Last Tuesday, I was invited to the One America event in New York City, where I was given the Daily Point of Light Award by the namesake organization. They were celebrating my volunteerism, but for me the occasion also meant evaluating and thanking all the people who taught me to be this way.
I grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. Even though it’s located just across the river from Manhattan, it’s a long way away. Paterson is a low-income community where not a lot of people have access to the opportunities they need to get ahead in life. There's also a fair share of crime and repression, making it difficult for most residents to look ahead and focus on the good.
One of the Lucky Ones…
I was one of the lucky ones, managing to ignore the negative influences and achieve my dream of being in the NFL, but it wasn’t just luck.
I am grateful to a lot of people who took me under their wing and made sure that I didn’t lose my way. The support from these community volunteers formed a safety net that was crucial to my future success.
My mother worked tirelessly to put food on the table for her family, and that taught me the value of hard work and the importance of getting an education. My grandma, my abuela, was also an important part of my life. She had a strict rule that I had to be home by 5pm for dinner every night. While at the time I wasn’t thrilled about having to quit playing with my friends that early, I’m grateful now – I’m sure that rule kept me out of a lot of trouble!
But it wasn’t just my family who made a difference.
… Thanks to Many Unsung Heroes
During my childhood, I encountered many unsung heroes in my community: my childhood tae kwon do teacher who taught me the importance of discipline and showed me that if I believed in myself and worked hard, I could accomplish my goals; and my high school football coach, Coach Wimberley, who was someone I never, ever wanted to disappoint.
Many nonprofit and volunteer organizations also helped guide me to where I am today. The Boys & Girls Club was my home away from home. I went there to play basketball, but more importantly, it meant I wasn’t on the streets getting into trouble. And as I look back on it, the Boys & Girls Club just might have saved my life.
I try to return to the Boys & Girls Club whenever I can, because I know the kids there now are just like I was back then. They’re good kids, and I want to make sure they have people who care about them to push them in the right direction.
Sharing the Stories
I also wrote a book about my journey and the lessons I learned in overcoming adversity. Wanting to share the story, not long ago, I visited Orange High School and the Paterson Boys & Girls Club. JPMorgan Chase bought copies of my book for everyone in attendance, and I shared the lessons I had learned – about how hard work pays off, that they shouldn’t let adversity stop them from working to achieve their goals, and that school – and staying in school – really matters.
My favorite part though was a contest that JPMorgan Chase and I organized for students to create an essay, film, comic strip or other creative work based on my book. The winners got to go to a Giants game, and I met with them afterward to learn more about their lives and encourage them to work hard in school. The projects were all amazing, and it was rewarding to see how excited they were that their efforts paid off.
But that was one school and a few hundred students. Now, I’m trying to spread my message even more widely.
Using the Power of "Celebrity"
As a “celebrity” (that word makes me cringe), I am in the unusual position of being able to capture people’s interest. I really learned about this last December, after the terrible tragedy at Newtown School in Sandy Hook, Connecticut.
One of the children who lost their lives that day was six-year-old Jack Pinto. I learned – on Twitter – that I had been his favorite player and that he was being buried in my jersey. That’s a pretty powerful thing to experience. I knew that if I had any ability to ease the Pinto family’s grief, even if just for a moment, I had a responsibility to act.
I visited the family, which was one of the hardest, most emotional and meaningful things I’ve ever done. And after that experience, I resolved to do everything I could to use my power to influence to help others.
Whether I’m talking to the press or to my Twitter followers, I always try to share a message of positivity and encouragement. Whether you volunteer your time, donate money or just learn more about how to help your community and share that information with others, everyone can do their part to make our country and their community a better place.
I’m fortunate to work for the New York Giants, a truly philanthropic organization. Coach Coughlin has been a particularly strong role model through his amazing work with the Jay Fund, which has raised millions of dollars to help kids with leukemia and their families.
I’m doing my best to live up to the example set by Couch Coughlin and all the other incredible people who helped me when I was a kid. And that’s why I launched the Victor Cruz Foundation to advance Science, Technology, Engineering and Math [STEM] education; to encourage kids to stay in school, and to increase financial literacy. Football was my path to success, but for most of the kids in Paterson and throughout our nation, getting an education is the only way to really guarantee a better life.
It’s also why One America’s message of giving back to communities resonates deeply with me, and I urge you all to do whatever you can, whenever you can, to give back to your communities.
One America heads to Chicago on September 24th. Join us in uniting our nation through service.