It’s been a few years, but Joe Sanford thinks Victor Cruz arrived on campus at Bridgton Academy a few days after everyone else.

Cruz may have been late, but as his quarterback, Sanford, would soon discover, better late than never.

“I remember seeing him walking to practice with no pads on and looking at him and thinking, ‘Look at that kid. He’s an athlete,'” Sanford recalled.

Sanford would get a lot of opportunities to utilize Cruz’s athleticism in the fall of 2004. The two impressed college scouts so much that they would eventually become teammates again at the University of Massachusetts.

Off the field, they formed a friendship that remains strong today and sometimes finds them awestruck by the rapid rise of the slot receiver.

“I texted him a little while ago and asked him if he’s used to his newfound fame yet,” Sanford said. “He said, ‘Nah, it surprises me every day.'”

Cruz has surprised a lot of people this year, ascending from an undrafted free agent to one of the most dangerous wide receivers in all of football and one of the biggest stars for the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI.

“It’s a feel-good story all the way around,” Bridgton Academy football coach Rick Marcella said. “He’s an undrafted free agent out of a 1-AA program, fortunate to get into training camp with the Giants, and then to seize the day and perform when he’s gotten that opportunity…”

One of the best pure athletes to pass through a school whose list of alumni includes former New England Patriots tight end Jermaine Wiggins, Cruz’s opportunity came right away at Bridgton Academy.

It also came unexpectedly.

A highly-touted recruit out of Paterson Catholic High School in Paterson, N.J., he seemed bound for UMass before the school determined he couldn’t qualify academically.

To boost his grades, Cruz enrolled at Bridgton Academy, a one-year, all-male postgraduate school located near Long Lake in North Bridgton.

Sanford said it was the perfect place for him and Cruz to hone their study and football skills.

“I think the best qualities about Bridgton Academy are, one, it’s all post-grads. That’s huge,” said Sanford, who is now a personal trainer in Charlottesville, Va. “And two, I think it eased us into the speed transition (to college football). The jump from high school to college is huge, and Bridgton helped ease that transition.”

Like many Bridgton Academy students, Cruz quickly discovered there wasn’t anything that could ease the cultural transition.

“From Paterson, New Jersey to Bridgton, Maine. That’s about as polar opposite as you can get,” said Marcella, who is in his 26th year at BA. “I think he had a pretty good transition. This is a young man out of his comfort zone — the family, the four walls, the coach at high school who was the same guy who coached his brother — it’s not here.”

“After a while you realize I’m here for a reason, and I’ve got to take advantage of my time here and do the work myself,” Marcella said.

Bridgton Academy’s football field borders farm land atop Chadbourne Hill, with little to shield the winds whipping off of Long Lake. Sanford recalls spending many a blustery autumn late afternoon working with Cruz after practice to perfect their timing and wondering how far Cruz could go if he combined a tireless work ethic with his elite athleticism.

“He’s just very smooth,” Sanford said. “Everything he does, it doesn’t look like he’s trying hard.”

Cruz made it look easy in his lone season at Bridgton Academy. Playing a schedule consisting of Ivy League and Division II junior varsity teams, Cruz led the Wolverines with 47 catches for 883 yards and eight touchdown

“No question, he was the guy we wanted to go to,” Marcella said. “He made some phenomenal grabs. He had one where he just climbed the ladder, twisted in mid-air like a cat and came down and landed flat on his back. The whole sideline went crazy. It was one of the best catches I’ve ever seen.”

“We had a game against Trinity where I threw three touchdowns to him in the first half,” Sanford said. “I think that’s what got us into UMass.”

Cruz and Sanford left Bridgton at the turn of the semester to enroll at Virginia and UMass, respectively. Sanford eventually transferred to UMass, where he played alongside Cruz at wide receiver on the scout team their redshirt year.

“We were the offensive scout team players of the year because we were always tearing up the starting ‘D,'” Sanford said.

But Cruz enjoyed college life a little too much, Sanford said, and was ruled academically ineligible in 2006. He was kicked out of school in early 2007 with a 1.7 grade point average.

Cruz returned to New Jersey, enrolled in community college, took online courses, went to summer school and was readmitted to UMass in the fall of 2007.

He finally got on the field but saw little playing time, making just one catch his sophomore season. The next year, he made 71 catches for more than 1,000 yards to lead UMass and was named an honorable-mention All-American after his senior year.

Despite being one of the top receivers in 1-AA, Cruz wasn’t drafted out of college. Only the Giants invited him to rookie camp, and he impressed coach Tom Coughlin enough to get another invite for training camp.

Cruz didn’t waste the opportunity. In a Monday night preseason game, he torched the New York Jets for six catches for 145 yards and three touchdowns, clinching a spot on the 53-man roster.

He played three games without recording a catch before a hamstring injury forced him onto injured reserve for the rest of the year. But those who knew Cruz knew it wouldn’t be long before he became a star.

“I always knew he was a great player, but when it comes to the NFL, all it really takes is getting that shot,” said Sanford, who follows another BA teammate in the NFL, Jacksonville Jaguars safety Courtney Greene. “Once he got that shot, I had no doubt he was going to ball out because I knew he was just a great football player.”

Cruz began the 2011 season as the Giants’ fourth receiver, but it wasn’t long before yet another opportunity rose. In a Week 2 game against St. Louis, the same game where Cruz made his first NFL catch, two receivers ahead of him on the depth chart, Mario Manningham and Domenik Hixon, went down with injuries.

The next week, against the Philadelphia Eagles, Cruz caught three passes, two of them for touchdowns, for 110 yards. It was the first of his seven games with 100-plus receiving yards. He finished the season leading the team in catches (82), yards (1,536) and receiving touchdowns (9).

On Sunday night, Cruz will line up in the slot against an undermanned Patriots secondary and potentially a nightmare matchup for a defense that gave up the most passing yards in the NFL this year.

“Victor Cruz is an outstanding player,” Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. “He’s made a lot of big plays for the Giants over the last couple of years, not only down the field but on catch-and-run plays. He is a hard guy to tackle, he is a good route runner and he is strong. Whoever we have on him, it will be a big challenge for him”

Watching from afar will be Marcella, whose coaching staff includes former Livermore Falls star and Edward Little and Bates College coach Travis Dube. Regardless of who wins or how Cruz plays, he and the rest of the Bridgton Academy campus will have reason to celebrate.

“The biggest reward anyone gets out of working in education is seeing one of their former students go out and have success,” he said. “It’s a great charge for any of us to have guys get to that level. We’re thrilled about it.”

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