EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Victor Cruz's heart was heavy and his mind racing.
He was in a car with his fiancee, Elaina Watley, and their 11-month-old daughter, Kennedy, in transit to a grief-stricken community in Newtown, Conn., and attempting to ease his nerves in order to do something for which there can be no preparation.
Cruz was about to meet the family of 6-year-old Jack Pinto, one of 20 children who along with six adults were killed Friday in the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and his emotions started to get the best of him.
This was something the Paterson, N.J., native believed he had to do Tuesday, and the level of difficulty for him was nothing compared to what the Pintos and the rest of those affected by the tragedy have been forced to endure.
“I was thinking about just how short life can be,” Cruz somberly recalled a day later in the Giants' locker room following practice Wednesday. “How much you have to cherish every moment, how much you have to cherish every opportunity, every chance you get with your family. Never take anything for granted because just a day at school can change all that.”
Cruz recounted his hourlong visit with the Pinto family, admitting Wednesday that he was a bit shaken when he heard of their plan to bury their son in his No. 80 jersey.
“You don't know whether to say ‘Thank you,' whether to say you appreciate it. It leaves you kind of blank,” Cruz said. “But I'm definitely honored by it. I'm definitely humbled by it, and it was definitely unfortunate but humbling experience for me.
The Pinto family said Cruz was their son's favorite player and Watley had reached out to them via Twitter on Saturday to arrange a phone conversation. Cruz wrote “Jack Pinto, My Hero” and “R.I.P. Jack Pinto” on his cleats and gloves before the Giants' 34-0 loss to the Falcons on Sunday.
Cruz gave his cleats and gloves to the family, presenting them to Ben Pinto, Jack's older brother. His eyes got watery Wednesday when asked for perspective on the visit.
He paused and cleared his throat before saying: “You never go through some circumstances like this. This was definitely the toughest by far.”
Tom Coughlin pulled Cruz aside when they crossed paths for the first time early Wednesday and told him he was “incredibly proud.”
“That family will remember that all their days,” Coughlin said. “Hopefully, at least some of their grief may temporarily be spent in being able to embrace Victor Cruz. The fact that he went and did that speaks volumes about what he has in him, inside.”
Cruz said he told Coughlin he went to Newtown because “it was only right.”
Ravens running back Ray Rice, who will play against the Giants on Sunday, said in a conference call Wednesday that he was impressed by Cruz's gesture.
“You do it from the heart, you do it from within,” Rice said. “What he did was amazing.”
Cruz came away with plenty of perspective about being a “hero” who can elicit a smile.
“When you visit a family that's going through so much and facing so much turmoil in their lives; you meet the family, you see people and the things they're going through, it helps you look at life through a different lens,” Cruz said. “It really changes your view and the way you used to look at things.”
There were tears and warm embraces. A local Pop Warner team came to the house — some of the players wearing Cruz jerseys — and the 26-year-old football star signed autographs and played video games with Ben Pinto and his friends.
“It was an emotional time. I spent a little bit of time with them and we got to smile a little bit, which was good,” Cruz said. “It was a time where I just wanted to be a positive voice, a positive light in a time where it can be very negative. . They're a great family and they are really united right now at this time.”
“We're going to try as much as we can to keep in contact,” he added. “Just little things, just to say hello a couple months from now, years, and just say, ‘How you're doing' and stuff like that; just to see how they're doing from time to time.”
Distributed by MCT Information Services