The game that humbled him

Jeremy Woo with a guest feature revisiting the tumultuous college career of former Northwestern quarterback Dan Persa.

Dan Persa still wears purple.

The former Northwestern quarterback sits in the lobby of his downtown Chicago office building, his dress shirt a lighter shade of that familiar color.

Persa's 24 now, he works in sales for global IT services firm Computer Aid and he's slimmed down since his football days. His right ankle, the tiny part of him that combusted a once promising career, doesn't seem to affect his gait.

That ankle, of course, is why he's here. For a quarterback once billed by his school as "Chicago's Heisman Candidate," who graduated as the most accurate passer in NCAA history, the journey from the pocket to the cubicle has been far from how he envisioned it.

There were multiple doctors and diagnoses. The initial rupture, the rehab setbacks, and then there was the tear. The hype mixed with the uncertainty, his window of opportunity closing.

"I landed fine," remembers Persa. "I was trying to see if Demetrius caught the ball. I stuck my foot in the ground, and it popped."

Three years and two surgeries later, the memories remain fresh.

November 13, 2010

The play everyone will always remember Dan Persa for was also the last snap he'd ever take at full strength.

One minute and 29 seconds remained on the clock at Ryan Field. The cold rain had cleared. Northwestern trailed 13th-ranked Iowa 17-14, clawing back behind Persa's arm, legs and leadership.

On first and ten from the Iowa 20, the junior quarterback took the snap out of the shotgun, rolling right. With two defenders in his face, Persa leapt, lofting up a cross-field toss into Hawkeyes coverage.

It hung in the air, making its way into the grasp of wideout Demetrius Fields. Battling a defensive back for control, he danced right into the path of the endzone cameras, football in hand. 20-17, Northwestern.

"I saw the ball go up and at first I thought it was to me—and there was no way I was catching that," said Jeremy Ebert, a former Northwestern wide receiver from 2008-2011 now with the NFL's Jacksonville Jaguars. "Then I saw Demetrius come down with it. I was the first one over there, hugging him, just ecstatic. We got back to the sidelines and were kind of oblivious to what had happened to Dan at first."

While Ebert and Fields celebrated, Persa came up wincing. The celebration took a somber turn as the quarterback fell to the ground, clutching his right ankle.

Northwestern went on to win that game, moving to a promising 7-3 record after Persa collected 368 combined running and passing yards. But the victory was marred: Persa had ruptured his Achilles tendon, and would undergo surgery that night.

"I knew it was serious because it was an unfamiliar feeling," said Persa. "Most of the injuries I've had, I know what they feel like. This time, I was really unsure. I couldn't really feel or control my foot…I knew something was wrong."

He would not return in 2010. The reins were handed to untested backup Evan Watkins. Northwestern's hopes for the rest of that season were effectively dashed, as they dropped three in a row to finish 7-6.

"You hate to see anyone get hurt," said Ebert. "Especially Dan, being the great friend he was to me, and all the time and reps we put in together in practice, it was definitely tough. I thought for sure he'd be back by the next season.

"As hard as he works, I thought it would be earlier than later. We struggled offensively the rest of the year. Once it was over, we just looked forward to next season and getting Dan back."

Road to recovery

The initial prognosis— a ruptured Achilles typically requires a six-month rehab—had Dan on track for a spring return, with time to recover for his senior year. It wouldn't be easy, but it was doable.

In an November 2010 article, the Chicago Tribune's Teddy Greenstein cited a study by the Foot & Ankle Specialist journal, which found "more than one third of NFL players who sustained an Achilles' tendon injury never returned to the league."

The rehabilitation process would be grueling, and without guarantees of a successful return to the field, much less at full strength.

"It's always tough no matter who goes down with an injury like that," said offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mick McCall. "But to see Dan have that happen, and then to know what he would have to go through, the experience that would be—it tests you."

Motivated to capture Northwestern's first bowl victory since 1948, Persa began rehabbing daily with training staff to regain the quickness and agility that helped make him so dangerous.

The prolific quarterback finished his junior season with a school-record passer efficiency rating of 159.0, with 15 touchdowns to just four interceptions and a total of 2581 passing yards. He also added 519 rushing yards and scored nine touchdowns with his feet, earning All-Big Ten first team honors.

"You knew what you had," said McCall. "A hard-nosed worker, a great competitor, just like you'd want a quarterback to be. People followed him just because he worked so darn hard, and he demanded that out of everyone else too."

In December 2010, the Chicago Tribune reported that Persa was "way ahead of schedule," [according to head coach Pat Fitzgerald.]

Everyone within the program felt optimistic. And Fitzgerald's biggest praise came with big-time hopes.

"Dan's a Heisman Trophy candidate, that's how I look at it."

Chicago's Heisman Candidate

With that statement from Fitzgerald, the hype machine had begun.

Northwestern's marketing started to plan the Heisman campaign in early 2011, with Persa on schedule at that point to return in August.

Athletic department officials spoke with Persa and the coaching staff to pitch the newly coined "PersaStrong" campaign as a launching pad not only for Persa's name recognition, but also the Northwestern football brand's presence both locally and nationally. Despite the uncertainty surrounding his injury, Persa agreed to take part.

"They came up to me, and without too much detail they said, ‘Do you mind if we do something?' I was like ‘Yeah, whatever,'" he said. "They said it would be really good for the school publicity-wise. I didn't really know the extent they were going to take it to, but it was cool."

In August, Billboards emerged on Chicago's Kennedy Expressway and in Bristol, Conn., home to ESPN headquarters, bearing Persa's image with the slogan, "Chicago's Heisman Candidate." Northwestern sent boxes to media members containing seven-pound dumbbells to represent No. 7, the man heralded by then-ESPN college football writer Bruce Feldman as the strongest quarterback in the country.

The national media picked up on the campaign. Sports Illustrated called Persa a "trendy" early-season candidate for the coveted award. In Ebert, Fields and tight end Drake Dunsmore, Persa had three of his four leading receivers returning with him.

Still, many were skeptical of Persa's candidacy, and understandably so—Northwestern had never exactly been a football power—but the buzz was present.

"People were talking about Northwestern, they were talking about Dan Persa," said Ryan Chenault, Assistant Athletic Director of Marketing. "Whether or not they agreed, whether or not he was a Heisman Trophy candidate with or without the injury, it was a speaking point."

Meanwhile, Persa had been struggling with his recovery, enduring setbacks in both April and June. While running, both times he aggravated a new injury, this one higher up on his right leg. Team doctors thought it was calf-related, and whatever it was, it nagged.

"It was really hard," Persa admitted. "Knowing the work I'd put in was probably the most frustrating part. I was rehabbing so hard, I wouldn't see any results and I'd be frustrated, like ‘what am I doing wrong?'"

The marketing campaign brought added scrutiny and pressure to an August return that felt increasingly far-fetched.

"It was tough, because they were launching it after I had gotten hurt again," Persa said. "I kind of knew I wasn't going to play the first couple of games. It was tough, not to lie to people, but also not tell the truth. They'd ask if I was going to play and I'd say yeah, knowing I was going to miss time."

Unable to get back into playing shape, Persa would sit out the season's first three contests. Sophomore Kain Colter stepped into the starting role with mixed results, winning the first two games over Boston College and Eastern Illinois but struggling in an embarrassing loss to Army.

After the Boston College victory, the billboards went down. Though Persa inched closer to taking the field, the Heisman hopes were fleeting—at best.

The Return

In week four Persa finally took the field, starting the game against in-state rival Illinois, admittedly not 100 percent. Still, he shone against the Illini, taking the majority of snaps and completing 10 of 14 passes for four touchdowns in a narrow 38-35 loss.

Starting with Illinois, the Wildcats would drop five straight games. Persa was never quite himself and had lost much of his trademark mobility. Still, he remained healthy enough to start the rest of the season, battling through the injury as part of a platoon with Colter.

There were highs, including a four-game win streak. Persa fondly remembers the upset over ninth-ranked Nebraska in Lincoln, spurred by Colter's rushing efforts. Persa would finish his season with the highest career passer efficiency rating in school history at 157.47, and sat fifth in total touchdown passes with 34.

"It was definitely tough seeing Dan out there, knowing he wasn't himself," said Ebert, "knowing he couldn't do all the things he was used to. He still produced, still made plays, and that was only at 75 percent. Imagine what he could have done at 100."

Northwestern ended its season with a 33-22 loss to Texas A&M. Persa's group of seniors would graduate without putting an end to the bowl drought.

A silver lining emerged around the loss. In that game, Persa set the NCAA's all-time career completion percentage mark (72.7 percent). His successes lined the Northwestern record books.

But without that elusive bowl win, Persa felt unfulfilled, according to McCall.

"As much as Dan tried not to let [the injury] be an issue, it affected him," he said. "He was good at not letting on, and being objective—he fought through it like a man. It was hard. It was hard on everybody, it was hard for me to watch him go through that, but that's what life dealt us."


Once considered a professional prospect by NFL experts, Persa was not selected in the 2011 draft. He'd prepared in spite of the injury, hoping to play through the pain and land a job.

After the draft, he was invited to mini-camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he tweaked the injury again. The Bucs asked him to get the ankle, which "still didn't feel right," looked at once more.

He went to see the Indianapolis Colts' medical staff, hoping for resolution. Doctors offered a second opinion: the Achilles had been torn again, this time higher up on his leg—the mysterious calf injury had been much more. In August 2012, Persa finally underwent his second surgery on the tendon.

"I didn't know it was torn," said Persa. "From what doctors were telling me, they were saying you could just rehab and get it better, but I needed surgery. If I had known that, I probably would have sat out and taken a medical, but hindsight is 20-20. I wanted to graduate with my guys, I wanted to play that year and help the team as best as I could."

The surgery effectively ended Persa's football career, forcing him to sit out the entire 2012 season.

Looking back, McCall felt that Persa, the doctors and the team dealt with the difficult situation appropriately. But the speculation surrounding that season persists.

"If he was able to come back fully recovered, he'd have been a Heisman candidate, fine, great," said McCall. "He wanted to play in the worst way, and I don't see how we could have handled it any different, or how he could have."

Persa was put somewhat at ease by the injury diagnosis.

"I think finally getting to the root cause of it and finding out I needed surgery was good," he said. "I cleared it up in my mind that I wasn't doing anything wrong, or that there was something I needed to get fixed."

Taking Steps

Today, Persa lives in Chicago's Lakeview neighborhood, a hop-skip from his old Evanston stomping grounds. He still hangs out in Evanston from time to time. He popped up at Northwestern's training camp in August, watching what could be the Wildcats' best team in recent memory. The team recently launched a campaign for kicker Jeff Budzien's Groza candidacy; it's almost too familiar.

In his spare time, Persa runs football camps for high school players in his hometown of Bethlehem, Pa. and also in the Chicago area. He recently provided commentary for Big Ten Network during Northwestern's spring football game, and says he might pursue a career in the booth.

Persa and Ebert still talk about once a week, and he remains close with former teammates including safety Brian Peters, now with the Canadian Football League's Saskatchewan Roughriders and Dunsmore, who recently retired from the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Seeing his teammates, his classmates, his best friends, go on to professional careers can be tempting.

"I've been trying to come back, but at this point, probably not," said Persa. "My foot feels good, but it's not where I want it to be to make another run. I don't think I will."

For the workout warrior, once the strongest quarterback in the league, football has taken its toll.

"This game doesn't allow anyone to finish on their own wishes," said McCall. "Maybe Ray Lewis gets to finish on his own, but that very seldom happens.

"You see guys, their careers coming up short from an injury. This game is humbling in that regard. It's something we all have to live with."

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