EVANSTON, Ill. -- These days, the gains in Dan Persa's life are small but significant.
An extra minute on the dreaded StairMaster. Two more reps or an extra resistance level on the sled. A few more seconds on the Bosu balance trainer. Another day without significant pain.
The small gains might seem negligible for a guy who amassed 3,100 yards of offense last fall as a first-team All-Big Ten quarterback at Northwestern. But each step is vital as Persa inches closer to becoming the player he was before the most bittersweet play of the 2010 college football season.
An instant after throwing the go-ahead touchdown pass against then-No. 13 Iowa with 1:22 left in a Nov. 13 game, Persa fell to the ground, clutching his right ankle.
“I threw it and watched it and I saw [teammate Demetrius Fields] catch it," said Persa, who almost single-handedly rallied Northwestern from a 17-7 fourth-quarter deficit to a 21-17 win. "Then I pushed to take a step forward and it just popped. I hit the ground and I couldn’t feel my foot. It was just dangling. I was like, ‘[Shoot], there’s something wrong.'"
Very wrong, in fact. Persa had ruptured his Achilles tendon. His season was over.
Three hours after the game, Persa underwent surgery to repair the tear. The next morning, he left the hospital in a wheelchair.
"It was a quick turnaround," Persa said.
The recovery would be slower, but Persa has attacked it head on.
"You don't want to take it for granted," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said, "but it's typical Danny. He’s just so driven, so focused.
"You set your watch on it."
About 60 yards north of the spot Persa ruptured his Achilles, inside Northwestern's sports medicine center, Persa climbs the staircase to nowhere.
He comes to the center Monday through Friday for rehab with football athletic trainer Ryan Collins.
The sessions begin with the StairMaster. Persa has worked his way up to 21 minutes. When he reaches 30, he'll ditch the StairMaster and begin jogging.
"He hates that thing," Collins said.
Persa, wearing purple shorts and a gray sweatshirt, goes from the StairMaster to the treadmill and then to a resistance sled, where he pushes against the base with his right foot. As Collins counts off reps, Persa bites down on a towel, grimacing.
Collins notes that Persa is about five weeks ahead of schedule in his rehab, but they're careful not to push things too far.
"He’s a tough kid, he really is," said Collins, who forces Persa to take weekends off. "His mentality is, 'I've got to do more, more, more to get better, better, better.' … Lately, he’s been patient with himself, he’s listened to his body and that’s key. Pain is our guide. You really don't want to rehab through pain."
Persa moves from the sled to blocks, where he does step-ups holding light weights, making sure to put his weight on the ball of his right foot, which stretches the ankle and the Achilles tendon. His lower right leg is noticeably smaller than the left one, the result of four weeks on crutches following surgery and several more in a walking boot.
Next up is the Bosu trainer, which looks like a beach ball sliced in half. Persa balances himself on the device, using only his right foot, while tossing a football back and forth with Collins. The previous week, he struggled to steady himself (side note: I tried it with two healthy legs and fell off after about three seconds) but shows no issues on this day.
"We're trying to get all sides of the ankle to fire together," Collins said. "Your Achilles is vital for balance. Along with your other ankle muscles, you need it for control."
Collins hopes to have Persa jogging by the end of this week. It seems like a reasonable goal. Persa barely limps as he walks and, during a break in Monday's rehab session, flawlessly executed a seven-step drop, planting on his right foot.
Jogging is a huge step toward functional football activity, Collins said. But when Northwestern opens spring football practice Monday, Persa will be watching.
"It's the hardest thing," Persa said. "You make big strides, but at the same time, it’s been almost three and a half months. What I’ve been doing my whole life is competing for everything. To not go through workouts with the guys, it’s tough."
Persa isn't able to join his teammates on the field, but he has maintained a presence in the weight room. He participates in the team's 90-minute morning lift before rehab and then returns later in the day for a second session.
While Collins is responsible for Persa's right Achilles, Jay Hooten handles the rest of the quarterback's body. Hooten, an assistant strength and conditioning coach, has Persa on a six-day-a-week lifting program.
Persa couldn't lift for about a month after surgery. In mid December, he was cleared to work only with his left leg and upper body.
"An athlete can lose so much within those weeks," Hooten said. "He looked like a different person. Now he’s changed and started to get back."
Persa couldn't do ground-based lifts, but he and Wooten did open chain exercises to strengthen his hamstrings, glutes and other muscles that help with change of direction. Two weeks ago, Persa was cleared to train with his right leg above the kneecap.
The goal is to have Persa resume his standard lifting program by June.
"The way he works, the time he’s put in, I don’t think there’s any concern," Hooten said. "I was at Ohio State for six years, worked with a lot of top-level guys, but his motivation, where he’s at athletically from that type of injury, he’s well ahead of anybody else."
Persa's commitment to the rehab never was in doubt. He knows no other way.
The quarterback recently became the first Northwestern player to serve on the team's Leadership Council all four seasons. He has earned the "Top Cat" award, given to team's top performer in workouts, for the past two seasons.
The potential concern for Fitzgerald and the staff was whether or not Persa would push himself too hard during an extensive recovery period.
"It just takes a while," Persa said. "That’s the most annoying thing. I’m not a patient guy in general."
Achilles ruptures aren't common for college athletes. Collins has dealt with just two cases in his career, both men's basketball players at Eastern Illinois.
The good news is most people make full recoveries and the tendon typically is stronger after rehab. Michigan State basketball player Kalin Lucas has started every game this season after rupturing his Achilles last March.
Persa's legs are as vital as his accurate arm, as he showed last season in rushing for 519 yards and nine touchdowns, and repeatedly extending plays.
"I think there will be no issue with him running again," Collins said. "He’ll do whatever it takes to get back to where he was."
The tough part for Persa is the length of the rehab. He'll miss at least the first week of spring ball, and his participation in the session hinges on how he jogs and how long the tendon can hold up.
"If he does go, it'll be in a limited structure," Fitzgerald said. "I think the realization set in when he started going in the heavy rehab that this is going to be a process. He's been realistic about it."
Collins, who often reminds Persa that "time is on our side," anticipates the quarterback to be "playing football" by June, leading the team's summer workouts.
"I’ve got a long road, but I’m excited for it," Persa said. "I fully expect to be right where I was last year, and hopefully better.”