PATERSON, NJ - Victor Cruz' record-breaking season for the Super Bowl-bound New York Giants exceeded everyone's expectations. So did the turnout for Paterson's pep rally for its gridiron hero.
Well more than 1,000 people jammed the area around School 21 Saturday afternoon, forcing authorities to shut down some streets in the area. Fans wearing Giant jerseys and hats started showing up at the school by 10 am, six hours before the event began, in an effort to get front-row spots for the festivities, officials said. People who came at the rally's starting time ended up disappointed because they could get no where near the festivities, the crowd was so huge.
As the sun set and the evening grew colder, most of the crowd waited anxiously outside. Fans stared at the door, hoping for Cruz to emerge. When he finally stepped outside, the throng erupted in cheers. For many of them, a glimpse of their hero was worth the discomfort of the cold and the shoving of the crowd.
“I am truly honored to be a Patersonian and very proud of Victor Cruz,'' said Alex Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Paterson. "He doesn’t forget his roots and represents Paterson.”
“With the shootings and killings taking place lately, to have something like this in Paterson is great,” said Carl Jones. “It shows the positive side of Paterson; not everything is bad.”
More than 500 t-shirts were distributed and Cruz signed hundreds of autographs, said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, Cruz' football coach at Paterson Catholic and an organizer of the event.
When asked what kind of message Cruz' accomplishment sends out to city youths, 18-year-old Giany Salinas replied, “If you are dedicated, you can achieve anything.”
“He is a source of inspiration for the youth,” said 16 year old Sasha Polanco. “I look up to him.”
“I feel limited being a Patersonian,” said 14 year old Carlos Febo Junior. “From Victor Cruz, I learned that I can do whatever I set my mind to.”
Organizers had hoped to allow Cruz to spend more time mingling with the fans. But they mobbed him when he emerged from the school and the man who rang up more receiving yards this season than any other Giant in history couldn't get open. "The people were so excited when they saw him that it was no longer possible,'' said Wimberly, explaining why Cruz was confined to an area at the school's front steps.
"He's getting ready for the Super Bowl. For him to take time to come to Paterson to say 'I didn't forget about you guys,' that was commendable,'' said City Council President Anthony Davis.
"It was a great day, something that Paterson can be proud of,'' said Wimberly, who plans to attend the big game. "Hopefully, he can win the Super Bowl and we can come back and have a big parade. His success becomes our success.''
Indeed, after the past year brought a massive tax increase, relentless crime and a municipal overtime scandal, Patersonians needed something to feel good about. Cruz' rags-to-riches emergence as a charismatic NFL star provided that.
“I want to thank all of you for coming out here and supporting me all my life,'' Cruz told the those among the throng who were close enough to hear him." Some of you all seen me since I was a little kid and you’ve seen me grown up and become a man and I want to thank you for coming out and supporting me.''
Some folks were allowed inside the school to get closer to Cruz, including officials in somewhat of a VIP section. People on the streets grumbled that only Patersonians with connections were allowed inside. But Wimberly said that other than some school administrators and government officials, admission to the school was provided on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Hundreds left the rally in disappointment, without ever getting an autograph or a chance to rub elbows with their hero.
“I wish I could have met him,” said Polanco.
“He just came for a few seconds and left,” said Carlos Febo. “Not what I expected.”
“I feel really disappointed,” added Salinas.
But Wimberly said the scene at School 21 was not so different from appearance Cruz made at Times Square during the week. The reality of such events is that not everyone gets an autograph.
"I'm disappointed that anyone could say they were disappointed,'' said Wimberly. "This day was about Victor Cruz. It wasn't for all the other people. That's what a pep rally is for, it's for the players.''