was out with his boys in the street," Watley says. "And I was terrified. I wanted him to get back in the house. But he said, 'No. This is where I'm from.'"
The next afternoon, over a lunch of steak and chicken fajitas, Cruz says, "I want to keep this dream going, without forgetting who I am."
He takes a big bite of tortilla, swallows noisily.
"Whenever I'm home, people are like, 'How long you in town?' And I'm like, 'In town? I just live 15 minutes up the road [in a suburb].' I never really left, you know."
Just then, Watley enters the room, sits at another table. She is matter-of-fact in saying that she packages "every strategy, every deal, every shoot, every brand extension, every contract." Cruz agrees that she has been his driver since high school. "There were times when I was like, 'Forget this, I'm done,'" he says. "And she was like, 'No, you are going to finish.'"
Now she says, "You congested, honey?"
"Yes you are. I'm getting you some medicine."
"I don't need ... "
Watley shoots him a look, then smiles. Cruz shrugs, eats a chip.
He acknowledges that there are times when his new life feels surreal. "I don't recognize my former self," he says. "Like I'm on the outside looking in at my
life. Who is that guy?"
He knows he has gone from zero to a thousand, "from nothing to abundance." He talks about his car.
"There were times when I thought I would never own a car," he says, eyes wide. Then he bought his Audi A5.
"Every time I climbed into it," he says, "I would literally thank God." Cruz recently upgraded to an A7. He made $450,000 last season and is due to make $540,000 this year, the last of his rookie contract. The
Audi R8 will presumably have to wait until after that, when he'll be owed millions, but that may be a good thing.
"I have to learn who I am," he says, wrestling for the right language. "This new phase in my life. I am learning how to adjust to myself."
Between setups at the Campbell's shoot, an exhausted Cruz curls up in a chair in front of a flat-screen, watching Euro 2012, ignoring a plate of fruit and cheese. Teetering stacks of Giants helmets and footballs, perks for Campbell's executives, await his signature. Watley comes in, climbs on top of Cruz, whispers in his ear. His eyes twinkle.
He watches some of the soccer boys being interviewed on TV. Studies them, squints, then reveals that his college senior thesis was titled "Black Athletes in the Media."
He wrote: "Black athletes always come ... with a sort of target on their back. For a young black athlete, this may be difficult and become too much to handle ... "
"I know, ironic, right?" Cruz says, laughing. "It is a double-edged sword. Trying to be loved for who you are."
Entering the season, Cruz expects there will be chatter about his sustainability as a player, as well as his possible overexposure. Team Cruz isn't worried. "We are saying no to things all the time," says Watley. "We see the end of our vision, and we are working backward from it."
She pauses, looks at her fiancé, brushes an eyelash from his cheek.
"It might sound surprising, but Victor doesn't have that many friends," she says. "We just don't know many people like us, you know?"
Cruz is summoned back to the field to do corporate booster interviews. He gamely answers questions about his personal Campbell's soup consumption, telegraphing appreciation for the product "on cold game days, especially," when he is "hungry to keep winning."
Members of the Campbell's corporate team beam as they watch, gob-smacked by their luck.
"Victor, can you mention the Jammin' Jerk Chicken?" Cruz can. And does. With staggering authenticity.
Moments later, Cruz is in front of another set of cameras, delivering the same scripted line in hundreds of permutations. His co-star, an older actress playing his mother in a cumbersome faux mascot head, is less enthusiastic, griping about various actorly concerns. Mostly, the cumbersome head.
Cruz sympathizes, makes jokes, tries to lighten the mood. The actress sniffs, annoyed. Then Cruz smiles at her, and it's as if the sun itself has beamed straight from his soul into her wrinkled face. Her eyes glisten as her lips begin to mirror Cruz's, breaking into a subconscious grin. She is, for the moment, happy.
The director seizes the opening, swoops in for another take. Cruz obliges. Again and again, he opens his mouth, sticks in the spoon and swallows.
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