- Adam Rittenberg, ESPN Staff Writer
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Along with the rest of the freshman class, Dan Persa filed into Northwestern's weight room to record maximum lifts for the bench press and the squat.
At 6-1 and 205 pounds, Persa wasn't the biggest guy in the room. Linemen like Al Netter (6-6, 280) towered over him. He blended in easily, and his teammates didn't expect too much when he entered the iron jungle.
"He comes in and everyone's thinking, 'OK, quarterback, whatever,'" Netter recalled.
Persa then proceeded to record the third highest bench-press max in the group.
"Everybody was like, 'Damn!'" Netter said. "Real surprised at how strong he was."
Persa might be gaining national recognition for what he did on the field last season, but his evolution at Northwestern traces back to the weight room.
It's where he began gaining his teammates' trust long before taking meaningful snaps as the starter. It's where he earned the "Top Cat" award as the team's top weight-room performer in 2009 and 2010. It's where he spent most of the past winter and spring, working his way back from a ruptured Achilles tendon.
Even the Heisman Trophy push Northwestern launched for Persa last month, entitled PersaStrong, is inspired by Persa's approach to weight training. It included mailing 7-pound dumbbells -- Persa wears No. 7 -- to media members and urging them to "work out hard this football season, stay away from the press box buffets and keep an eye on Northwestern's quarterback."
Many label the campaign gimmicky, but it also encapsulates Persa.
"It's really who he is," said Jay Hooten, Northwestern's lead strength and conditioning coach. "His work in there has made him the athlete he is."
Like most young players, Persa couldn't prove himself on Saturdays right away. But there was no waiting in the weight room, and he immediately went on the attack.
"He had a purpose every day he walked in that room," Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said.
Persa first started lifting seriously in high school. As a smaller quarterback, he knew he needed the strength and durability to play at a high level.
He doesn't obsess about numbers -- he benches 365 pounds, squats 520 pounds and hang-cleans 315 -- but always pushes his limits.
"Quarterbacks are kind of looked at like, 'Aw, these kids are little weaklings, let them do their own thing, they're not going to lift with us,'" Persa said. "I try to mix it up. I jump in with the linemen and the stronger guys right away, just to show I'm willing to work with anybody.
"It's huge. They know I want to be that tough."
Persa's teammates quickly took notice.
"Quarterbacks don't lift weights," cornerback Jordan Mabin said, laughing. "They're in the weight room hanging out, not doing much. But Danny, he's the total opposite. He's in there, getting after it, yelling. It's good to see your quarterback doing those types of things."
Persa found other ways to establish himself, whether it was in meetings or convincing Fitzgerald to let him play on special teams as a redshirt freshman in 2008. He's the only Northwestern player elected to the team's leadership council in all four seasons.
But he might have made his strongest imprint in the weight room.
"Dan has changed the culture of our team," Hooten said.
Hooten first met Persa on a January night in 2009. Hooten, who had just joined Northwestern's staff days earlier after six years at Ohio State, was working late when Persa stopped by the weight room around 9 p.m.
Although Persa had lifted that morning, he told Hooten he wanted "something extra." They began a performance program to strengthen Persa's throwing arm. Hooten knew a bit about Persa from the Big 33 high school all-star game, but the quarterback's explosiveness, athleticism and varied skills stood out. If he didn't know better, Hooten would have pegged Persa as a defensive back.
"The last [quarterback] I saw like that was Troy Smith," Hooten said, "from an explosive standpoint, an overall speed standpoint, the way he moves, his balance. Troy was a real athletic quarterback, and [Persa] is just like him."
Smith was the last Big Ten player to win the Heisman, claiming it in 2006. Persa put up impressive numbers in 2010, setting the Big Ten record for completion percentage (73.5) and passing for 2,581 yards with 15 touchdowns and four interceptions in 10 games.
But to put himself on the national radar, especially at an oft-overlooked school like Northwestern, Persa likely needs even betters stats and must do so following a lengthy rehab from Achilles surgery. Persa wasn't cleared to run until late spring and didn't begin full practices until this month, but he found ways to push himself in the weight room.
Hooten crafted a program where Persa worked as many muscles as possible throughout his lower body even when he could only work with one leg.
"The more you wait not to do stuff, the worse your body will get, the more you set yourself behind," Persa said. "I tried to put myself in a good position, for when I came back healthy, to be strong and fast."
Whether Persa is the same player remains to be seen, but he hasn't left anything to chance.
"He's going to find a way," Fitzgerald said, "to get it done."
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