PATERSON, N.J. — The word VICTORY is spelled out in the windows of Paterson's School 21, along with the phrases "Go Giants" and "Cruz Control."
It's a tribute to Victor Cruz who, in addition to being a star wide receiver on New York's Super Bowl-bound team, is also a School 21 graduate.
It is at this school, here in the 4th Ward — one of the toughest sections of this impoverished city — where Cruz's success rings perhaps most loudly.
"I respect him a lot," said Tyrie Sampson, 14. "I'm an Eagles fan but I like how he's from Paterson — shows us kids in Paterson we have dreams, too, and we can fulfill them."
Students at the K-8 school have written him letters professing their admiration. A Giants game program is taped to gymnasium doors, the word "Paterson" underlined each time it appears in his team profile.
And his former teachers are proud that the determined, respectful little boy who lit up the hallways with his now-famous smile is headed to the Super Bowl.
"Everyone is floating on air," said Sandy Macolino, Cruz's former gym teacher. "We couldn't be more excited about it."
Cruz has risen from Paterson to NFL glory, a charismatic 25-year-old about to play on the biggest stage in football.
It's an ascent made possible by hard work, talent and the support of loving parents: a mother who instilled faith and resolve, a now-deceased father who introduced him to the game and coached him in his early years.
He's fast becoming a role model to kids in his hometown. 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.
Despite his skills, "he didn't have things on a silver platter by any means," said his godfather, Jimmy Salmon, a well-known amateur basketball coach.
Cruz is only now beginning to grasp his newfound celebrity.
"It's really starting to sink in — how rare my story is and how far I've come," he said last week.
"Every step of the way I just tried to play my hardest and whatever opportunity came my way, I just tried to take advantage of it," he said. "I understood that opportunities were going to come few and far between, and when that small window opens for me I have to jump right through it and make sure I seize that moment and that opportunity. Thank God I have."
The Victor Cruz story is one "that inspires the underdog," said Alonzo Muir, a former teammate at now-closed Paterson Catholic High School.
"It's huge for the city. … It's huge for him — it's even huge for me and I'm many miles away and every time I see him on TV it gives me the chills because, it's like, he really did it," said Muir, who shared an undefeated season with Cruz their senior year.
While at the Division I-AA University of Massachusetts, Cruz was suspended twice because of academic problems. His father, Mike Walker, died during the second suspension.
Cruz said a conversation with his mother, Blanca Cruz, when he got tossed out of UMass, was "eye-opening."
"She held me accountable for everything that I was doing — all my faults, all my rights and wrongs," said Cruz, who now lives in Lyndhurst, N.J., about 10 miles from Paterson and about 4 miles from the Giants' home, Met Life Stadium in East Rutherford. "That was the moment where I realized I had to turn into a man."