EVANSTON, Ill. -- Northwestern senior quarterback Dan Persa realized his Heisman Trophy campaign was going to be grounded even as others prepared for it to take off this season.
While Northwestern went forward in the fall with a Heisman campaign, which included a billboard on the Kennedy Expressway and a mailed set of dumbbells for voters, Persa knew as early as the summer his right Achilles’ tendon wouldn’t be strong enough for him to play the first few games of the season.
The problem was no one else was aware of that, and he wasn’t telling anyone either.
He and Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald fielded questions nearly daily prior to the season about Persa’s rehab, his recovery timetable and whether he would be ready for the season opener. Neither let the secret out. They didn’t guarantee anything, but they also never hinted that there was no chance Persa would be playing against Boston College in the season opener.
Playing that deception game wasn’t always easy for Persa.
“Having people think I was going to be ready for the beginning of the season when I knew I wasn’t was tough,” Persa said after a recent practice in preparation for Saturday's Meineke Car Care Bowl. “Kind of answering those questions about that was tough. I never put any pressure on myself because I pretty much knew when I was going to come back. The same time you can’t leak any information to the other team to keep them on their toes.”
Yet, Persa was fine with the upscale Heisman Trophy campaign Northwestern put together for him even if he realized he wasn’t going to live up to those expectations.
“Whatever was best for the team,” Persa said. “They said it would give more exposure for Northwestern, get our name out there. I said it’s fine. I don’t care.”
Persa put the team first often this season, and that wasn’t easy either. Persa wanted to take every snap of his senior season, especially after having missed the final three games of last season due to his Achilles’ tendon injury.
But it wasn't to be. If his foot wasn’t feeling right and he was going to do the team a disservice by being out on the field, he pulled himself from the game. And instead of feeling sorry for himself on the sideline, he forced himself to remain a leader and help backup quarterback Kain Colter.
“I think that leadership is what really jumps out to me,” Fitzgerald said. “Going back to early in the year, the Boston College game where he can’t play, he’s the first guy in Kain’s ear coming off the boundary. To the way he played out at Nebraska, played really well, then got dinged up. At the end of the day to have that kind of leadership, ‘I could go out there and maybe play, but I’d hurt the team,’ is pretty impressive.
“I think he learned patience through that injury. You hate to see that or have that ever happen because of an injury. I think he’s handled it as well as anyone can. He does a good job of worrying about what he can control and listening to who he needs to listens to.”
Persa admitted he still struggles to be patient. But a berth in a bowl game helps. Because Northwestern was able to recover from its 2-5 start to the year and earn a fourth consecutive bowl berth, Persa has been given another month of rehab for his Achilles’ tendon and one final game.
Persa is finally a year removed from surgery, and that’s made a huge difference.
“When I’m doing drills to get myself faster, I feel a lot better,” Persa said. “I’m not at 100 percent yet, but it gets better every day. I’m starting to trust it a lot more when I’m doing rehab. I’m running well, and I feel good moving around. I saw this as a pretty big opportunity for me to kind of take some steps in my rehab and get in the best possible shape for the game.”
Persa could be closer in the bowl game to the type of quarterback he was last season. In 2010, he was mobile and accurate. In 2011, he was still accurate, but less mobile and rarely went looking for yards on the run. He compiled 71 rushing yards and one touchdown this season to his 519 yards and nine touchdowns last season.
Persa’s accuracy is what generated talk of a Heisman campaign before the season and has put him in an elite category of quarterbacks. He was 222-of-302 passing, a 73.5 completion percentage, for 2,581 yards, 15 touchdowns and four interceptions last year. He has completed 193-of-260 passes (74.2 percentage) for 2,163 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions this season.
If Persa throws 19 passes -- whether he completes them or not -- in the bowl game, he’ll become the NCAA’s all-time leader in completion percentage, surpassing Colt Brennan’s record of 70.4 percent. Persa would already own the mark if he hadn’t played special teams in 11 games as a freshman. He needs the 19 passes to become eligible.
“You never play for records,” Persa said. “You play to win the game. If those things happen, they happen. But it would be great to me because I really worked hard on that in my career. I take a lot of pride in being accurate, being an accurate quarterback and taking care of the ball.”
More than an opportunity to break a record, the Meineke Car Care Bowl against Texas A&M is a chance for Persa to close out his career with a bowl victory. It’s something that has eluded his senior class and the program since 1949.
“The last game pretty much sets the mark for us whether we’re successful or not,” Persa said. “Last game of the year you can’t hold anything behind you now. You got to pull out all the stops and just lay it out on the field. It’s a fun feeling playing like that.”
Whatever result does come of the bowl game, Fitzgerald believed Persa had already left his mark on the program.
“The year hasn’t gone the way I think any of us would have wanted for us,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s just stayed the course and been so resilient. I can single out one play, but I think that would minimize what he’s had to overcome. It hasn’t been easy, but his attitude has been tremendous. He’s done a great job leading.
“I think his legacy will long last this year. I think it’ll be shown in the way our quarterbacks perform in the future.”