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April 20, 2011
Persa was fresh out of a November surgery to repair a ruptured Achilles' tendon when his phone rang. It was Michigan State basketball star Kalin Lucas, who had blown out his left Achilles' tendon in the 2010 NCAA tourney.
"He called me that night in the hospital," Persa says. "I really appreciated that. He said he saw it happen. He said the same thing happened to him. He told me not to worry, that I'll make it back."
Almost five months since suffering the injury to his right Achilles' tendon when throwing a winning touchdown pass with 1:22 left to upset Iowa on Nov. 13, Persa is almost all the way back.
"I'm not going to lie to you, but it's a long way back," he says. "I feel good. I'm strong and back to myself."
Northwestern trainer Ryan Collins says Persa is ahead of schedule. By the end of this month, Persa may be able to start doing some agility work. By the end of May, he is expected to be as good as new.
"He is running 8 miles per hour for 15 minutes [on a treadmill], which is impressive for 20 weeks out," Collins says. "It's a matter of time before we know what he can do, but the prognosis is really good. Usually older, middle-age weekend warriors tear their Achilles. It isn't common in younger athletes. It's usually basketball players who explode a lot.
"He is a hard worker. ... You really have to try to back him down. He wants to do too much. You have to corral him. He's a go-getter. He wants to get better now, play now."
Before the injury, Persa had emerged as perhaps the best all-around quarterback in the Big Ten. Last season was his first as the Wildcats' starter, and Persa completed 73.5 percent of his passes for 2,581 yards with 15 touchdowns and just four interceptions. He also led the team with 519 rushing yards. Despite the injury, which caused him to miss Northwestern's final two regular-season games, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors from the league's coaches and second-team accolades from the media.
"At first I thought I broke my leg," Persa says. "It felt like someone hit me in the back of my leg. I went numb below my calf. I felt something break or snap.
"I tried to put my foot down to touch the ground, and I couldn't feel the ground. I thought I was stepping in a hole or something. My foot was kind of just dangling."
The loss hit Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald hard, and not just because of Persa's on-field talent.
"My heart was broken for him," Fitzgerald says. "He's such a great young man and a competitor and such a winner for us. ... He has just been so unselfish. At the end of the day, I knew he'd be back. He just had to persevere and keep fighting through it."
After Persa was injured, Northwestern lost its last three games, including a TicketCity Bowl setback to Texas Tech, to finish 7-6. But the lackluster ending to last season proved to be a motivational force this spring. Eight starters, including Persa, return on offense, and seven are back on defense. Spring practice ended Saturday, and two-a-days begin in early August. Until then, Persa will deal with a new outlook.
"I think he's getting a bit of a different perspective, one that no one would like for him to have because he is such a dynamic player," Fitzgerald says. "But he's learning a little bit of patience, and I think he's doing a really good job. More than anything, it's just teaching him patience.
"He has a lot on his plate. He has been breaking down and studying our quarterbacks, kind of acting like a second coach. He has handled the signaling from the sideline when we do seven-on-seven. So he has been very involved."
Persa admits hitting a low point shortly after surgery. Doubt crept in. Would he ever be the same? Could he come all the way back? If so, would he be as effective as before?
"When he first got back to walking in the winter, it was tough," Collins says. "He was sore, and there is a lot of scar tissue remodeling that has to happen. He's over that hump and well on his way. Trying to get elasticity back in the Achilles and to get the calf to feel normal when you walk day to day is difficult."
Fitzgerald can relate to coming back from a serious injury. He broke his left leg in the next-to-last game of the 1995 season
"We talked quite a bit," Fitzgerald says. "We have gone through the different phases of injury. The shock of it, [then] getting through the surgery and all that. The third part is letting the process work through itself, getting healthy and doing everything you can from a standpoint of being patient.
"He needs to let the injury heal, and once it does, then get back on the road to recovery and know once he gets there he's also going to be rusty. He's working through the process."
While teammates went through individual drills this spring, Persa did rehab work and some throwing. He also tried to help mentor the other quarterbacks, including Evan Watkins, who took over for Persa last season.
"It will help with the mental aspect," Persa says of his role as a de facto coach. "I can prove that major injuries don't really affect me that much. Not that I didn't before, but now I really appreciate all the little things like spring practice, going through fall camp, games.
"I never have been hurt. I always have been out there doing stuff. It's a humbling experience. But I think I have grown as a man and a person and a football player. I will be a lot better for it."