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Sullivan: Victor Cruz wins his personal battle

September 12, 2016

ARLINGTON, Texas – Victor Cruz had already won.

Before the final scoreboard at AT&T Stadium would record a stirring one-point victory for the Giants, before the dynamic wide receiver would cradle the game-winning touchdown in his hands, before the beloved superstar would stop in front of the neon goal post and unleash a signature salsa dance, Victor Cruz had already won.

He won by simply taking the field Sunday against the Cowboys, by returning to play a game his injuries tried so many times to take away, by persevering through years of rehab and waves of doubt to finish a journey more than 700 days in the making.

He won when he caught his first pass late in the second quarter, a 5-yard route that left him pumping his fists in satisfaction for the mere ability to stay on his feet. He won when he added two more receptions later in that same drive, a 26-yard combination that set up a touchdown pass to his colleague Sterling Shepard, and won when he met the rookie with a celebratory body slam on Shepard’s way off the field.

But winning never felt as good as it did when Cruz made his fourth catch of the day, a 3-yard touchdown grab from his old friend Eli Manning that wasn’t just big for Cruz, but for the Giants, giving them what would be their ultimate margin of victory, 20-19.

“I’m just so happy for him,” general manager Jerry Reese said as he made his way out of the locker room, the sounds of celebration still rippling through a team that had walked out of this same stadium a year ago singing a much sadder tune. “We needed it, and he needed it.”

Did he ever. Across a poignant NFL first Sunday, when the 15th anniversary of 9/11 laid an extra blanket of emotion over the full schedule of games, when former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura walked through a phalanx of first responders to perform the coin toss, it was Cruz who rose up and provided the best kind of sports story we know — one of hope, of fear, of opportunity, of redemption.

From that horrific night in Philadelphia almost two years ago, when a shredded knee brought him to the ground, he never gave up the belief he could be back. Not when surgeons worked hours to put his knee back together. Not when he needed a new surgery on his calf and missed 2015. Not when he had to give back a huge portion of his salary just to return for 2016.

On Sunday, he made that belief come true, paying tribute to his own journey, paying tribute to his deceased father, a career firefighter who volunteered for days in the Manhattan ruins, tying himself to the same ethos of hard work and devotion his father had, topping it of with the salsa dance his grandmother taught him.

“Just elated, just in that moment, I couldn’t even describe what was going through my body to obviously do the dance and make sure I got that down pat and just celebrate with my teammates,” Cruz said.

“Everybody was pulling for me each and every day, each and every week, as we got closer and closer, you could just sense everybody had me in their prayers, pushing for me and excited for me to get dressed and be out there for game one. To score a touchdown, you couldn’t paint this story any better.

“A lot of people go through injuries and they don’t get to this moment. They don’t get this opportunity to get back and reclaim what they once were, what they once had. To be able to get this moment again is one of the biggest things for me and one of the biggest obstacles for me to cross.”

He couldn’t have scripted it better. The 3-yard touchdown from Manning didn’t just remind the players how much they’d missed each other on the field, but reminded the football world of what they’re capable of when they’re out there together.

Down six against a division opponent relying on a rookie quarterback and a rookie running back, Manning went to work in the fourth quarter and had driven his team to the Dallas 3-yard line with 6:29 to play. But two failed corner routes to top receiver Odell Beckham Jr. was squeezing the life out his touchdown hopes, ones that appeared to dwindle even more as the third down play unfolded. All across the end zone, his receivers were covered. Manning started moving, trying to buy time. Cruz started moving, trying to steal space. They saw each other, and boom, time went backward. Manning threw it over the middle, an open Cruz hauled it in, and the Giants had the lead.

“He probably felt he was covered, but he saw me kind of moving around the pocket and found the open window.” Manning said. “He kept on the move, kept the play alive. That’s what he does well. He might actually get a minus on the actual route, because he’s technically not supposed to do what he did. But we’ll worry about that later. It’s a minus, [but it’s a] good job, good touchdown.

“I was excited for him, not just for the touchdown, but for being out there today, catching passes, being in the mix, doing his deal. … It’s been a long time, like what, 700 days since his last game? That’s pretty special for him to get the game-winning touchdown on this day.”

The record will show Cruz did indeed win the game for the Giants on Sunday. But make no mistake: Long before he made that final catch, he’d already won. He did that when he took the field.

Email: sullivan@northjersey.com