Presented by Nike
There's something quite nerve racking about interviewing a professional athlete.
With, say, a musician, it's easy to remember that behind the work is basically a regular person, who probably eats like you, goes to the pub like you, with mates who are a bit like yours. But a pro athlete probably doesn't. Compared to us, they are finely tuned machines. And even if you're not a fan of how they ply their trade, the biggest jock-sceptic can still appreciate that what they do is objectively amazing.
So when I saw New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz walk into NikeTown London just before I was set to interview him, I felt pretty nervous. The dude had an aura, and my composure wasn't helped by the fact Victor was closely followed by Odell Beckham Jr, who may be the one NFL player your mum has heard of. The pair were in town prior to their game against the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday at Twickenham. Victor and Odell had stopped by NikeTown London to customise pairs of Air Force Ones in the Sneakers Cube. In an effort to repress my inner fanboy and ease myself into a casual chat with Victor, I started our conversation with an obvious topic:
How many pairs of shoes do you reckon you have?
"I haven't counted in a while, but if I had to guess I reckon maybe 7-800 pairs, between my closet and the ones I have in the attic stored away." Victor is a sneakerhead, plain and simple, and after our sit down at NikeTown I'd follow him around Soho as he picked up Air Force Ones, Air Maxes and kicks that even the waviest Hypebeast could only dream of.
So would he call it an obsession?
"For me it's an addiction, I literally have to have them. Whether it's Nike sending them over at my request, or just going and getting them. I'm still a guy who likes to hunt for sneakers, I like the feeling of going to a sneaker store, picking up a pair and going home with them."
One of the odd paradoxes of wealth and fame is that the more you amass of both the more you no longer have to buy stuff. People give you things for free. While Victor definitely swiped his card a few times, most his new kicks were gifts. It hasn't always been this easy though. Victor played college football at the University of Massachusetts, but he struggled academically. He was twice kicked off the team for failing with his studies. After these initial setbacks, he turned things around, and he went on to have a good college career on and off the field. But while he got his degree, his sometimes patchy collegiate performance meant he flew under the radar of NFL scouts. When draft day rolled around in 2010, none of the 32 teams called his name.
He eventually signed with the Giants as an undrafted free agent. While he made the team, injuries hampered his rookie season. It wasn't until his second year that things started rolling, and by the end of the season he'd made 82 catches for over 1,500 yards and nine touchdowns. His performance was a crucial part of the Giants' Super Bowl-winning campaign that year, and Victor had established himself as one of the league's biggest names.
Given all he's achieved, I wondered if Victor expected any of this back in 2010, when he sat waiting for the phone to ring during the draft.
"No way man. I mean if you would have told me when I was younger that I would be a Super Bowl champion, starting wide receiver on the New York Giants, having my own shoe, I would have told you that you were lying." You read that last bit right. Victor has his own signature shoe, which ranks high on his list of achievements. "It's right at the top. It goes: birth of my daughter, Super Bowl, and then sneakers right after."
Another, surely, is playing in London. When Victor was coming up I doubt he envisioned running routes at Twickenham, or seeing Giants fans in his jersey walking around Soho. How do you prepare for a game outside of the States? "It's just a matter of getting adjusted to the time, but other than that it's the same – our coaches do a good job of keeping everything the same for us so it's not too crazy." As I said, finely tuned machines. Even so, I wondered how he felt about London compared to New York: "Obviously the architecture's very different, but it's very similar in terms of culture, very similar in terms of how the people dress." What would he do if he didn't have a game the next day? "Oh man, I'd go to Selfridges, look around there for a while. I'd do some sight-seeing too, go see Big Ben, go see the London Eye, do all the things that the tourists do."
If you see that as an overly diplomatic answer, you're not alone. But then if you were a day away from facing 11 men, all intent on smashing your body as you attempted to catch balls, you probably wouldn't think about a hypothetical vacation itinerary either. This isn't just a big game for Victor – it's part of a very important season.
Over the past two years, he's battled significant injuries – he even missed the entirety of the 2015 season after undergoing surgery on an injured calf. This year is essentially a comeback. I asked how the time off affected him.
"Sometimes you worry about your job. Obviously you do, but the biggest thing for me during that time was just getting healthy again, regardless of who I'd play for...whatever the case may be, I just wanted to be healthy. I needed to be back to 100% for my own sanity, and then football would come after that. Mentally, it was tough, it had its ups and downs, but I'm just happy I made it through."
So far, Victor's season is going pretty well. As we walked around Soho he seemed relaxed, and we talked hip hop when we stopped by a record store ("I'm heavy New York, that's where I'm from, that's where I came up. It was Jay Z, it was Wu Tang, it was Nas") and he even told me who talks the most trash on the field, which was fun: "In practice it's kind of just banter, but [Giants cornerback] Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. Then around the league Richard Sherman talks a bunch...then you got guys like [Steelers cornerback] Ike Taylor, who just retired a few years ago, he talked a lot. But it was always about respect and getting the best out of each other."
After the record store we hit Dover Street Market, which is the kind of streetwear-cum-formal place where a jacket could set you back the equivalent of your rent. Obviously this isn't really a problem for an NFL player like Victor, who spoke to me about his while he browsed the store. "I think I live in many different worlds, which is cool, because I can wear a suit and be seen that way, or I can wear Nike Lab and kind of be dressed down but still stylish; and then I can wear what I'm wearing today – casual but with some elements of different things."
Earlier, we'd stopped by London's very own Sneakerhead heaven, Foot Patrol, so Victor could add to his 700 or so pairs of shoes. When he was trying on a pair, I joked how I hoped it wouldn't rain if he wore them out the store. He seemed genuinely concerned.
"Yeah that won't be good. See now you're scaring me, back in the box they go." Then again, if Victor's only noticeable worries appear to be over scuffing his shoes, you can see why he's in the position he is today.
You need an incredible focus to play in the NFL; to persevere through setbacks, to fight off competition, to ignore any fear, to play at the highest level in a league with no lower divisions or loan spells to get your fitness back. You really do need to be on another level, a finely tuned machine.
I didn't inflict any sort of journalist curse on Victor either. The rain never came, and Victor, Odell and the rest of their Giants teammates would go on the beat the Rams 17-10 at Twickenham.