City of Paterson Beams Over Its Giant Hero Victor Cruz

Among the many New York Giants fans who will be watching the team’s wide receiver Victor Cruz play in the Super Bowl on Sunday will be Benjie Wimberly, who knew all about his magic way before the rest of the country.

Wimberly, who is scheduled to fly to Indiana Saturday to attend the game, was Cruz’s football coach at Paterson Catholic High School, the Giant star’s alma mater.

“I’m totally excited for him,” said Wimberly, who is a councilman in Paterson, New Jersey’s third largest city. “What’s happening is unbelievable.”

But then again, Wimberly said, Cruz’s “raw talent was always unbelievable.”

Wimberly was brought to Paterson Catholic -- which until it closed in 2010, had as its mission to propel disadvantaged kids from the city to their greatest potential – to take students like Victor Cruz and help them dream big dreams, and achieve them.

In an interview with The New York Times, Paterson Catholic’s former principal, Sister Gloria Perez, said: “We tortured those kids, we haunted them with learning. I knew each kid’s name, and I told them, ‘You have no choice; you will go to college.’ ”

“The town is on fire because of him. Everywhere you go in this city, everyone is excited. . . Victor has been an injection of hope in the community.”

— Benjie Wimberly, Victor Cruz's former high school football coach

On Wimberly’s watch, the Paterson Catholic Cougars won several championships and many of the players went on to play college sports.

Now, Cruz himself is a source of inspiration, a morale boost, for many in Paterson, which is plagued by violence and poverty – and, until Cruz, made the headlines mainly because of its staggering problems.

Cruz, who went undrafted in the 2010 NFL draft before eventually being recruited by the Giants, towers in the city as an example of how you can defy the odds, and exceed expectations.

"Coaches were short-sighted [about Cruz's potential] because of his size and weight," Wimberly said.

But with that good old Paterson Catholic determination, Cruz made believers out of the skeptics.

“The town is on fire because of him,” Wimberly said. “Everywhere you go in this city, everyone is excited, everyone is talking about Victor. This is such a big deal for us. In Paterson, we’ve had so much negative press, we’ve had a very hard time financially. Victor has been an injection of hope in the community.”

A rally that was planned by Paterson leaders on short notice for Cruz last weekend at School 21 – which the football player attended -- managed to draw a crowd of nearly 5,000.

“He’s fast becoming a role model to kids in his hometown,” said a story in the Record newspaper. “They can see themselves in him: He’s Puerto Rican and black. He lived in a single-story house on East 18th Street. He didn’t get sidetracked by an environment beset with drugs and violence. And he overcame academic and other setbacks.”

Much of the credit, Wimberly said, for his former charge’s success has to go to his mother, Blanca Cruz, who applied tough love to a son who – while talented – couldn’t resist many of the distracting temptations tugging at other guys his age.

“She was always involved with him in a good way,” Wimberly recalled. “She was very supportive of Victor. There was a strong, quiet presence about her.”

In an interview with ESPN, Cruz’s mother – who was born in Puerto Rico -- spoke of how she kept the pressure on her son, especially when he goofed off at the University of Massachusetts, and risked never getting a college degree.

Now, she too is headed for the Super Bowl, expecting her son to do well, and waiting for him to do his victory salsa moves.

"I told Victor, 'I'd like at least one salsa in the Super Bowl,'" Blanca told ESPN. "It's always been important to us that he acknowledges my heritage, and his grandmother's heritage, to let everyone know where he came from.”

Cruz has spoken about how after his father’s death, which Cruz said was a suicide, he realized he had to be the man of the house, and be more responsible.

“There are so many single parents, single moms, raising boys in the city, it’s hard,” Wimberly said. “She’s a great role model for those moms.”

The city’s leaders are discussing how to welcome back their new local hero after the Super Bowl – perhaps a rally, or keys to the city.

“This is big, we need to celebrate,” Wimberly said.

Follow Elizabeth Llorente on Twitter: @Liz_Llorente

Elizabeth Llorente can be reached

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