"Yeah. Me too. I'd be pretty shocked," quarterback Dan Persa said minutes later, and then there was laughter all around.
This was late Thursday morning and the 'Cats, idle this Saturday, had just finished their first practice since their loss to Army. It had been a spirited session that had knocked off, as Fitzgerald would say, some of their accumulated rust, but that was hardly important now. This news, the news that Persa was near certain to make his long-awaited return against Illinois on Oct. 1, that is all that counted now.
Fitzgerald, with those seven words that opened this report, had delivered it, and next he said, "From what I've seen, he's been really close the last few weeks. The amount of reps he's taken has increased each week. I think he's getting his timing down and his rhythm down even more. So he's looking more smooth."
Is it physical now or more mental?
"I think that's a good question for him. But I think at this point it's more mental than it is physical."
The idea of just trusting the injured part of body?
"I think it's more than that. I think it's, OK, here we get to go again, and there's always that fear of the unknown."
Which you went through that after your injury?
"Yeah, yeah, I did. I think the difference between Dan and I, I was a linebacker so it really didn't matter. He's a quarterback and it matters. Do you know what I mean? There's a big difference as far as expectations. I didn't have to talk to the media everyday after practice about how I felt or how things were going or where things were going. I just went out and missed tackles and no one knew and it was great. So. The final aspect here has been a lot different. But he's handled it incredibly well and we're encouraged to hopefully have him out there a week from now."
What kind of rust do you expect him to have after not playing for 11 months?
"I think he already had that earlier in camp when we first started out in two-a-days. He went out there and the rhythm just wasn't there. Also getting used to carrying his body a little differently just from the injury. So we're light years away from where that was. More importantly, hopefully through today and tomorrow and (next) Tuesday and Wednesday, we have a good, don't get too excited, you know. He's been chomping at the bit to play and now here's his opportunity and hopefully everything will just progress the way we hope it will this week. I could say right now, 'Yeah, he's going to play.' But let's see how the week progresses."
Persa, as Fitzgerald talked, had finished his post-practice warm down and moseyed into the area where his coach was speaking. But he had not gotten near enough to hear what was said and so those opening seven words were related to him, which prompted his reply and the laughter. Then he was asked if it was mental now, just a matter of getting his confidence back.
"I think I have the confidence," he said. "I think it's just working back to the 100 percent effectiveness I had last year. I'm really, really close, but I'm not there yet. But I'm at a point where I definitely feel I can play."
Had he been totally cleared to play at Army or partially cleared?
"Totally cleared. I, I, I didn't practice enough and, I don't know. In my mind I didn't feel I was ready just yet."
Did they ask him if he wanted to play?
"No. They made a decision for me, which is fine."
When Trevor Siemian relieved Kain Colter, did he have a little pang that said, '"I want to be in there"?
"A little bit. As a competitor you always want to be out there regardless, especially in a situation like that. I want to help my team. But I knew we made a decision before the game, and I knew we weren't going to change anything mid-game because of emotions or stuff like that. That's when you get yourself in trouble."
Does he feel like his old self at practice?
"Yeah. Yeah, for the most part. It's all the same stuff. Maybe I'm not 100 percent as fast, but I'm pretty damn close."
When former 'Cat defensive end Corey Wootton was coming back from his knee surgery, he talked of being frustrated by his inability to do what had done before his injury.
"Right. But I think it's a little different with me. He played such a more physical position than I do. For me, it's in the pocket making throws and running when I can. He had to run into guys, make different moves where speed really, really determined how he played and the strength in his leg really determined how he played. With me, it does help me a lot. But I'm a quarterback, I'm dropping back and I'm throwing. I'm not running into blockers as much as another position would be."
He said in the past that he had no problems moving laterally, that the problem was running straight ahead. Still true?
"Not really. I think I'm getting faster every day. I don't know if you guys saw practice, but I had a couple bursts where I felt really good."
So is he finally at the point where he totally trusts his Achilles and can just go for it?
"Pretty much, yeah. At this point, I'm ready. I'm ready to go. At this point I don't consider myself injured anymore. I have the same percentage of getting injured now as anybody else. I'm cleared. I'm ready to go. I think the more I think like that, the better off I'll be."
Asked about Kain Colter, who has started in his stead, Persa first said, "Kain's a great athlete. His quarterback days are still really ahead of him. In his second year in the system, he's way ahead of where I was my second year. I'm really proud of how he did and I'm looking forward, after I graduate, to watching him grow." Later he added, "I think he's done a great job the first three games. But I'm ready to get back as quick as I can and I think having me on the field helps our team a lot."
Last fall, on the Saturday after Persa ripped up his Achilles, the 'Cats faced Illinois at Wrigley Field. Now that he appears set to return against the Illini, we wondered what he remembered of that afternoon he was forced to watch his team fall by 21.
"It was tough. Just the atmosphere first of all, just walking in, or crutching in, being there was a good feeling for like 30 seconds. Then I realized I wasn't playing. That was tough. . . It's a helpless feeling knowing you could help your team if you were healthy, but you're not."
Persa, on the Illini: "They're just a really strong team. They're real athletic up front, they're real active, and I'm looking forward to playing 'em."