Overcoming the odds is nothing new to New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz. He grew up in Paterson, one of New Jersey’s roughest cities, struggled with academics at the University of Massachusetts, had his father pass away, went into the NFL undrafted, and dealt with knee and leg injuries in 2014 and 2015. But he’s made it past the hurdles that life’s presented to him, and he’s working with Jersey City sneaker boutique Sneaker Room to help others in need, too. This year they’re collaborating to assist people struggling with breast cancer in their home state with a pink pair of Cruz’s signature Nike sneaker, the Air Trainer Cruz.
For the past three years Sneaker Room has done custom all-pink sneakers through NIKEiD to raise money for Breast Cancer Awareness. This year, the shop’s owner, Suraj Kaufman, was able to turn the project into an official collaboration with Nike. It doesn’t hurt that him and Cruz are close friends, either.
The shoes this year are limited to just 50 pairs. It’s such a limited-edition project that Kaufman hasn’t seen the finished product himself yet, but that’s not stopping him and his shop from preparing for the big release, tentatively scheduled for early November. The inside of his store, located in The Heights neighborhood of Jersey City, has been transformed to mimic the special packaging that’s going to come with the shoes. A special logo has been created for the collaboration too, with a simple mantra that reads, “Sneaker Room cares.”
The shoes themselves will be auctioned off, with a starting bid set at $1,000 and a Buy It Now option of $2,000. 100 percent of the proceeds are going towards Breast Cancer Awareness.They’ll be available in men’s sizes 6-15.
Complex recently sat down with Cruz and Kaufman at Sneaker Room to discuss the upcoming shoe, the NFL’s custom cleats policy, and what’s next for his signature sneaker.
How did the two of you become friends?
Victor Cruz: I hit him up on Twitter. DJ Envy had shouted him out on his Twitter account. So I hit him up and said, “I want to build with you.”
Suraj Kaufman: No, that’s not what happened at all! He hit me up and said, “How do I shop there?” And I said, “Walk in.” [Laughs]
Cruz: I came in and he gave me a pair of the “Cavs” Air Jordan IVs. From the moment I met him, he was straightforward. He told me what I did and didn’t want to hear in the same day. I knew he was a good dude and I could tell he had a good heart. We’ve been friends ever since.
How did you start this project?
Kaufman: For three years we’ve been doing Breast Cancer Awareness shoes with NIKEiD. For three years Vic has bought the shoe. We wanted to make it bigger. Someone from Nike came up to me and said, “We know what you do at Sneaker Room and we want to help you this year. Pick any shoe [you’d want to work on].” It was a no-brainer that I was going to pick Vic’s shoe. Not only is he my boy, but it’s one of the best silhouettes in the past few years.” It was also crazy because we’d have him attached to the project. Imagine getting a Bo Jackson sneaker back in the day, but you were able to get it from Bo Jackson. I told them I wanted to do the Victor Cruz shoe, and they said, “OK.” I asked them, “Does Vic know?” and they said, “No.”
Cruz: I got the approval for that shoe two weeks ago. If you want to do things and get them done in sneaker culture, you need to do them spontaneously. You need to do it like it’s grassroots. This place feels like a place that I’d go to if I lived around the corner. It’s a place that I’d hang out. It feels like family to me.
Kaufman: You live quite far and you’re still here everyday.
Cruz: You should reimburse me for the gas.
Kaufman: I pay your parking tickets!
Cruz: We’re even. [Laughs]
It feels good to do something in Jersey, right?
Kaufman: Think of the movie Rudy. This is our Rudy.
50 pairs is crazy, right?
Kaufman: The end goal of the project is to have 500 pairs of the shoes come out in the next few years. You want them to be accessible to everyone. You want anyone who has a story related to breast cancer to buy a pair for $150 and then be able to donate all the money. 50 pairs is ridiculous. How many pairs of shoes do people have in their closet that are are numbered 1/50? That’s the most epic thing to me about it. [Victor] bought three pairs already.
Cruz: I don’t think this has ever been done before. We’re both from Jersey, and it’s being done in Jersey.
Kaufman: And the money is going to Jersey clinics. We’re not donating it to nationwide foundations. It’s going back to our home state. 100 percent of the proceeds are going to the cause.
Do you have a personal connection to breast cancer?
Kaufman: I don’t know anyone who’s ever had breast cancer. I was just sitting at my computer a couple years on NIKEiD and wanted something in pink and thought, “Damn, this might be work.” I copied the idea from Nike’s Doernbecher foundation. Take a shoe, raise [the money], and donate it. I want to turn this into a project where it’s not just Sneaker Room, but it’s multiple stores involved it.
How much input did you have?
Cruz: Zero. Nothing. We knew it was going to be pink, it was just a matter of what shade of pink.
Kaufman: One part of the shoe was fully changed. People who had his shoes in the past with the spikes on the back, you can’t take one of those and customize them. So the whole back of the shoe has been redone. It’s not the same as the other ones, so people can’t copy it.
Cruz: The shoes are going to stand out on their own.
Are you going to get the Giants involved?
Cruz: One of the guys is going to buy his pair.
Kaufman: They’re not sold yet! He said he’s going to buy his pair.
Cruz: It’s Dwayne Harris. I already told the guys, so they know it’s coming. It’s just a matter of me reminding them, because we have so much on our minds already.
Victor, is your work on this a distraction from your day job?
Cruz: Not at all. Everything we do is either after or practice or on a day off. This is completely separate.
How many samples did it take to settle on the final design?
Kaufman: [Laughs] Want to hear the funny thing? There are no samples. There’s only 50 pairs. There’s no nothing. There was just a CAD [computer-aided design] sent. It went into production right away. They’re coming to the factory straight to us.
Does it stress you out that people will have the shoes before you?
Cruz: A little bit!
Kaufman: Well, no one is going to have the shoes before you; we’re going to open the box first. We’re going to do an evening in Sneaker Room with wine and dinner in the store. Vic will be here, and you’ll get the sneakers from him directly.
Victor, do you look at the kids in the store and say, “That’s me.”
Cruz: Absolutely. In the in-stores I’ve done before, you see kids who were just like me coming to buy the sneakers. Some kids buy two pairs, just so they can have one pair to save and the other to wear. They’re just like me. They come from the same neighborhoods as me and were raised the same way.
Are there any other colorways of your sneaker that are coming out?
Cruz: I’ve got them on. This black-and-white pair drops very soon. I don’t have a date yet, but it’s before the new year. There’s also a bone grey pair, too, before Christmas.
Kaufman: What’s after that?
Cruz: Nothing’s after that….I can’t talk about anything else. Right now, this is it. I always wanted a tuxedo shoe that I could dress up or dress down. It’s clean, as far as the colors are concerned. I’m excited for the next few pairs. The first set of shoes were my coming-out party. I wanted to cater to everyone. Now these ones are the more upscale version of Victor Cruz.
What happened to the red one version that didn’t release but ended up at Marshalls?
Kaufman: [Laughs uncontrollably] I hit him up and said, “I heard Marshalls had your shoes.” He said, “I know,” and he had 20 Marshalls bags behind him with the sneakers in them. I asked him, “You have one for the connect, right?” He said, “Yeah, I got you.” Me and my friend Steven went out and we sent out wives and girlfriends, and we ended up picking up 17 pairs.
Cruz: There was a mistake made at Nike, so it didn’t come out. Due to them being in the warehouse so long, they shipped them to Marshalls.
Kaufman: And they were $59.99!
Cruz: Due to that, the red ones are no longer coming out. It is what it is.
How did you find out they were at Marshalls?
Cruz: Before Suraj called me, my sister called me. She was in Marshalls and said, “Your sneaker is in Marshalls.” I said, “Send me a picture.” So she sent me a photo, and I saw the red shoe. I had to do some self-recon. She was at the Marshall’s in Garfield and I tried to wrangle as many pairs as I could. It was disheartening, because I loved that shoe and wanted people to have it the right way. When it got dumbed down to that, I felt like I couldn’t drop the shoe because it was tainted.
Kaufman: But it felt so good to get it.
Did it hurt you that your shoe came out when you were injured?
Cruz: Absolutely. My life and career is on the field, so I wanted that to drive all the forces that come after that. Because I wasn’t playing, I didn’t want to do an in-store and [make it seem like] I wasn’t prioritizing my time. But I understood the bigger picture was reaching out to these kids, shaking their hands.
Kaufman: You weren’t playing, but the turnout was still crazy.
Cruz: Everything was football first.
What’s your favorite sneaker of 2016?
Cruz: The Acronym x Nike Air Prestos. The two brands coming together to elevate that classic shoe made it even better.
Kaufman: Of course the Sneaker Room x Nike Air Trainer Cruz. What more could you ask for? But the Acronym x Nike Air Prestos are hard, too. he Spiridons were good.
When your sneakers dropped, you posted the picture with all the seeded pairs. Did any feel teammates slighted that they didn’t get a pair?
Cruz: Oh God. I took care of my teammates. They weren’t on the initial run because Nike slotted me a certain amount of seeded pairs. I made sure Odell [Beckham Jr.] and Dwayne Harris got their pairs. They were going to kill me! They still are. I’m waiting on the next shoe to give them more.
Did you lace Eli Manning?
Cruz: I gave him a pair of my shoes. He’s yet to wear them, but I definitely gave him a pair. He needs to have them. Eli Manning needs to have a pair of Air Trainer Cruzs in his closet.
Kaufman: Imagine him jumping out of the [Toyota] Tacoma with the Vics on. I’d love to see that.
Has Eli ever played a big prank on you?
Cruz: He’s never played a big one on me, but I’ve been there when he’s played pranks on other people. He’ll do little things, too, like taking your towel in the bathroom, so you’ve got to walk through [naked] when there’s reporters in there. He does that to the rookies.
Customs cleats have been a big issue this season, with the NFL dishing out fines to players that break its strict uniform rules. How do you feel about that?
Cruz: I’m a heavy customs guy. I’ve been wearing customs since Week 1. I think we’re forcing the league to open their minds to how they can market themselves. Instead of fining it and looking for negatives, why not embrace it and turn it into a marketing opportunity? Kids want the custom Antonio Brown cleats, they want to go out and buy the Odell Beckham Jr. cleats. Why fine it because it doesn’t fit the mold of a rule you made back in 1955?
Over the past few years there was a stereotype that NFL players couldn’t sell sneakers. Do you think you’ve helped change that?
Cruz: I think the culture has shifted and you’ve got guys who are real fashionable sneakerheads on the football field now. It’s not just guys you don’t know without a helmet. It’s guys who stand out.
What sneakerhead in the NFL gives you a run for your money?
Cruz: Joe Haden’s collection is real. Colin Kaepernick’s collection is real. But I don’t think guys got the buildout I have with the LED lighting. It’s good to have them on the floor, but you’ve got to put them on a mantle and display them, because you’ve worked hard for them.
Do you think that’s the new thing?
Cruz: If you can afford it. It’s expensive. For me it’s about putting my sneakers somewhere. It’s about not having them stacked up in boxes. I want to see the sneakers that I own.
Kaufman: You still have another room full of sneakers.
Cruz: I do, but most of them are doubles. I think the most important thing is to put them somewhere. They were in a guest room, so I had to move everything and build that. It’s time for me to give a couple away.
What’s one thing you asked Nike for that they couldn’t give you?
Cruz: I don’t think there’s anything. I’m very selective in what I ask for. I ask for things that are a little difficult but not crazy, and they usually come through. I would love the Nike Mags. The fact they made me try them on and parade them all around the football field? That was just down right unfair. It just wasn’t right, man.
Kaufman: It’s a charity shoe, so we get it.
Cruz: Shout out to Michael J. Fox. He was stunting on me.
Is there a second shoe on the way?
Cruz: I don’t think so. At least right now.
Cruz: We just haven’t had those conversations yet. We’re just waiting on these shoes to drop, and then after the season we’ll have that talk.
Performance athletes are getting lifestyle shoes. Would you like a performance shoe?
Cruz: I like the lifestyle route. It speaks more to me. On the field is just on the field, I don’t want to pigeonhole myself. Lifestyle shoes can be flipped any way. There’s no reason my shoe can’t have a cleated bottom.
Is there a possibility of you wearing them on the field?
Cruz: We just spoke about it last week, and there’s a strong chance that I’ll be getting the first cleated pair of the Air Trainer Cruz. [I’ll] test them out, mold them, so we’ll see how it goes. I’ll take it one day at a time.