INDIANAPOLIS – Between his salsa dancing, his relatively fluent handling of Spanish, an engaging smile and a performance that has been transcendent, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz is sitting on a gold mine these days.
That beats sitting around his mother's house a few years ago, too embarrassed to go out and risk having to explain why you're there.
"If he wins the Super Bowl, he's going to have the best of two worlds: the English-speaking culture and a Spanish-speaking culture," said Daniel Vinas, an associate producer with Univision in Miami. "It's going to be unbelievable. We've had some Hispanic players who have done great things in the NFL … but the whole crossover appeal that Victor will have? It's going to be unreal."
Just how big is Cruz these days in the Latin community? On Tuesday, triple-platinum pop recording artist Ciara was in town for Super Bowl XLVI Media Day to show her appreciation, donning a No. 80 Cruz jersey.
In some respects, the story already is too hard to fathom. Cruz was an undrafted free agent out of the University of Massachusetts in 2010. He not only came close to getting cut on a couple of occasions by the Giants, he almost didn't survive at UMass. By his own admission, he was twice kicked out of school for academic problems.
If you spend five minutes talking to Cruz, you know that's not because he lacks intellectual ability. He was, by his own account, young, irresponsible and looking for a little fun.
"Everybody says that when you go off to college, it's your chance to have a good time," said Cruz, whose girlfriend Elaina gave birth to the couple's daughter, Kennedy, last month. "At the same time, you have to take care of your work. I didn't get that. I expected a lot of things to be given to me and just taken care of when I got to college and that wasn't going to happen."
Rather, things were taken away. The chance to play was the first thing. Worse, his father committed suicide in 2007. His grandfather also died that year while Cruz was back at home in Paterson, N.J., trying to get his grades together at Passaic Community College.
"It wasn't one thing that made me realize that I had to get this straightened out, it was a multitude of things," Cruz said. "So many things were happening at once, and I just realized I didn't want to be a statistic, another guy from an inner-city who didn't make it. I wanted to realize my dreams. To do that, I had to apply myself."
The result has been a 180-degree turn in his life that has him standing on the edge of stardom in two cultures.
This week, Cruz has been the darling of the Latin media contingent that annually covers the Super Bowl. During Media Day, the contingent eventually convinced Cruz to do his salsa dance, bringing out a boom box with salsa music and a disco ball hanging at the end of a stick.
For all the great football players of Hispanic heritage (from Jim Plunkett to Anthony Munoz to Tony Gonzalez), Cruz may be the most embraceable. Each day this week (and much of the season), Cruz, whose mother is Puerto Rican, answered numerous questions in Spanish. While not perfectly fluent – there are the occasional English phrases and rough translations that pop into his answers – Cruz is clearly good enough to go on the Latin talk show circuit.
Moreover, it's clear that Cruz takes great pride in his heritage. His grandmother taught him to salsa. This week when a reporter suggested that someone else was trying to take credit for teaching Cruz to salsa, Cruz got annoyed.
"Anybody who knows my story knows my grandmother taught me the dance," he said, showing a glimpse of his intense family pride.
At the same time, fans and teammates take the dance with a certain good humor.
"I think that's going to become the new Macarena," defensive lineman Justin Tuck said.
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With Latin reporters, Cruz talked about all the Latin music he listens to, including Reggaeton (a Latin form of hip-hop music).
By contrast, Gonzalez admitted this week that he's "not yet" fluent in Spanish. Likewise, New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who pays homage to his Mexican roots, is also very rough with the language.
More important, Cruz is emerging as a star player (82 catches for 1,536 yards, nine touchdowns and a host of highlight plays) on one of the league's most high-profile teams. Throw in his combination of engaging energy, good looks and story about overcoming adversity and the script couldn't read any better.
"The Latin culture would go crazy for him because he's so immersed in the culture. It's really part of him," Vinas said. "He does the dance, he listens to the music, he speaks the language. He's really into it. It's really part of him, not just something that was in his past. The story he has is one that so many Latin people identify with.
"With athletes, we've been looking for that football player who could really crossover. Obviously we have all sorts of baseball players, and that's the first love in Latin culture. But football is big and it's growing. You have a guy with a chance to be the star of that sport with these fans."
And for a guy who is making $490,000 in base salary this season (making him one of the most underpaid players in this game), that chance is one he can't ignore.
"Right now, I'm focused on football and taking care of that first," said Cruz, who turned down a chance to go on ABC's "Dancing With The Stars." "My family does a really good job of helping me focus and decide on things I'm ready for."
"I see what could happen for me and I'm going to capitalize on it when the time is right. Like I said, I have that pride in my culture and I want to show people that."
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