By Chris Emma—
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. (CBS) – Whenever he talks, they listen.
Early on in Chicago, Bears receiver Victor Cruz has learned his voice is quite important – to Kevin White, the 2015 first-round pick struggling with his confidence after two lost surgeries; to Cam Meredith, the breakout performer looking to build upon his 2016 success; and even to Kendall Wright, who like Cruz is trying to find his old self.
They all go quiet and their eyes go wide. The respect for the 30-year-old Cruz is clear.
“I just want to make sure I’m telling them the right thing, telling them things that are going to help them,” Cruz said. “Because I’ve seen every route in the book, I’ve seen every circumstance – a 6-10 team as opposed to a 9-7 team on the way to the Super Bowl. I’ve seen both sides to it.
“It’s been fun. I kind of relish in that. I’ve been through so much, I think that’s my role now.”
Cruz knows well how there’s no single path to follow in the NFL. He rose to stardom in New York in his second season in the league after being signed to the Giants as an undrafted free agent. The best seasons for Cruz were in 2011 and 2012, when he combined for 168 catches, 2,628 yards and 19 touchdowns. His emergence in 2011 was a key in the Giants’ surprising Super Bowl run.
Over the last three years, Cruz has just 62 receptions to his name. A torn patellar tendon cost him the final 10 games of the 2014 season, then a calf injury in 2015 required surgery and ended his year without playing a game. Cruz played 15 games last year and hauled in 39 catches, but the Giants cut him in February. It was time for the next opportunity.
Cruz could feel how eager Bears general manager Ryan Pace was to sign him. It was one of the greatest draws to Chicago. The Bears needed not only a stabilizing force for their young receiving group but also a sure-handed veteran for new starting quarterback Mike Glennon and rookie Mitchell Trubisky.
Coach John Fox knows well what the presence of Cruz means, but the words of these young receivers spoke volumes.
“Great leader,” White said. “He sees things that a lot of us may not see. He always has great ideas and good advice. He’s been there, done that, and he’s been a heck of a leader for us.”
Added Meredith: “He’s been to the promise land, where we all want to get to. We take a lot of stuff that he says and try to apply that to our own game.”
Cruz couldn’t help but to smile about how these players look to him, but he got used to it with the Giants. Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard are both 24, the same age as Meredith, while White is 25. Cruz is happy to play the role of veteran leader.
But there are greater goals in store for Cruz. He didn’t join the Bears to serve as a de facto assistant coach. His hope is to produce in this league once again.
“I want to go out there and perform the way I know how,” Cruz said. “I want to go out there and catch everything that’s thrown to me. I want to score touchdowns. I want to be that player that I know I can be. I’ve definitely taken steps in that direction, but consistency is the key.
“I’m not done playing this game by any means, and I want to continue to prove that and continue to perform.”
Cruz has moved well past the sudden end in New York. What happened with the Giants is now part of the past for him. The most important motivation, Cruz said, stems from family and not football.
Sure, there are other factors that exist. Cruz was a small-school kid who found his way to the league. He was said to be too small and became a big-time receiver. Now the belief is that Cruz can’t be a productive player again in this league.
Perspective is what has shaped one of the game’s most respected veterans.
“Just embrace what’s in front of you and control what you can control,” Cruz said. “That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in this league. You can’t control everything. You can’t control the decision-making of a head coach or the decision-making of an offensive coordinator.
“I just got to continue to be myself and continue to focus on the things that I can control, and that’s being ready and performing at a high level. I don’t need anything to happen to be motivated. I’m motivated each and every time I’m out here dressed up in this uniform.”