The list is undoubtedly short of University of Massachusetts athletes who have made it big on the professional level.
Even casual fans of UMass athletics can probably recognize names like Marcus Camby, Julius Erving and Jonathan Quick, all of whom have carried their success from Amherst to the big leagues. But the list doesn’t stretch much longer than that.
When Victor Cruz burst onto the NFL scene as an undrafted rookie as a member of the New York Giants in 2010, there was hope he would be the next UMass alum to join that elusive list. The former Minutemen wideout received national attention during a preseason game in which he hauled in six catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns, including a one-handed grab that earned him the No. 1 spot on SportsCenter’s top plays.
Cruz went on to make the final 53-man roster for the Giants following the preseason, but as it turned out, he would have to wait to get his next big chance. After playing in three games and not recording a catch, a hamstring injury placed him on injured reserve and cut his rookie season short.
This season, however, injuries have played in Cruz’s favor. Early season setbacks to teammates Mario Manningham and Domenik Hixon forced Cruz into a bigger role in a Week 3 game against the Philadelphia Eagles. Once again, Cruz made the most of his opportunity.
He went off with three catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns, including a 74-yard scamper for his first career score in which he broke one tackle, juked a defender and raced into the end zone. It was then that he gave birth to his now signature salsa dance celebration, an homage to his Hispanic heritage. The dance has even earned him an invitation to compete on ABC’s hit series, “Dancing With The Stars,” although he declined.
The rest is history. Cruz has been one of the biggest surprises in the NFL this year. His 1,536 receiving yards set the Giants’ franchise record and was good for third in the NFL behind Calvin Johnson and Wes Welker. He also notched 82 receptions with nine touchdowns on the year, earning him a selection as a Pro Bowl alternate.
Not bad for a guy that didn’t even start at UMass until he was a junior.
Much like his NFL career, Cruz quickly became a force on the college level. His record-setting day of 13 receptions for 262 yards and two touchdowns in his third career start paved the way for a sensational career at UMass in which he finished with 131 receptions (fourth all-time), 1,958 receiving yards (fifth all-time) and 11 receiving touchdowns (12th all-time).
For those that watched Cruz during his playing days at UMass, his eye-popping numbers may not come as a big surprise. He made some big plays in college that have carried over with relative ease to the professional level.
In a must-win game in order to keep the Giants’ playoff hopes alive, Cruz connected for a 99-yard touchdown – tying the NFL record – in a win over the New York Jets in Week 16. And in the following week, with the NFC East division title on the line against the Dallas Cowboys, Cruz came up big again, catching six passes for 178 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown in the 31-14 victory that put the Giants into the playoffs.
Not bad for a guy that went undrafted.
Success comes in pairs
Cruz isn’t the only UMass product that is currently making it big in the NFL.
Former teammate James Ihedigbo is holding his own for the New England Patriots as a safety. He also went undrafted and after not finding a consistent role on the Jets for three years, signed with the Patriots this preseason.
Much like Cruz, Ihedigbo had to be patient to get his chance. After not seeing regular action in the first four games of the season, Ihedigbo got the starting nod in Week 5 against the Jets and he’s started every game since. He finished the regular season with 69 tackles, helping the Patriots to a 13-3 record and first-round bye in the playoffs.
Ihedigbo won’t make the highlight plays like Cruz does and his numbers aren’t near as impressive so far, but their stories have found similar paths.
Both the Giants and Patriots entered Sunday still alive in the playoffs and one win away from making the Super Bowl, an unlikely destination for two players who were only focused on climbing the UMass depth chart years ago.
As Cruz and Ihedigbo continue to excel professionally while representing the UMass brand and as UMass football makes its moves to the FBS level this year, it just might be a sign of things to come.
Stephen Hewitt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @MDC_Hewitt.