To millions of NFL fans, Victor Cruz is familiar as a record-setting wide receiver for the New York Giants who punctuates the touchdowns he scores with a trademark salsa dance in the end zone. (He learned the dance moves from his grandmother.)
But to young people throughout the New York area, Cruz is something more important: As a native of Paterson, New Jersey, Cruz is a genuine local hero in the NFL—a role that he carries out admirably. Since 2010—his first year as a pro player and Giant—Cruz has run the Victor Cruz Foundation, through which encourages kids to become physically active and academically engaged and to pursue their goals despite any hardships they face.
Overcoming severe hardship is something Cruz experienced first-hand. As he recounts in his many talks to young people—and in his newly published autobiography, “Out of the Blue”—Cruz grew up in a low-income, single-parent household. Cruz was raised in his grandparents’ apartment by his mother and experienced the tragedy of his father’s death by suicide.
He excelled at football throughout high school, but soon learned that his ability was not a magic ticket out of poverty. He attended the University of Massachusetts, but became ineligible to play football because he was struggling academically. Despite being sent home three times because of low grades, Cruz was determined to successfully balance his studies with the sport he loved, and in his junior year of college he earned high enough grades to achieve full eligibility for football.
Through his foundation work, Cruz emphasizes to young people that his NFL fame is not the result of one great year—2011, when he set Giants franchise records and helped lead the team to a Super Bowl title—but a lifetime of hard work.
Cruz told the Latinos Post that he wants his foundation to be a “vessel of positivity” for kids that will inspire them to be both physically and mentally active. “It’s very important to be outside and playing because it’s a video game era. . . [and] if I can get kids that are excited about sports as excited about education, science and technology, then I’ll have succeeded,” said Cruz.
Cruz is active in the NFL’s Play 60 campaign, which encourages children to be physically active for at least 60 minutes a day. He also donates food to and serves meals at an anti-poverty center in Paterson. In addition, Cruz has participated in White House events for kids, including a science fair, and was asked by President Obama to help influence kids to pursue STEM-related careers.
Cruz is currently working to establish the Cruz Clubhouse at the Boys & Girls Club of Paterson, the mission of which will be to improve students’ readiness for college. For all his community efforts, Cruz was selected this year to receive the Sports Award from the Big Brothers Big Sisters youth mentoring organization.
Cruz also touched a community and the nation in a special way last year when he learned that he had been the football idol of a 6-year-old, Jack Pinto, who was among those killed in the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Cruz phoned the family to express his condolences. Then he decided to visit them in person. He spent more than an hour at the Pinto’s house, talking to the family and playing a football video game with kids.
“I didn’t want to go in there and make a speech or anything,” Cruz told The New York Times. “I just wanted to go there and spend some time with them.”