ARLINGTON, Texas — Victor Cruz broke free in the end zone and was wide open for the go-ahead touchdown pass from Eli Manning.
Everybody knew what was coming next for the New York Giants receiver: the salsa .
And it wasn’t so much his trademark dance that brought back the joy after his first game, and first touchdown, in nearly two years. Just being out there was almost enough for the 29-year-old, who missed most of 2014 with a knee injury and all of last year with a bad calf.
Then he scored what ended up being the game-winner in the fourth quarter of a 20-19 season-opening victory against the Dallas Cowboys on Sunday.
“You could sense everyone having me in their prayers, pushing for me, excited for me to get dressed and be out there for Game 1,” Cruz said. “And to score a touchdown, you just couldn’t make up a story any better than that.”
The last time Cruz was on the field in a game that counted, he crumpled to the ground in pain diving for a throw from Manning on Oct. 12, 2014, at Philadelphia. He was carried off that day with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee.
But he said that didn’t occur to him as he celebrated with teammates after his first TD since Week 3 in 2014 — his only score that season.
“Just to overcome so much, man,” he said. “Just to be able to get to this moment. A lot of people go through it and don’t get through it, don’t get this opportunity to claim what they once were or they once had.”
Odell Beckham Jr. blossomed into a star receiver while Cruz worked to get himself ready to play again. And he had a front row seat for his first live salsa, taking a knee to soak in Cruz’s celebration.
Beckham Jr. missed the first four games of his rookie season, so this was just the third time he played in the same game with Cruz.
“I just wanted to sit there, cross my legs, grab a bag of popcorn and just watch him salsa,” said Beckham Jr., who had a 45-yard catch to set up New York’s first touchdown and finished with four catches for a team-high 73 yards.
“It’s been a long time coming to be able to play with him. And now he’s finally back out here. It feels great for me. So I can only imagine what it feels like for him.”
Cruz’s first catch was a simple 5-yarder just before the 2-minute warning in the first half, then he had a 23-yarder on the same drive to put the Giants in position for rookie Sterling Shepard’s first touchdown to put New York up 13-9 at halftime.
“He has so much experience finding windows, finding lanes,” Manning said. “He’s comfortable catching the ball and making guys miss. I’m just so excited for him from the standpoint that it’s been a long time for him. That’s pretty special for him to get the game-winning touchdown on this day.”
Manning chided his seven-year veteran receiver for actually running the wrong route on the winning play. Cruz ended up in traffic, but slipped away from Dallas cornerback Brandon Carr. Manning’s throw was beyond the reach of diving linebacker Justin Durant.
“He’s technically not supposed to do what he did, but we’ll worry about that later,” said Manning, who threw for 207 yards and three touchdowns with an interception tht led the Cowboys’ only TD. “It’s a minus, good job, good touchdown.”
And it’s a lot more than that. It happened on the 15th anniversary of 9/11, and Cruz’s father was a firefighter who helped at ground zero for days after the terrorist attacks. His dad died in 2007.
“It’s a heavy-hearted day,” Cruz said. “You think about that moment, you think about where you were on that day, you think about the emotions that went through your body on that day and you relieve those moments.”
Now Cruz has another memory to go with it.
Follow Schuyler Dixon on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apschuyler