Before he was an All-Pro wide receiver for the New York Giants, before he did his now world-famous salsa dance in the end zone of the Super Bowl on his way to a world championship, before he became the athlete that every menswear designer wanted seated at the front row of their fashion shows, Victor Cruz was a kid from Paterson, NJ who wasn’t entirely sure where life was going to take him.
So when Cruz arrived in Milan this past January for Men’s Fashion Week as a guest of Calvin Klein—an invitation reserved for the fashion elite, he suddenly realized how far he had actually come.
“Here I am walking the streets of Milan,” Cruz says, “a kid from Paterson, where guys don’t even make it out of their own town. And it’s a different world. I see people wearing completely different clothing. What we would call a (fashion) risk here in the US, they wear it every day. It was inspiring."
As a star athlete of African-American and Puerto Rican heritage, in perhaps the most diverse city in the world, Cruz understands the importance of inspiration well. He hears about it from a rabid fan base every day. He was once one of them, a kid who grew up loving sports. His single mom, Blanca, who would drive an hour each way to work at the Benjamin Moore customer service department to earn money for the family, raised him. He would spend much of his time with his grandparents who looked after him while mom was at work. He became the first child in his family to go to college. After persevering through academic issues at the University of Massachusetts, Cruz would work to make himself into a first-team all-conference wide receiver. He was even more proud to complete his senior thesis, “The African-American Male Athlete as Captured by the Media.” He graduated with a degree in African-American studies.
Cruz waited for his name to be called on the final day of the NFL Draft. And he waited. And the call never came. Cruz was given a chance at New York Giants training camp, solely on the recommendation of a scout named Chris Pettit, who saw Cruz at the UMass Pro Day and told the front office that they would not regret giving Cruz a chance.
After an incredible training camp in 2010, which included a three-touchdown performance against the New York Jets, Cruz made the team, only to tear his hamstring before he ever had the opportunity to catch a pass in a regular season game.
In 2011, Cruz made the team, and starting only seven games that season, he earned All-Pro honors, broke the franchise record for receiving yards in a season, and was an irreplaceable member of a team that would win the Super Bowl. Before he knew it, Number 80 jerseys were everywhere. Fans would yell “Cruuuuuuz!” every time he touched the ball. And Madonna was emulating his salsa dance at a Super Bowl press conference.
Firmly established himself as a pro, Cruz was also beginning to make his mark in the world of fashion. His clothing line, Young Whales has created a steadily growing following. “It started as a means to get some secondary income during the lockout,” Cruz says. “And then it grew to this bigger thing, where we were almost overwhelmed by the amount of people that were into it from Giants fans to fashionheads that liked our stuff. It’s grown so much, it’s like my baby, the way I treat it.”
Cruz personal style has also made him a “must-get” at the front row of fashion shows for every menswear designer. He says his fashion influences date back as far as he can remember. “I grew up in a Spanish household, so I would see ponchos,” Cruz says. “Every Friday, people would come over to visit my grandmother, they’d put on records, and everyone would dance in the living room. And everybody made sure they looked good. My grandfather’s friends would wear silk shirts with cardigans. I would see velvet cardigans. When the holidays would come around, they would wear these amazing scarves and hats, and the women would have these minks on. And in the summertime, my grandfather would play dominos up the block, and everyone would wear their shades. They had to look good.”
By the time Cruz was a teenager, the influence from his African-American cultural background began to catch up. “My dad was always a sharp dresser. He would be the guy in church with the suspenders and the white button-downs. In high school, I discovered the baggy clothes, the jerseys, and the bigger hats. Everything was evolving, and I was evolving with it.”
Cruz’s mother, Blanca, would travel an hour each way to work a job that would put food on the table. “She worked so hard,” Cruz says, “but she would always find a way to surprise me. If there was something special that I wanted to wear, she would figure out a way to get it for me for the holidays, or for Easter, or for my birthday. The first piece of clothing I ever really wanted was a Nautica jacket that was the coolest thing around at the time. It cost around $150, which was a lot of money for us. She surprised me on my birthday with it, and I cherished that jacket. When I wore it, I felt like people treated me differently. I felt like they were paying attention.”
Cruz still remains very much that young man from Paterson, but he now lives on the world stage. The clothes that he carefully selected as a teenager are seen by millions of fans through social media and paparazzi photos. His long-time girlfriend Elaina Watley manages his burgeoning off-the-field career, ensuring the opportunities that come his way are appropriate for his unique brand.
“It’s important to me not only to be consistent on the field, but to be a consistent person in the community. A lot of athletes get confused and think that it’s not their responsibility to be a role model, but you are, and kids aspire to want to do what you do. I just want to continue be a positive role model for kids."
While he is striving to do that, he’s enjoying whatever opportunities come his way, be it in sports or fashion. “I think athletes are stepping up their fashion game now more than ever,” Cruz says. “The NBA guys have owned it for a while, but NFL guys are creeping up there now in their style. Whatever I do in fashion, I just want to continue to do things that are organic to who I am. I never want to do something that’s forced. I want everything I put my name on to be something that is an organic part of me.”
So when Cruz steps onto the field on Sundays, and you see his name on his back, you will know the authenticity of the journey. And when he crosses into the end zone with the football, and the salsa music begins for Cruz’s touchdown dance, it’s not a tribute to self-promoting athletes, it’s a sign of love to the people who helped him travel so far, so fast.