When a second chance turns into a blessing
Success is driven much more than being on the football field. People forget that those that play the game are at one point in their lives hard working students in and out of the classroom. From the Arena League to the NFL, many of those that take to the gridiron still have something else to pursuit before their bodies can’t take any more.
Unfortunately, being athletic and smart is only a part of the battle. This is the life that A.J. Cruz had to battle throughout his short professional career. He was once a hidden gem that many people overlooked while as a high school athlete. Attending Santa Margarita in Southern California, he played in the tough Trinity League facing off with powerhouse schools such as Mater Dei and Long Beach Poly. He was a three-year starter in football and made his presence known at what he does best: using his legs to get as far as possible to start any drive. Cruz to this day holds records for longest kickoff returns, career kickoff return average, and vertical leaps. He was also a solid corner, and he never let his height get to him. Brown noticed his style and presence and transferred his talents to a solid Ivy League school.
All you would ever read about Cruz is his domination on the ground, with each return setting up his offense as close as possible. He finished his career as a three year All-Ivy League first team, one of only 41 players in league history to do so. He was also picked as first team captain.
Unfortunately, the love and success he had in high school and college did not transfer to the pros. He was overlooked in the 2013 NFL Draft, and he was given at least a chance at starting a career with the LA KISS. Head Coach Bob McMillen loved how he was always one of the first on the field for practice, working off the nets and trying to read the opposition. The only time you would see him on the field though would be for every kickoff the KISS would receive. The team didn’t seem to like it, having one of his players specialize in one of the more seldom used positions.
He was not cut once, but twice after being found during the team’s first official tryouts. Averaging 24 yards a return, and with how short the Arena field is, these are stats that certain teams would definitely notice.
Now take the Arizona Rattlers, a team that has been deemed a dynasty in the eyes of many Arena Football fans. Cruz had waited for months to try again, and on April 1 the Rattlers reached out to use him for what he is known to do.
“I am excited to be given this opportunity that I have with AZ,” Cruz said. “I am looking to take full advantage and keep moving forward. There is a lot that I have to learn about the game and a lot of veterans that I can pick their brains at and develop my talents.”
Cruz started off against Las Vegas and took seven returns for 187 yards and a touchdown. He did go down and was sidelined a few weeks. Ironically enough, his first game back was against where he started it all: the LA KISS on the road. Every return of Cruz’s was taken well over the 20 yard line. Two of the KISS kickoff returns were coughed up and gave Arizona an easy chance to wrap the game up.
There was no hostility or remorse for when Cruz took the field. He had the chance to chat it up with a few of who he knew, including his family who still live locally. For Cruz, this was not an opportunity to rub it in for what they were missing. He stepped on the field to show how much heart and soul he puts into the game each and every week.
“I built some good friendships and relationships out here in LA,” Cruz said. “It is tough to see them struggle right now, but I always admired for what chance the KISS gave me to begin my career.”
Cruz has shown how much he wants to put every game. While it may not be much, the Rattlers know that every little thing that gives the team a chance at a win certainly helps. Having Cruz and what they see in him is a blessing in disguise.
“Playing for the Arizona Rattlers is for me a unique opportunity to learn and grow from the game,” Cruz said. “I was a rookie last year but I did not learn what I would have liked to make my game better. This is like another rookie year, trying to understand better and working with guys that have excelled. Playing for a team that has succeeded allows me to better my game personally and the amount of support I get from personnel and the players is really what I love about the game. As much as it hurt to be let go by the KISS, this is certainly a blessing for me to continue my career.”