Two weeks ago, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz and his longtime girlfriend, Elaina Watley, were in Miami, attending the wedding of New York Knicks power forward Amar’e Stoudemire and Alexis Welch. The two couples hit it off during a GQ-hosted trip to Milan last offseason and have since become close friends. While in Miami, Cruz tried his best to block out any talk or thoughts of his looming contract situation with the Giants. It was a vacation. A chance to escape.
But since a breakout two-touchdown performance versus the “Dream Team” Philadelphia Eagles in Week 3 of the 2011 season, there has been no real vacation from contract talks surrounding Cruz. Whether in Miami for a wedding or Milan for Fashion Week or Hawaii for the Pro Bowl, it has followed him everywhere he’s gone.
When he represented the Giants at a Nike event in which the NFL’s new uniforms were unveiled to media in March 2012, a crowd of reporters steamrolled past superstars Brian Urlacher, Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick to speak with Cruz. They didn’t care about the new Nike digs or the player’s love for the brand. They wanted to talk about the contract. After every game of the 2012 season, there was at least one question about the contract. Come summertime, even after signing his one-year tender in May, it was the contract.
The contract. The contract. The contract. Always, the contract.
Cruz was ecstatic when we spoke over the phone Monday afternoon, hours after the fourth-year wideout inked a five-year, $43 million deal that will keep him in New York through the 2018 season. The money, well, that was life-changing, of course. But the deal also meant that all that contract talk — that hovering cloud that followed him everywhere he went — was now gone. The burden had been lifted.
“To get that off my back and to now just be able to answer football questions is an amazing thing,” Cruz said. “Every football question, no matter where we were, was followed by a series of questions about my contract. It got to the point where we had to stop doing media altogether. Spanish, English, whatever — I just wanted to stay quiet until the contract was done. That wasn’t any fun, because I like the guys who cover the team and I know how hard they’re working. Well, it’s done now and we couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Moments after inking the deal, the Giants wideout got text messages from teammate Justin Tuck, Cardinals All-Pro wideout Larry Fitzgerald, former Giants teammate Mario Manningham, and had a long conversation with Giants owner John Mara. He spoke to his head coach, Tom Coughlin, at the Giants facility in East Rutherford, NJ.
“Coach told me he was happy for me. He said I deserve every bit of the contract," Cruz said. "But you know Coach Coughlin — he’s all business. He wanted to make sure I am ready to get back to business. I assured him I was.”
Cruz also got a text message from quarterback Eli Manning. The text from Eli might have meant the most, at least on a symbolic level. After all, this whole Giants journey really got started with a text message from Manning in April 2011.
Long before the Salsa dance or the GQ spreads or the Campbell’s Soup ads, Victor Cruz was a seldom-used second-year wide receiver on the Giants who was anxiously waiting for emails from the team’s NFLPA rep Shaun O’Hara every Monday. In these emails sent to the entire team, O’Hara would let the players know the latest on how the lockout conversations were going with the owners. Cruz would open the emails with great hope. With zero career receptions and not much saved in the bank, money was getting tight for the undrafted rookie free agent out of UMass. Week after week, however, O’Hara had nothing new to report. The lockout dragged on and on, with really no end in sight.
Cruz’s nerves got even more frayed in April when the Giants selected another slot receiver, Jerrel Jernigan out of Troy, in the third round of the 2011 draft. What did it mean for him? Where did he stand in the team’s plans?
Then, Cruz received a text message from Manning. The quarterback, living in nearby Hoboken, wanted to see if Cruz and a few other Giants players living locally wanted to work out at nearby Hoboken High School. Manning was going stir crazy from the lockout and wanted to get in some reps. Cruz, a player who worked primarily with backups Jim Sorgi and Rhett Bomar during the 2010 preseason and missed most of the 2010 regular season because of a hamstring injury, jumped at the chance to work extensively with the one-time Super Bowl MVP.
It was during those days, those 100-degree afternoons under the summer sun with no one watching, where Cruz and Manning clicked. Day after day, they ran routes, went over different situations and developed a friendship.
A little more than two years later, Manning was sending Cruz another text.
A congratulatory one.
Cruz says he hopes to get in some work with Manning over the course of the next few weeks, so that they’re fully back in rhythm before training camp. “Let’s go. Let’s get started. I can’t wait,” he said Monday.
As for the contract?
“I think my deal is tremendous,’’ Cruz said. “I think to be able to be in the tops in my position as a slot receiver among the best in the league is definitely a great deal. I don’t want to be anywhere else. I don’t want to play anywhere else. Financially, my family is set for the rest of my life, so that’s all I can ask for. I wasn’t looking at whatever the most amount of money I could get or this or that, I just wanted my family to be taken care of and I get to play in this city for a very long time. So, I’m excited.”
“I was telling my family, you work 26 years, ups and downs, back and forth, trials and tribulations, everything that went into high school, college, even in the NFL getting hurt my rookie year, you work that hard to get to this one day, this one day to sign that deal and be set potentially for the rest of your life and have your family taken care of and you just feel good about it. It’s crazy, man, to even say that and it be true. My whole life has been a blessing.’’
In a little more than two weeks, he’ll take the field for training camp with nothing but the 2013 New York Giants season in mind.
“Today was a good day,” Cruz said with a laugh. Then, he added, "I’m ready to just keep working as hard as I possibly can to be the best player I possibly can.”
Perhaps first, though, he can enjoy a brief vacation.