Sun Jan 08 10:19am EST
In his second NFL season, Cruz is a big reason why his Giants have surprised many with a 9-7 record this year, good enough dance their way into the playoffs. He leads all receivers on his team with 82 catches for 1,536 yards and nine touchdowns, and each trip to the end zone capped off by a salsa dance celebration. He admits that his dance steps to celebrate six points caught the attention of the reality show, but for now he's content to keep his salsa to the highlight reel.
"I'm not going to do it, I chose to decline it because I don't feel like I'm at the point of my career where I can do something like that," Cruz told Yahoo! Sports. "I'm focused on football; focused on my family right now."
The show has featured NFL players and personalities like Emmitt Smith, Jason Taylor and Hines Ward making Cruz's decision to turn down the hit network show unthinkable in terms of the buzz and exposure he'd generate. Then again once you get to know Cruz, you begin to understand why he's appreciating simply being in the NFL.
On Sunday, Cruz will put on his Giants uniform and come running out of the tunnel at MetLife Stadium for the wild-card playoff game against the Atlanta Falcons just 11.9 miles away from his childhood home of Paterson, N.J. Cruz endured a rough upbringing in a place where many simply don't make it.
According to 2010 statistics, Paterson is one of the 100 most dangerous citiesin the United States, including a violent crime rate more than triple of the average city in New Jersey. The city was even featured in the first season of the Sopranos for, fittingly based off this reputation, a violent crime. But Cruz has now lifted himself up from a place where drugs, gangs and poverty are the norm to become a bona fide NFL star in the making. "In the city, a lot of crime happens, a lot of violence happens from time to time," Cruz said. "Growing up in Paterson wasn't the easiest thing."
Out of high school Cruz, despite being one of the best athletes in New Jersey, was overlooked by many top college programs, and he ended up at UMass. Certainly not one of the more prominent programs in the nation, even by FCS standards, Cruz's numbers were very average at Amherst and when he signed with the Giants last spring as an undrafted free agent he was certainly an under the radar player. Teammates and players he went up against in the Atlantic 10 had gotten drafted but Cruz went virtually unnoticed.
He's brutally honest when he says he understands why he wasn't taken in the draft.
"I wasn't surprised actually; I understand how this business works and not coming from a big time program or a large program," Cruz said. "I didn't have outstanding numbers coming out of college and I'm not 6'6 with 230 lbs. I knew I'd have a shot, have a chance and that when I get a chance I'd make the most of it."
It didn't take long for his talents to emerge as Cruz was a star of preseason in 2010 but an injury in Week 4 shelved his rookie year. Cruz took this setback and got stronger and mentally ready for his second year in the league. His little taste of the NFL showed him he could play and belong.
Early next week, Cruz will be announced as one of five finalists for the Vizio Top Value Performer Award. The honor is given to a player based on his regular season performance, statistics, and the role played in the success of the team. These factors are then measured against his base salary, which in Cruz's case is $490,000 dollars. Cruz calls himself incredibly "honored and thankful" for being a finalist for the Vizio award; Steve Johnson of the Buffalo Bills won the award last year.
Being named a finalist by Vizio is a testament to how Cruz has exceeded expectations in helping lead the Giants into the postseason.
"It's amazing, coming in and being a relative unknown and getting this opportunity to play this game I love, getting the opportunity to show my talent. I am glad I was able to do so, show my team and help them," Cruz said. "I always felt I had to work hard, coming off an injury, coming off of last year. I had to maintain my hard work and I'd be fine."
And on Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, the capacity crowd at MetLife Stadium is hoping to value his performance as well.
The salsa celebration happens only when he makes it into the end zone and only began this season — Cruz didn't score a touchdown during his brief rookie year and he acknowledges that a celebration like his would have been a penalty in high school or college. He learned the dance when he was 11 years old, the steps taught to him by his grandmother.
At an age when most boys would rather be playing outside or with a controller in hand, focusing on a video game, Cruz was more than happy to enjoy those moments with his grandmother and now pays tribute to her whenever he scores a touchdown.
"It was more of a thing where music would be playing all throughout the house or parties. In a playful moment, she would just grab me and start dancing," Cruz said. "Now I do it for her."
Follow Kristian R. Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer
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