How 'The Fridge' lost his way
How 'The Fridge' lost his way
AIKEN, S.C. -- Every day begins with William Perry needing help out of bed. Usually, it's 10 a.m. before he even gives it a try, and to support his 400 pounds, he shuffles to the living room on two legs that barely work and his sturdy black cane.
Once he sits down, he and his chair are in a long-term relationship. He doesn't move, except to go to the bathroom, and the concerning part is that he has no desire to move. A home gym is just 20 feet away from him, but he mostly scowls at it from a safe distance. A walking path is only 40 feet away, but he mostly hisses at it from the comfort of his seat.
His day consists of watching television and eating three or four meals prepared by his heart-broken wife, Valerie. She nags him to exercise, but says she gets "cussed out'' for it. She bugs him to take his medication but says she gets ignored over it. Her new trick, just to get him on his feet, is to tell him he has to come to the kitchen to eat his lunch. That's her best way to get "The Refrigerator'' to walk near the refrigerator.
Of course, then when she least expects it, her husband will hobble out the door and into his car. She knows exactly where he's headed: to the liquor store.
Because every day ends with William Perry needing a drink.
The rise was so much less complicated than the fall. William Perry, now 48, was once America's mascot -- a pear-shaped, gap-toothed football player who could sing, dance, sack quarterbacks, score touchdowns and muss Mike Ditka's hair.
The fact that he did it with an innocent smile made it all the more endearing. But, turns out, he was never as innocent as he seemed.
The insecurities came early. It's hard enough weighing 200 pounds in the sixth grade, but it's even worse if your front tooth's been shot out. William was in grammar school when one of his cousins mischievously pulled the trigger of a BB gun, blasting William straight in the mouth. One of his front two teeth was splintered. So William entered his Aiken high school as, essentially, the funny-looking fat kid.
One way to shut everyone up was to become an athletic marvel, and that's exactly what William turned into. He could do flips off the pool's diving board, could throw down a 360-degree dunk in basketball and could out-run some of the fleetest members of the football team. During practice one day, coach Eddie Buck said, "I want all my fastest guys to line up for a 100-yard dash.'' A couple of wide receivers, a couple of running backs and a defensive back stepped forward -- soon joined by William.
"What're you doing?'' Buck asked his 295-pound nose tackle.
"You said you wanted your fastest guys, didn't you?'' William said.
William eventually timed out as the sixth-fastest on the team. College coaches were bound to knock on his door, and before long Perry had a full scholarship offer to Clemson. In case he didn't notice, he wasn't the ugly duckling anymore. He had a high school sweetheart and a secret admirer -- both of whom would become the two women in his life -- and when he showed up on the Clemson campus, he started to come out of his shell.
His freshman season of 1981 was about as good as it gets. Not only did his Tigers walk away with the national championship, but he walked away with a nickname for the ages. He was taking an elevator up to his dorm room one day, carrying a load of laundry, when fellow defensive lineman Ray Brown walked in with his own load of clothes. There was barely any room in the elevator for either of them to breathe, at which point Brown announced, "Man, you're about as big as a refrigerator.'' That's all it took: the kid was forever more Refrigerator Perry -- or "Fridge'' for short.
Perry might have been ambivalent about the nickname, but he was ecstatic to be one of the guys. Or at least he assumed he was one of the guys. When the players went out partying, they made sure the Fridge came along, if only for the entertainment value. One thing about being a 300-pounder -- a six pack doesn't even crack the surface. He says he could drink two cases of beer in one sitting -- maybe three on a hot, steamy day -- and his teammates all wanted to be witnesses, as in every weekend.
When he came back to Aiken that summer, his younger brother Daryl saw him throw down a six pack or three and remembers thinking, "This is getting out of hand.'' But Daryl also figured it was just a college phase his brother was in. Surely, when the Chicago Bears picked the 325-pound Perry in the first round of the 1985 draft four years later, the Fridge would get serious. Right? He'd go to Chi-town, bring his lunch bucket and get to work. Right? He'd just blend in and be anonymous, overshadowed by Walter Payton, Mike Singletary and Jim McMahon. Right?
From the start, Perry was a just pawn in the verbal spat between Ditka and Buddy Ryan. Ditka, the head coach, personally scouted the Fridge and advocated selecting him in the first round. Ryan, the defensive coordinator, threw up his hands on draft day and called it a wasted pick. Welcome to the NFL.
At least Perry had support from his high school sweetheart, Sherry. They married in 1982 while he was at Clemson, and by 1985 they were the parents of a 3-year-old daughter, Latavia, with another one on the way. Ryan would barely let Perry on the field the first half of the season, but from all appearances, the Fridge seemed like a grounded, non-descript family man who would persevere. He had no problem covering kickoffs.
But while Ryan was holding the Fridge ransom, Ditka had a wonderful, awful idea. Against the Packers, on Monday night Oct. 21, 1985, the coach decided to move the kid to offense. The 49ers had used guard Guy McIntyre as a short-yardage fullback against the Bears the year prior, and Ditka decided if anyone was a born blocking back, it was Perry. McIntyre could open a hole; the Fridge could blow one to pieces.
With an entire nation watching, Ditka waved Perry in on a goal-to-go situation from the 2-yard line. The Fridge lined up in front and to the right of Payton and was told to eliminate any linebacker directly between him and the goal line. That poor soul was Green Bay's George Cumby.
"It was like a Mack truck smashing a Volkswagen,'' says Fridge, laughing.
"I thought he killed him,'' says former Bears tackle Jimbo Covert.
"Cumby wasn't the same for the rest of his career,'' says another former Bear, safety Dave Duerson.
Payton scored amid the wreckage, and Ditka's mind started racing. The next time the Bears reached the 1-yard line, he lined up the Fridge in the same spot and ordered McMahon to hand him the ball. Easiest touchdown you ever saw. The Fridge danced and spiked the ball. Frank Gifford, usually calm and collected during "Monday Night Football" broadcasts, was giggling.
The next time the Bears reached the 1, Ditka directed the Fridge to the front and left of Payton and asked him again to seek out a linebacker. Cumby was back for more -- and got pancaked. Payton could've scored with his eyes closed.
The fallout was off the charts. In the ensuing weeks, Perry appeared on David Letterman's show, the "Tonight Show" and a Bob Hope Christmas special. McDonald's and Coca-Cola also hopped into the Fridge conga line. Mr. T wanted him for his "A-Team'' action show.
Oh, and Ryan wanted him on defense, too.
The quiet, ugly duckling from Aiken was a sudden icon, and that was a little bit of an adjustment. Fortunately for Perry, Bears players convened every Thursday for a night of food and drink -- and more drink -- and the camaraderie felt a lot like Clemson. He got to be one of the guys again, which is all he ever wanted, and he blew off steam by drinking his usual two or three cases.
"I couldn't say no,'' he says.
Ditka and the rest of the organization caught wind of it -- "I didn't realize how much beer he could drink,'' the coach says -- and they filed that away for future reference. But in the short term, the Fridge was now alongside Payton, Singletary and McMahon on the team marquee and had a solo in the Bears' legendary "Super Bowl Shuffle:"
You're lookin' at the Fridge
I'm the rookie.
I may be large, but I'm no dumb cookie.
You've seen me hit, you've seen me run,
When I kick and pass, we'll have more fun.
I can dance, you will see.
The others, they all learn from me.
I don't come here lookin' for trouble.
I just came here to do
The Super Bowl Shuffle.
Not only could he carry a tune, he got to carry the ball in the ensuing Super Bowl XX, scoring on a 1-yard blast -- the operative word being blast. He was just following orders and had no idea his TD would cost Payton a chance of getting in a Super Bowl end zone. He loved Payton; he and Ditka both have said they wish they had it to do over. But the truth was, the Fridge was now not only a household appliance, he was a household name.
Perry's way of celebrating was getting away from it all. In other words, he returned to Aiken, dug out his fishing pole and drove to the nearest lake. He sat all by himself for hours. Just him, the trout and the beer.
Off the field
He came back to Chicago for the 1986 season weighing upwards of 340 pounds. The Bears were not pleased, and it'd be a constant theme the rest of the Fridge's career.
His hype never matched his production. Off the field, he was beginning to command anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 for 90-minute personal appearances, and considering his rookie salary had been $138,250, this was nothing to sniff at. He was not a Pro Bowl-caliber player, and he'd never end up with more than 5½ sacks in a season. But he did ads for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Mr. Big Paper Towels, bacon products and a supermarket chain in Europe. There was even a G.I. Joe action-figure doll of the Fridge.
The Bears didn't want a carnival act; they wanted someone to dig in and stop the run. His weigh-ins became a source of contention, and by 1987, Ditka -- the person who made him a star -- was starting to grow irritated.
"We had weigh-ins, and we fined him,'' Ditka says. "And it was fruitless after a while. I didn't want to take his money. He couldn't get it down at that point.''
Bears management felt his drinking was at the core of it all. Perry had branched out from beer to vodka, and he says Sherry, at home, was griping about the hours he kept and the alcohol he consumed.
It wasn't one or two beers, I'll tell you that,'' he says. "I mean, it was a whole lot.''
Eventually, in 1988, Perry says Sherry flat-out told him he had a problem and needed treatment, and he says they decided he would go first to trainer Fred Caito and admit he had a problem.
"And it was a big problem,'' Perry says. "I got my family here and my career here and I'm sitting here in the middle, and I'm stuck. So I have to do something, you know, have to reach out and get some help.''
He says Caito heard the news and immediately went upstairs to tell Ditka. The organization then arranged for Perry to go to an undisclosed alcohol rehab center, and he says Ditka pulled him aside before he left.
"He told me, 'Big Guy, you got to handle the situation and get some help,'" William says. "He said, 'You ain't the only one, so don't worry about it. Just go through it, get some help and you'll be fine.'"
The Fridge spent 28 days in treatment and began going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, even though he couldn't possibly have been anonymous.
"My name is William, and I'm an alcoholic,'' he says he'd say at meetings.
That was murder for him to admit. And after he stopped AA after about just eight meetings, he wouldn't admit it again for years.
The constant issue of his weight
By the end of his Bears career, the Fridge was still drinking and still botching his weigh-ins. His highest unconfirmed playing weight was 382, but because Ditka still had a soft spot for him, he wasn't going anywhere. "I would never trade him,'' Ditka says.
However, once Dave Wannstedt replaced Ditka in 1993, the Fridge was gone, off to the Philadelphia Eagles. Members of the Bears organization from the 1980s, such as public relations director Ken Valdiserri, remember their regret when they heard the news, how sad they felt about what might have been.
"His weight was just a constant issue,'' Valdiserri says. "Particularly after that first year because he couldn't manage his weight in the offseason. ... I really believe if he would have worked in the offseason like some players do today that he could have set some unique records for not only offensively but defensively. He really could have become a Hall of Fame player had he taken care of himself in the offseason.''
Instead, he left the NFL in 1994 with a paltry total of 29½ sacks. He didn't seem over-concerned, though, and, to this day, says he's convinced he reached his full potential. Besides, the London Monarchs of the World League of American Football were calling, not to mention the World Wrestling Federation.
After playing one unremarkable season in London, he embarked on his career after football, and it was a busy one. Between the wrestling and a hot dog eating contest -- he quit after eating four dogs in five minutes -- and a boxing match against 7-foot-7 Manute Bol -- lost a unanimous decision -- his Q rating was virtually as high as his playing days. He had started a construction company with his wife's father and lived in an 18,000-square-foot home with Sherry and their four children. The decorative iron gates out front were in the shape of footballs, and he began building other homes in and around Aiken with his buddies -- drinking on the job and not giving it a second thought.