Football, Smarts, and Success – Victor Cruz

Victor Cruz is an outstanding football player for the New York Giants. An undrafted and undersized receiver, he fought his way on to the team through talent and hard work. A fan favorite, Cruz has intelligence, charm, and an entrepreneurial spirit.Cruz - Out of the Blue

Life was not easy for Cruz. Born to a single mother in a gritty part of Paterson, New Jersey, Cruz was able to avoid the crime and trouble that plagued his neighborhood. Cruz’s grandparents were strong figures and his father, a fireman, was also a support. With sports as his focus (tae kwan do, basketball, and then football), Cruz made it to University of Massachusetts on a scholarship after a year at a prep school to improve his SAT scores. Cruz’s family was a constant source of love and help for him, providing structure and resources.

Cruz floundered his first year at UMass and was dismissed as academically ineligible. He took some classes at Morris County Community College and returned to UMass. However, his community course colleges did not improve his UMass GPA and he was not able to raise his GPA in one semester of study. Cruz had to leave UMass and return to Paterson. He worked in a mall, rethought his commitment, and started taking classes at Passaic County Community College. During this time his father, who had had been struggling with health and addiction issues, committed suicide. Cruz devoted himself to making the grades to rejoin UMass. Family, friends, and mentors stuck with him and provided him support. When finally able to get back to Massachusetts to take classes and play football, he was ready. Cruz set records as a football player and graduated with a solid GPA.

More challenges were in store for Cruz. He was not drafted in the NFL but made his way onto the New York Giants roster. After fighting through a season-ending injury his rookie year, he distinguished himself as one of the premier receivers in the league. He played a key role in the Giants’ Super Bowl season. Cruz’s triumphs, his ethic, and his ability to overcome obstacles are the key themes in his immensely satisfying memoir, Out of the Blue.  Football fans and anyone who has seen Cruz salsa will enjoy this book. Cruz shines through the pages as a truly exceptional man with the sense to realize his journey was not made alone. He is also a model for higher education and students struggling with college.

Football players are regularly tested and assessed in the 40 yard sprint, the vertical leap, bench pressing and many other drills.  However, two other measures, the SAT and GPA, were more important in shaping Cruz’s life.

Cruz was not attentive to academics in high school. No one in his family had a college degree and sports were his focus. Once a scholarship became a possibility, he gave his classes more of his time and attention. Unfortunately, he had a terrible time with the SAT. The NCAA sets requirements for Division 1 sports eligibility and Cruz’s scores prevented him from attending the University of Massachusetts. He took the SAT seven times before posting a score that allowed him in. Cruz credits time at a preparatory academy with raising his scores.

SAT scores can improve with study and review sessions. Scores also correspond with socioeconomic status. It is common for young men and women who have backgrounds and schooling similar to Cruz’s to do poorly on the exam. Cruz’s low scores can be explained by many environmental factors as well as difficulty with standardized tests. The SATs are not a measure of intelligence. They measure, quite accurately, how a student does on the SAT.

Interestingly, had Cruz not received a sports scholarship, he could have enrolled immediately. But evidence indicates that he was not ready for college.

Cruz’s poor academic performance as a first year student should be surprising. It is only when a students knows how to be a student that success is possible. Students coming from less rigorous high schools face a significant hurdle. Many students with backgrounds like Cruz’s require robust structures and support by the institution and family. Success also requires that a student be ready and willing to learn. Cruz writes that he was not ready when he started at UMass.

The maturity Cruz needed was not about becoming a self-sufficient adult. In many ways, Cruz was significantly more worldly than his classmates. Cruz needed to develop the skills, temperament and focus of a college student. This has little to do with intelligence. Success in college depends upon more than smarts. The student athletic “system” challenged Cruz and he responded, thanks to the support of family, friends, teammates, coaches, education professionals, the community college system, and ultimately, his work ethic. The possibility of an NFL career was a powerful motivator, but so, too, was Cruz’s dedication.

I have met many young men and women who started college right after high school before they were ready to be successful college students. A bad semester or year, coupled with the burden of debt, a lack of a support system and the belief that they were not smart enough be college students ends higher education for far too many. Employment can complicate a possible return to higher education. Even though we encourage a college education for all, sometimes being smart means delaying the start of that journey.

David Potash

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