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Persa's play homage to fallen coach
There’s a framed letter written in purple ink hanging in Dan Persa’s childhood bedroom.
It’s the one former Northwestern coach Randy Walker wrote and mailed to Persa at his parents’ Bethlehem, Pa., home after he committed the summer before his senior year to play quarterback for the Wildcats.
I’m thrilled you decided to become a Wildcat! I was very impressed with you in camp! I have no doubt that you’re a great player and you will be a great player in the Big Ten! Have a super summer!
The letter is dated June 23, 2006. At the start of that day, the dual-threat player didn’t have a scholarship offer to play quarterback for Northwestern.
Dan Persa's letter from the late Randy Walker.Courtesy of Emily Persa
Like coaches at most other schools, Walker was unsure if Persa could play the position in college and wanted to see him throw in person before deciding whether to offer him a scholarship. So Persa came to a Northwestern camp.
But after watching Persa throw a football through the end zone from midfield on that fateful day five years ago, Walker made the offer on the spot. When he also promised that Northwestern wouldn’t sign another quarterback that year, Persa made his pledge to the Wildcats.
“You’ve proven it,” Persa recalls Walker telling him.
Six days later, Walker had just finished some yard work at home after leaving his office early. He went upstairs to shower, but suffered a sudden heart attack and died. He was 52.
His last recruit had been Persa, a distinction Persa has never forgotten.
“He stuck his neck out for me,” Persa says.
Entering this season, Persa is not just a starting quarterback at this academically prestigious suburban Chicago university, he’s also a darkhorse Heisman Trophy candidate determined to lead the Wildcats to their first bowl victory since 1949.
Northwestern is touting the 6-foot-1, 210-pound redshirt senior for the award with a campaign called “Persa Strong.” The theme originated from an ESPN.com writer’s claim that Persa, who can bench-press 360 pounds and squat 520, is the nation’s strongest quarterback.
As part of the campaign, Northwestern has two “Persa Strong” billboards, one in Chicago and the other in Bristol, Conn., the location of ESPN’s headquarters. It also sent a pair of seven-pound purple dumbbells to media members earlier this month bearing the name of the campaign’s website.
“It’s cool, but it’s more to get attention for the team,” Persa says. “I’ll carry the burden if more people watch our games.”
Last season, Persa led Northwestern to wins in seven of its first 10 games, which included beating Iowa, a victory in which he freakishly ruptured his right Achilles tendon after throwing a game-winning touchdown pass. He wasn’t hit on the play, but the injury ended his season.
Without Persa, the Wildcats tumbled out of the Top 25 by losing their final three games of the season. But he was still voted first-team All-Big Ten quarterback by the conference’s coaches, ahead of higher-profile players such as Michigan’s Denard Robinson and Ohio State’s departed Terrelle Pryor.
“He's so versatile and makes quick decisions,” says former Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez of Persa, whom he offered a scholarship as a quarterback when he was coach at West Virginia. “He’s like a point guard who can shoot the 3. It’s not surprising to me at all that he’s doing so well.”
THE ONLY QB SIGNEE
Rodriguez had wanted Persa at West Virginia, but he was interested in signing him as well as another quarterback for his 2007 recruiting class. Walker was the only coach who promised that Persa would be the lone quarterback he signed that year.
Northwestern launched a Heisman campaign for its QB called "Persa Strong", which includes billboards and a pair of dumbells sent to the media.Northwestern University
Although Persa didn’t have prototypical quarterback height, Walker was unconcerned because he himself had once been a 5-foot-8 fullback. He was always looking for undersized, hungry players with high character.
Persa fit that mold, but Walker saw something else in Persa. He believed Persa would be a future Big Ten star quarterback when no other head coach in the conference did.
“I want to show him and other people,” Persa says, “that he’s been right.”
Yet even Walker once had to be convinced that Persa could play quarterback. He didn’t play in a pass-heavy offense at Liberty High School in Bethlehem, Pa., where he was a four-year starter.
And despite being the first player in state history to throw for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 more in a single season, which he did as a senior, Persa's only scholarship offers to play quarterback in college were from West Virginia, Connecticut and Temple. But he was determined to play the position.
Boston College liked Persa, but as a defensive back. He grew up cheering for Penn State, where his mother, Jane, and sister, Emily, had graduated, but the Nittany Lions told Persa they weren’t interested and opted not to sign a quarterback in 2007.
“I understand where they were coming from if they had any doubts,” Persa says.
AN HONEST APPRAISAL
When Persa and his father, Dan Persa Sr., met with Walker in his office during an unofficial visit in spring of 2006, Persa wasn’t bothered when Walker requested he attend a Northwestern camp before deciding whether to offer him a scholarship as a quarterback.
“I think you’re a tremendous athlete, Dan,” the elder Persa recalls Walker telling his son. “I don’t know if you’re a quarterback. I need to see you throw.”
That made quite an impression on Persa.
“I appreciated his honesty,” Persa says.
At that Northwestern camp in June 2006, Persa was one of a handful of quarterbacks. After some passing drills, then-Northwestern offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Garrick McGee lined up the quarterbacks, each with a football in their hand, at midfield while Walker watched.
McGee told each player to throw the ball as far as he could toward the end zone without taking a running start. Unlike the other balls, Persa’s whirled through the air like a dart and was the only one to go through the end zone.
By then, Walker had seen enough. He walked to Persa and offered him a scholarship as a quarterback.
“You can play quarterback for me,” Persa Sr. recalls his son being told by Walker.
But the clincher in Persa’s decision to attend Northwestern was Walker’s promise to Persa that he wouldn’t sign another quarterback that year.
“His integrity was unbelievable,” Persa Sr. says of Walker. “He didn’t (expletive) Dan.”
FROM JOY TO GRIEF
After camp that day, Walker wrote his letter to Persa. It was a prize that Persa showed off to his family and friends.
“Dan was real proud that Coach Walker had lived up to his word,” Persa Sr. says. “He was thrilled.”
But just a couple days later, Persa’s elation turned to shock and grief when he was awakened by a 6 a.m. telephone call from a Northwestern assistant coach who informed him of Walker’s death. Afterward, a stunned Persa walked into the bedroom of his parents and told his father, “Dad, Coach Walk died.”
“It was devastating,” Persa says.
With his son distraught, the elder Persa did his best to console him. Walker had been instrumental in Persa’s decision to attend Northwestern, but the elder Persa also reiterated that there had been other factors such as the school’s academics.
“Let’s just sit tight, and see how they respond to this,” Persa Sr. recalls telling his son. “We’ll make our decision in terms of how they react.”
Just over a week later, Northwestern did exactly what the Persas had expected. It promoted Pat Fitzgerald, the Wildcats’ then-linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator, to succeed Walker.
Fitzgerald kept Walker’s promise that Persa would be the only quarterback Northwestern signed.
“Danny was our guy,” Fitzgerald says.
But Persa wasn’t the guy once he arrived at Northwestern. He redshirted as a freshman, and not playing tortured his competitive demeanor.
He was so eager to get on the field any way possible the following season in 2008 that he was a blocker on special teams and even once returned a kickoff for 15 yards.
Persa, however, never gave up on playing quarterback. He used his tireless work ethic to shorten his throwing motion and improve his arm strength.
Throughout it, he kept thinking about Walker.
“He believed in me,” Persa says.
FINALLY THE STARTER
After being Northwestern’s backup quarterback in 2009, Persa finally burst onto the college football scene last season in his first as a starter. He became the star that Walker foresaw by passing for 2,581 yards and 17 touchdowns with just 4 interceptions and rushing for 519 yards and 9 touchdowns on a team-high 164 carries.
He also led the Football Bowl Subdivision with a completion percentage of 73.5, which also set Big Ten and team single-season records.
“With what Northwestern is doing with him in the spread, it suits him perfectly,” Rodriguez says. “It’s a combination of the right guy being in the right system.”
Because of the surgery to repair his Achilles, Persa didn’t participate in Northwestern’s practices this past spring while rehabbing, but he attended every session and graded the play of his fellow quarterbacks. He insists he’s fully recovered from his injury, but even now he still doesn’t understand how he ruptured his Achilles.
After his game-winning 20-yard touchdown pass against Iowa, he remembers planting his right foot on the ground, taking a step toward the end zone, hearing a pop and falling. Initially, Persa thought he had been kicked in the back of his leg and that it was broken.
But when he looked around, he saw no else.
From the sideline, Fitzgerald saw Persa writhing in pain on the field and asked through his headset if he had been hit late. In the midst of celebrating Persa’s go-ahead touchdown, none of his assistants had even noticed that Persa was down.
While Persa lay on the field, he realized his foot had gone numb. When trainers got to him, they told him he had ruptured his Achilles.
“What the hell?” Persa recalls thinking. "How could this happen?”
It was a freakish injury, because defenders had beaten up on Persa all season. He had been pounded running the ball and sacked 34 times.
Yet on the play that ended his season, he hadn’t even been hit.
“It was all so weird,” Persa says.
This season, Fitzgerald wants Persa to be smarter about taking hits. Last season, Persa was sore on Sundays and Mondays after games, but during Big Ten play, it stretched until Tuesdays.
“You can’t let that happen to yourself,” Fitzgerald says.
Tammy Walker, Walker’s widow, smiles when she watches Persa’s grit. She attends Northwestern’s home games and helps with athletic fundraising for the university.
Walker marvels that her husband saw Persa’s talent and committed to it unlike any other coach would.
“I just regret that Randy didn’t get to coach him,” Walker says. “He’d get a real kick out of it. Hopefully, he’s seen it.”
Walker knows Persa and talks to him, but never about her late husband. She’s thinking about telling Persa how proud she is of him and what his success would have meant to her husband.
And she’s thinking about doing it by writing Persa a letter.
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