“No doubt, that will be my defining moment forever,” Cruz said in an interview four years ago. “Long after I’m retired and I come back on old-timers’ day, they’ll show that on the scoreboard video screen. There will be dads in the stands pointing at the screen and telling their kids about the 99-yard touchdown.”
And, if that scene plays out in the future, those fans will most likely be serenading him with their familiar tribute to him: “Cruuuuuz.”
Along with Cruz, the Giants also released running back Rashad Jennings, the team’s leading rusher last season — but neither transaction was a surprise. Both moves reflected the declining statistical production of each player and an economic reality that the cuts will save the Giants $10 million against next season’s salary cap. (Cruz’s voided contract is $7.5 million of the total.)
Parting ways with Cruz, 30, and Jennings, 31, also reflects the unflinching determination of the second-year coach, Ben McAdoo, to make his team significantly younger. Quarterback Eli Manning, 36, is now the only player under contract older than 30.
The discarding of Cruz and Jennings is also another step toward bringing a decisive end to the Tom Coughlin era. Few significant contributors to any of Coughlin’s teams remain on the roster — and there may be fewer still when the Giants open training camp this summer.
Cruz missed almost two full seasons in 2014 and 2015 because of injuries. Last year, playing behind Odell Beckham Jr. and the rookie Sterling Shepard, Cruz caught 39 passes for 586 yards. Jennings, who had lost his starting job to the rookie Paul Perkins by the end of the season, rushed for 593 yards, or 270 fewer than in 2015.
Cruz and Jennings, now free agents, said Monday that they expected to continue their N.F.L. careers.
On Monday, the Giants gave Cruz the warmest send-off they could muster. He even toured the team’s office and practice facility.
“I was there for an hour or two just talking to everyone,” Cruz said on the team’s website. “It’s been an amazing journey.”
Jerry Reese, the Giants’ general manager, said of Cruz, “Victor is one of the great stories of the National Football League.”
That may be true, but Cruz’s ascent to pro stardom was altogether unforeseen. He did not have the grades at his high school in Paterson, N.J., to be a top college recruit. He did not enroll at the University of Massachusetts until he raised his grades during a year at a remote Maine prep school. But he stumbled again and was expelled from UMass because of poor grades not once, but twice.
He returned to Paterson.
“I was going to be another inner-city kid working at Wendy’s or some mall,” he said. “I could have been there the rest of my life.”
During this period, his father, Michael Walker, committed suicide. Cruz began taking courses at a local community college before returning to UMass and becoming the leading receiver on a championship team.
But N.F.L. teams were uninspired by his middling dash times and his lack of size (barely 6 feet and 190 pounds). The Giants offered a limited lifeline, but Cruz spent most of his rookie season on injured reserve. Giants coaches, however, were impressed that Cruz came to all the wide receivers’ meetings, even though he could not play for the season.
Cruz earned a significant role on the 2011 Giants and would end up with 1,536 receiving yards, 82 catches and 9 touchdowns. He caught 21 passes in the team’s four playoff games that season, including a touchdown in the Super Bowl victory over the Patriots.
Two exceptional seasons followed, but in the fourth game of the 2014 season, Cruz ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee. His comeback was delayed another season by a serious calf injury.
His 2016 season began with a rousing, game-winning touchdown grab in the Giants’ opening-game victory at Dallas, but it turned out to be Cruz’s only score of the year. By the close of the season, it was clear that his Giants career was nearing its conclusion.
The height of his celebrity during the 2011 season was illustrated about a month later at the Super Bowl, where Madonna, the halftime performer that year, conceded at a news conference that she knew almost nothing about football.
But before she left, she stood at the front of the stage and did a version of Cruz’s salsa dance.