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NCAA Football: Central Michigan at Northwestern Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

“Put that whole team on his back”: How Northwestern boosted quarterback Dan Persa’s 2011 Heisman hopes

Twelve years later, former Wildcats and college football experts reflect on the quarterback’s stellar play — and the school’s marketing efforts.

Since starting in 1882, Northwestern football has won eight Big Ten titles and had 15 College Football Hall of Fame inductees.

However, no Wildcat has ever won the Heisman Trophy — though Dan Persa may have had as good a chance as anyone in team history.

With his pinpoint accuracy and fearless running style, Persa put the nation on watch with a standout 2010 season, prompting the quarterback’s name to emerge in Heisman conversations heading into the next year. Despite the fact his recovery from injury hung overhead, Persa was recognized as one of the premier players in the sport, especially through a memorable campaign by his own school.

Persa’s journey to Northwestern formally began on June 23, 2006, when he committed to NU as a three-star prospect out of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Even as a high school junior, Wildcat coaches recognized his special traits.

“Dan wasn’t the tallest guy in the world, but he just mentally was wired so well and so driven and so focused,” said Kevin Johns, Duke’s offensive coordinator who worked as Northwestern’s recruiting coordinator from 2006-07. “That’s what separated him from everyone else that we were looking at that year.”

A backup his first three years in Evanston, Persa earned the team’s starting job as a junior in 2010 — and exploded onto the scene. That season, Persa completed a national-best 73.5% of his passes for 2,581 yards and 15 touchdowns while rushing for 519 yards and nine touchdowns, earning First Team All-Big Ten honors.

Northwestern went only 7-6 that year, losing to Texas Tech in the Ticket City Bowl. However, those around the team feel Persa was almost single-handedly responsible for its performance.

“He literally was a kid that put that whole team on his back and just wasn’t going to lose,” Johns said, mentioning that coaches were not afraid to put the ball in Persa’s hands when the game was to be decided.

During Persa’s breakout season, his top target was receiver Jeremy Ebert. Catching passes from Persa, Ebert posted 62 receptions, 953 yards and eight touchdowns, joining Persa on the All-Big Ten First Team. The receiver credits his quarterback for his accomplishments, emphasizing Persa’s work ethic.

“Probably one of the most disciplined human beings I know,” Ebert said about Persa. “He was definitely a tough guy to gameplan for because he was so good on his feet and just understood the offense so well.”

Persa’s most iconic moment of the 2010 campaign may have been his final play that year. With the Wildcats trailing No. 13 Iowa 17-7 entering the fourth quarter, Persa mounted a game-winning comeback, throwing a touchdown pass to Demetrius Fields with 1:22 remaining to give NU a 21-17 lead. Johns referred to it as “one of the best moments’’ during his time in Evanston.

However, Persa tore his Achilles on the play an injury that sidelined him for the final three games of 2010 and the start of 2011. Despite rehabbing in the weight room, Persa noted he suffered several setbacks, which particularly tarnished his scrambling ability.

“While there was a lot of hype, I kind of knew going into the season that I would be a much different player than I was the year before,” Persa said. “I had to change my game a little bit.”

According to Dr. Raj Jain, a Northwestern team physician since 2014, the average recovery time for an Achilles injury is nine months. Yet, athletes can take much longer to feel comfortable using their full range of motion and athleticism.

“Usually that first year after any sort of injury, whether it’s an Achilles or ACL, most athletes just don’t feel confident,” Jain said. “There’s still a little bit of a mental block and that fear, understandably, that they’re going to re-injure themselves. He probably had a little bit of that concern of, ‘If I go and run again, am I going to re-rupture it?’”

At the same time, the injury did not deter Northwestern from marketing Persa as a legitimate Heisman candidate. According to Ryan Chenault, who worked for Northwestern Athletics from 2007-16, the department viewed Persa’s success as an extension of branding the school as “Chicago’s Big Ten Team.”

“There was an opportunity to go ahead and pick up steam, to build off the success,” Chenault said. “I think there was an interesting conversation at that time about what we can do to go ahead and show that we were not afraid to put a spotlight on our players.”

As part of a nation-wide campaign, Northwestern created a “” website showcasing the quarterback’s highlights and established billboards in Chicago and Bristol, Connecticut, outside ESPN headquarters. NU even distributed seven-pound purple dumbbells, reflecting Persa’s number. Chenault, who ordered the dumbbells, shared that more weights were delivered as part of the campaign than NU had in its entire weight room.

A look at the seven-pound dumbbells and promotional material supporting Dan Persa that media members received in advance of the 2011 season.
Dan Persa for Heisman on Facebook.

According to Chenault — now vice president of marketing for the Columbus Blue Jackets — NU utilized existing coverage of Persa’s aptitude in framing its Heisman campaign. There may have been no article more influential, then, in driving Persa Strong than The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman listing Persa in his “Top 10 strongest men in college football” compilation, an early version of his famed Freaks List.

“When he came along, [Persa] was kind of another iteration of the super strong, weight room quarterback,” Feldman said. “He was a do-it-all kind of guy. He epitomized what Fitz had built there: the toughness.”

Despite rave reviews from coaches, especially about playing special teams before occupying quarterback duties, Persa’s injury and recovery loomed.

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg, who covered the ‘Cats during that span, felt there was considerable uncertainty surrounding Persa’s health in 2011. Nonetheless, Rittenberg understood why the school marketed itself around its star player.

“I don’t blame them for trying to create some attention,” Rittenberg said. “It’s Northwestern; it’s not a team that’s automatically going to get a lot of eyeballs in the market.”

As the Wildcats’ 2011 season opener at Boston College approached on Sept. 3, nearly 10 months after Persa’s injury, head coach Pat Fitzgerald seemingly expressed confidence in the quarterback’s health.

PointsBet Senior Editor Teddy Greenstein, who then worked for the Chicago Tribune, said Fitzgerald “absolutely implied” on Aug. 22, 2011 Persa would be ready to start the team’s first game. However, Greenstein and other reporters soon found out that Persa would be out until Week Five.

“It just definitely took the wind out [of Heisman momentum] at that point,” said Greenstein, who estimated Persa’s Heisman odds at +5000 entering 2011. “We used to have an expression, ‘That’s so Northwestern.’ We thought that was ‘so Northwestern’ in that moment.”

Making his season debut at Illinois on Oct. 1, 2011, Persa wound up as an honorable mention All-Big Ten selection, finishing his collegiate career as the Division I leader in completion percentage and throwing for 2,376 yards, 17 touchdowns and seven interceptions with just 32 rushing yards. NU finished 6-7, losing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas.

Despite an unplanned recovery process, Persa, an admitted introvert, embraced his Heisman campaign. Although he endured jokes from teammates, Persa remarked he wanted to shed light on his school rather than himself and did not feel added pressure to perform.

“I think any time you can elevate your program, just from a publicity standpoint, is going to be good,” Persa said. “We’re not Ohio State; we’re not Alabama.”

In 2016, Northwestern capitalized on such attention once again by conducting a similar campaign for linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. The team sent “The Franchise” lunchboxes to media members, containing a comic book and shirt with a Walker logo. Yet, writers who covered the team distinctly remembered Persa’s promo as standing out at any school, if nothing but for its unique materials.

“You probably have all these out-of-shape sports writers who, years later, were like, ‘What am I supposed to do with these dumbbells?’” Greenstein said with a laugh.

Twelve years after his Heisman buzz, Persa wishes his rehab would have been smoother, his “biggest regret” not being able to replicate his 2010 play style. In the modern college football landscape, Persa likely would have been able to monetize his likeness through NIL, something he said his wife jokingly reminds him of.

In the future, Persa — the program’s all-time passing efficiency leader — endorses a similar campaign to his own if the Wildcats have a player of similar ilk.

“I think the university should do the best they can, especially now in the NIL days, to get more publicity toward the players and open up more opportunities for them,” Persa said. “I think it just promotes eyeballs on the program, which is the main goal.”

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