Persa key for Wildcats

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Associated Press
Friday, August 19, 2011
— Dan Persa says he hasn’t driven by the billboard along the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago.

Those purple dumbbells weighing 7 pounds in a nod to his uniform number were all well and good, too, but for all the Heisman hype, Northwestern University’s quarterback had a much simpler goal this offseason—healing.

Well, he’s just about there.

Persa was back behind center when the Wildcats opened practice after missing the final three games last year and spring practice because of a ruptured Achilles’ tendon, hoping to lead them to their first bowl victory in more than six decades.

It was a big step for a senior coming off a season that ended on a crushing note.

One second, he was connecting with Demetrius Fields on a 20-yard touchdown pass with 1:22 to play to lift Northwestern to a 21-17 victory over No. 13 Iowa.

Then, in a flash, he was on the ground clutching his right leg with a season-ending injury that left the Wildcats reeling.

“It’s the highest of highs, lowest of lows,” Persa said. “It was hard. There’s no two (ways) about it. It was tough. You try to keep pushing through, and you try to persevere.”

The touchdown pass to Fields completed a 91-yard drive, igniting a big celebration. Persa started running over to join his teammates, but he never made it.

Now, after surgery and a long offseason of rehab, he’s back.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald said Persa’s repetitions in practice will be limited early on, and he’ll be monitored throughout the season. The last thing the Wildcats need is another major injury.

After all, Persa led the nation with a Big Ten-record 73.5 completion percentage while throwing the fewest interceptions (four) in the country. He wound up passing for 2,581 yards and 15 touchdowns while running for 519 yards and nine scores, and the Wildcats clearly weren’t the same without him, losing the final three games to finish 7-6.

The offense sputtered a bit and the defense paid the price, with Northwestern giving up 559 yards in a 48-27 loss to Illinois at Wrigley Field and getting blasted 70-23 at Wisconsin before losing its third bowl game in as many seasons—45-38 to Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl. That left the Wildcats 1-8 in bowl games, their lone win coming when the 1948 team beat California in the Rose Bowl.

“(Persa) has got a lot on his plate, but he’s handled it pretty well,” Fitzgerald said. “He’s right on course. We feel great about where he’s at.”

The program also is in a good spot.

Northwestern is looking into major upgrades for its athletic facilities, and Fitzgerald and athletic director Jim Phillips got new contracts that run through 2020.

There are some questions on a defense that lost linebackers Quentin Davie and Nate Williams, tackle Corbin Bryant and cornerback Justan Vaughn, but the offensive line returns starters at every spot except right guard. That’s good news for Persa, a busy man as he tries to put that injury behind him.

His days start with rehab and then meetings. There’s a cardio workout, more meetings and practice.

There was also a nice emotional lift when the Wildcats started practicing this preseason.

“Dan was the most curious guy in the building,” offensive coordinator Mick McCall said. “He wanted to see how he was going to work. Everybody was excited to see him come back out and do that.”

Persa said he’s pain-free and has no issues throwing the ball, but his mobility is not quite where he wants it. So there’s some work to do in order to be ready for the season opener at Boston College and live up to the Heisman hype.

The PersaStrong campaign launched two weesks ago with billboards touting his credentials along the Kennedy and in Bristol, Conn., home to ESPN.

Dumbbells are being sent to media members, and the school set up a PersaStrong.com website featuring videos, photos and information that will be updated throughout the season. There’s a PersaStrong hashtag on Twitter to promote the quarterback.

“Anything that gets more attention for our program and more people at our games, watching our games, I’m fine with that,” Persa said.

Teammates, he said, have “made fun of it a bit. It’s fine. I’ll take the brunt of that.”

Last updated: 6:04 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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