Anyone who watched the New York Giants’ abysmal offensive performance Sunday against their heavily-depleted rival, the Dallas Cowboys, knows that the G-Men are in dire need of a certain salsa-dancing, sartorially fresh Pro Bowl wide receiver.
Yes, it’s been over a year since Victor Cruz tore his patellar tendon against the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 12, putting a premature end to his 2014 season. The injury came in the second season after Cruz signed a 5-year, $43 million contract extension—with $15.6 million guaranteed. And as Cruz watched the Giants vs. Cowboys matchup on Sunday, he felt overcome by pangs of regret.
“It’s frustrating to watch,” he says. “We put up 13 points on offense and the defense played outstanding, but I’m dying to get back, man. You’ve got to fight that urge with understanding that you have to be 100 percent in order to play. It’s really tough.”
It’s Monday evening, and the 28-year-old NFL star is sitting across from me in the bowels of SoHo’s Crosby Hotel. He’s here to promote his new Showtime documentary I Am Giant: Victor Cruz, a one-hour film directed by Gotham Chopra (Kobe Bryant’s Muse) that chronicles Cruz’s rehab from injury, as well as his journey from the mean streets of Paterson, New Jersey, to undrafted free agent, to one of the key cogs in the Giants’ improbable victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
But let’s get it out of the way: Yes, Cruz strolled into our interview without any sign of a limp. And yes, his spirits seemed high.
“I’m feeling better,” he says. “Obviously the doctor is taking it really slow with me until they see things that they want to see in the MRI. They’re going to continue to keep it slow with me, and I appreciate that. It’s frustrating, but you understand that you want to play for years to come and not just one game; you want to be able to play seasons longer. So I’m just taking it one day at a time.”
When pressed as to whether there’s any timetable for his return, he diplomatically says, “There’s no timetable [for a return] just yet. I pretty much have the doctors on speed-dial, and I’m seeing them towards the end of this week on Thursday, and they’ll reassess me from there.”
Can you guarantee that you’ll be back this regular season? I ask him.“Yes, we can guarantee that,” he replies, flashing a confident smile. “Absolutely.”
I Am Giant was shot over the spring and summer, and combines archival footage with a series of Interrotron–style interviews with Cruz conducted by Chopra. When the film opens it’s the spring, and Cruz doesn’t feel entirely confident in the state of his body—having suffered season-ending hamstring and knee injuries in 2010 and 2013, respectively. On camera, he places his confidence in his body at “about a 7.”
“That was at the time. I feel confident about my body now,” says Cruz. “The knee has healed up great—there are no pains or ramifications from the knee. My calf is the issue right now, and that came from overcompensation on that one side, so I’m battling back from that. I’m on the upward rise from that, and I’m confident that my body can conquer these things and come out on the other side.”
Cruz maintains that he’s been fueling his body with “so many vitamins and minerals” and adhering to a very strict diet, doing everything he can to get back to being 100 percent.
And he maintains that he agreed to do I Am Giant “not for money or fame,” but in order to occupy his mind while he was rehabbing, and also fuel him to stay vigilant.
“I’m a very closed-off person,” he says. “I talk with my family, I talk with my mom, but other than that I keep everything inside. I’ll always say, ‘I’m all right, I’ll get past it.’ I felt like this was a form of therapy for me and a way of getting everything out in the open and letting people see a side to me that they haven’t seen.“It helped me keep my mind on straight, and maintain my mental focus,” he continues. “You get complacent with laying on the couch or taking a day off rehabbing, but with this documentary, I couldn’t take a day off. I wanted my body to be good, I wanted to work hard every day to return to the field, and I wanted to have that resonate with the people.”
In other words: I Am Giant is Cruz’s evidence that he has been busting his ass in rehab, and hasn’t been coasting on his guaranteed money.
Though it focuses a great deal of attention on Cruz’s rehab, the doc also sheds some light on Cruz the man, from dodging the drug-dealing life growing up in Paterson, to his time struggling academically after earning a football scholarship to the University of Massachusetts—where Cruz was kicked out of college twice for low grades.
The second time Cruz was kicked out of college came in the fall of 2007, and while he was on academic leave, the aspiring pro athlete learned that his father—an ex-fireman—had committed suicide.
“It was a complete shock,” he tells me. “There weren’t any signs or anything that led up to him feeling that way, or that would make us think he would do something like that.”
It’s one of the most emotional moments in the film, as Cruz tears up on camera discussing his father’s passing, and then is seen collapsing into the arms of his longtime partner, fiancé Elaina Watley. “I had so many questions to ask him,” he tells her, sobbing into her shirt.
Cruz was not only kicked out of school and ineligible to play football, but he’d just lost his father. It was far and away the lowest point in his life, but he says he dug himself out of it after coming to the realization that his family needed him now more than ever.
“I was already kicked out of school a second time and I was home when it happened,” he says. “I just knew that it was my time. My grandfather was sick at the time, my father passes, and I look around and have a family full of women—my older sister, younger sister, my mom, my girlfriend—that look up to me to be there for them and provide for them. I felt it was my turn to be the head of the household and provide, and the first part was getting my school situation together.”
Cruz has known Watley since 2003, when he was still a high schooler in Jersey, and she gave birth to their daughter, Kennedy, in 2012. Last summer, Cruz proposed to her in front of their entire family in a touching video that went viral.
Earlier this month, however, it was revealed that Watley had allegedly sent a mass text to all of the women Cruz was flirting with on the side, essentially putting them on notice. The story made the tabloid rounds, but the pro footballer has remained silent on the issue—and continued to do so during our interview, getting serious and responding repeatedly with a curt “next question.”
What happened with the mass-texting thing?
Is it even true, and if so, is everything OK with you two?
Now, here’s where it should be noted that Watley was all smiles accompanying Cruz to the movie’s premiere at the Crosby (our interview occurred in a side-room about an hour prior). It will air on Showtime Oct. 30.
As for another injured Giant on Big Blue fans’ minds, fireworks connoisseur Jason Pierre-Paul, Cruz says that the two have spoken and he seems to be on the mend from his 4th of July hand injury.
“I spoke to him a few weeks ago and he said he’s feeling well,” says Cruz. “He’s been posting Instagrams to his account of him working out with a splint on his hand he’s been wearing. He’s missing one finger, but it could have been a lot worse—thank god it’s just one. He seems to be in good spirits and I know he’s meeting with the team soon to reassess his hand and see where they go from there.”
Cruz was diplomatic, too, when pressed about the NFL’s domestic violence policy—one that regularly hands down two-game suspensions for domestic violence offenses while suspending players for four-plus games for marijuana. League Commissioner Roger Goodell has come under fire from some sports columnists for the way he’s handled the issue of domestic violence in pro football.“It’s tough to speak on that because it’s always an ongoing issue with the NFL—what type of suspensions they give out for whatever offenses. It’s hard, man, and I think it needs to be brought to a committee of people to judge these things and go through the process, and it needs to be a committee of people who’ve played the game and understand the game. That’s how we can get to the bottom of certain things and get the right types of suspensions for the offenses.”Then I mention the case of Cowboys defensive end Greg Hardy, who’s resurfaced in the league after being suspended for just four games following brutal domestic violence charges, including a subsequent league investigation that found Hardy had used physical force against his female victim in at least four instances. And during Sunday's game against the Giants, Hardy acted up again, yelling and pushing at his coaches and teammates on the sidelines.“Like I said, man, it’s tough,” says Cruz, shaking his head. “Roger Goodell’s got to come down to a decision on certain things.”
The film I Am Giant ends on an interesting note, exploring how Cruz feels about the rise of Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., who’s fast become one of the top ball-catchers in the league. Cruz says in the doc that he felt a natural bit of “jealousy” observing Beckham Jr.’s meteoric rise from the sidelines, but maintains that the two are very close, and can coexist.
“Obviously both of us at some point have to put our egos aside for the betterment of the team,” says Cruz. “We’re not against each other in any way—this isn’t Victor against Odell—this is Odell and Victor against every other team in the league. He understands that, I understand that, and we’re the greatest of friends on and off the field.”
Then, he smiles. “And they can’t double-team both of us.”