Watching Victor Cruz on the field, he does not seem to have a care in the world. There is always a smile, a laugh and, in good times, the salsa.
The second-year New York Giants receiver is having a breakthrough season. He has already broken the Giants' single-season record for yards receiving, becoming one of the NFL's big-play threats.
He has scored on a team-record 99-yard touchdown against the New York Jets last weekend, and has endeared himself to the 80,000 patrons of MetLife Stadium with his electrifying touchdowns, followed by celebrations with a Latin flair.
Even a routine catch of an Eli Manning pass is greeted by long sustained cries of "Cruz!"
Not bad for an undrafted free agent who twice was asked to leave the University of Massachusetts because of grades.
For a 25 year old who grew up 15 or so minutes from the Meadowlands, it is pinch-me stuff.
Cruz grew up in Paterson, New Jersey, an urban city marred by drug problems and gangs, and with employment in the 16 per cent range. His dream had many chances of never coming true, according to city councilman Benjie Wimberly, Cruz's football coach at Paterson Catholic.
"It's not an easy place for someone to grow up in," Wimberly said.
Cruz, the son of an African-American father and Hispanic mother, remembers nights sitting in his home or walking the neighbourhood, and hearing gunshots in the vicinity.
"It's still pretty surreal," Cruz said as the Giants prepared for their NFC East title showdown with the Dallas Cowboys today. "I wake up every day and just pinch myself and kind of think about how far I have come and all the stuff I have done.
"I didn't anticipate having this kind of season. I just wanted to come in and hopefully do some things well and find my place, and to now have my place in history, it's just been crazy."
Cruz's statistics border on ridiculous, considering he is the Giants' No 3 receiver behind Hakeem Nicks and Mario Manningham.
The player has 76 catches for 1,358 yards and eight touchdowns. He is averaging nearly 18 yards a reception and this week was selected as a second alternate to the Pro Bowl despite not being on the fan ballot.
With the Giants' season in the balance, he single-handedly turned the momentum in their 29-14 win over the Jets by catching a 10-yard, third-down hook pass and slipping between two tacklers en route to that 99-yard touchdown.
"You catch the ball and you try to feel where the defenders are," Cruz said.
"I just make a move and try to get as many yards as a I can.
"I kind of pride myself on that because I try to make myself as hard to tackle as possible. The more yards I get after the catch, the closer we get to the end zone. Or if I can score, all the better."
Kevin Gilbride, the Giants' offensive co-ordinator, cannot help but smile when discussing Cruz.
"I have jokingly said that he giveth and taketh away on a play-to-play basis," Gilbride said.
"In all honesty, he has grown over the last three or four weeks.
"There haven't been any mistakes and he has made some terrific reads. It is really impressive to me to see the growth that has taken place."
Wimberly said Cruz was like most Paterson Catholic teenagers. He wanted to play on what was a very good basketball team.
"He was a super talented athlete who was just one of the guys on the basketball team," Wimberly said. "We realised he had the athletic ability and talent to play football, and with his size, he would really make a difference."
Cruz made a difference in high school but struggled early in college, in part because of the sudden death of his father. He was twice sent home and had to take some courses online.
"A lot of it had to do with me being a knucklehead, and mom not being there and me being on my own," Cruz said.
Cruz eventually finished his college career with 131 catches despite not starting a game until his junior year. He was signed by the Giants as a free agent and gained national attention catching three touchdowns in a pre-season game against the Jets. His rookie season ended early after he was placed on injured reserve with a hamstring injury. In less than a year, Cruz has become a role model for Hispanic football players, and he hopes more turn their attention to football.
"Culturally, it hasn't been a Hispanic-dominated sport," Cruz said. "I think with myself and Tony Gonzalez, and guys like that, it should be key to causing an increase."
One thing that has not changed despite the success is Cruz - he is still the down-to-earth guy who works to help his community.
Two weeks ago, Wimberly said Cruz was at a dinner for 600 homeless people in Paterson and he followed that by giving a pre-game speech to a winless football team at Paterson Eastside.
They won the game.
"You name it, from high school stuff and anything I call him for," Wimberly said, "he's there."
* Associated Press
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