Victor Cruz #3 of the New York Giants breaks a tackle from Dwight Lowery #26 of the New York Jets during the preseason game at New Meadowlands Stadium on August 16, 2010 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Giants won 31 - 16.
When workouts were over and he headed toward the locker room, few people recognized him. He was simply No. 3, as in, "Hey, No. 3, can I have your autograph?"
A little more than two weeks later, Cruz has become an instant celebrity. It's the byproduct of catching three touchdown passes in a 31-16 preseason victory over the rival Jets in the first game at the New Meadowlands Stadium.
The anonymity is gone for the free agent wide receiver from the University of Massachusetts, via Paterson, N.J. "Hey, Cruz give us your autograph!" Or even better: "Victor!" Just like the other stars that fans call on a first-name basis, like Eli and Osi and Justin.
"I am still humble," Cruz said. "I am still a rookie. Those guys [the veterans] still kick me around and stuff like that. I just want to take it day by day and stay consistent. I am just happy I got the opportunity to go out and show what I could do."
What Cruz did is extraordinary. No Giants receiver had caught three touchdown passes in a game since Plaxico Burress in a loss against Dallas on Sept. 9, 2007. The last time a Giant did it in a win was Dec. 22, 2002, when Amani Toomer had three in a win over the Colts.
"Whatever comes, I'll just take it in stride," Cruz said. "I don't want it to stop here. I want it to continue and get better as the practices and games go on. I want to prove I belong in this league and move forward."
Cruz will get a chance to do that on Saturday night when the Giants play their first home game in their new $1.6 billion stadium against Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Roethlisberger is excepted to play for the first time since drawing a six-game suspension.
Cruz just hopes to do his own thing.
"I wouldn't call myself a star just yet," Cruz said with a big smile. "It feels good. It's about being consistent and going out to practice every day and just continue making plays and catching everything thrown my way."
Cruz didn't show a lot in the first week of training camp, but he caught three or four long passes in the week leading up to the Jets game. His play was so good that coach Tom Coughlin singled him out after one workout.
Then came the game in which Cruz exceeded all expectations. He caught six passes for 145 yards against the Jets, highlighted by a one-handed grab with his left hand on a 64-yard scoring pass from Jim Sorgi. Cruz also had TD catches of 34 yards from Sorgi and 5 yards from Rhett Bomar. All three scoring pass came on fade patterns.
The one-handed catch with cornerback Dwight Lowery in great coverage was spectacular.
"I stuck my hand out the last minute and he dove and missed, and I just trucked it in and took it into the end zone," Cruz said. "I couldn't believe it. I was smiling. I was like, 'Did I really just like grab it with one hand?' It was surreal when I got in the end zone. It was one of the happiest moments in my life to date."
The other was seeing his mother Blanca crying her eyes out in the stands after the game.
Getting to the locker room was also interesting. Cruz had 182 text messages on his telephone and was stunned to hear that NBA superstar LeBron James had tweeted about his performance.
Cruz said he returned 90 percent of the texts, including about 70 from telephone numbers that he did not recognize.
"It meant a lot for me for everything to come together that way, especaily being at home and having 20 of your friends in the stands," Cruz said. "It was definitely one of the craziest moments in my life."
The performance definitely will go a long way in helping Cruz make the Giants roster, but a spot is not guaranteed with veterans Steve Smith, Hakeem Nicks, Mario Manningham, Derek Hagan, Ramses Barden and Sinorice Moss all competing for spots.
"I hope it helps a lot," Cruz said. "But you know I have no control over that. Those guys on top make that decision. I'm on the field making plays and running around."
If he keeps running around like last game, he'll be on the Giants roster for the regular-season opener against Carolina.