The Refrigerator’s stubborn spiral
We can start with this: Everybody loves the Fridge.
William Perry could have been called the Car or the Shed or the Washing Machine or even the Water Heater. But he wasn’t. The Refrigerator it was—Fridge, for short—ever since his days as a 300-plus-pound All-America nosetackle at Clemson. Because it fit. Nicknamed for that most wonderful of American kitchen appliances—the one with the good stuff inside that keeps us alive and happy, and sometimes fat—Fridge in his heyday was as well-liked and cheer-inducing as that leftover piece of apple pie, wrapped in cellophane, just behind the mayonnaise and cold chicken.
“If you didn’t like Fridge,” says Mike Ditka, his former NFL coach in Chicago, “you didn’t like anybody.”
When the world champion Bears started to pull in endorsements and celebrity gigs following Super Bowl XX, in 1986, and Perry, just a rookie, hauled in more than anyone—more even than Walter Payton or Jim McMahon or even Da Capitalistic Coach himself—“it would have been easy for us to resent him,” says Dan Hampton, Perry’s defensive linemate. “But we loved Fridge.”
There was a role—convivial southern goofball—that the swollen, gap-toothed Perry played in that magical 1985 season, and he played it well. Some of it was artifice, from mythology and expectation and the media’s need for simplicity. Fat equals jolly, you know. But much of it was Perry, for real. He was as easygoing as you would expect given his Deep South roots, in Aiken, S.C. He did have 11 siblings; seven brothers and four sisters. He did love to fish in ponds. He had, indeed, seen his front tooth shot out by a cousin’s BB gun as a lad. He had drunk a couple cases of beer after one college game. He could eat like a shark, guzzle like a horse, take off like a rabbit, jump like a lion. Yes, at 6’ 2”-and-change he could dunk a basketball. I saw him do it. My guess is that he weighed 330 at the time; maybe 340. We were at the Multiplex Fitness Club in suburban Deerfield, Ill., a couple of years after his rookie season, playing afternoon pickup ball. The rim survived.
His fame started when Ditka put him in to block for Payton and then to tote the rock himself against the defending champion 49ers in Week 6 of that rookie year. San Francisco’s coach, Bill Walsh, had used 275-pound guard Guy McIntyre in the backfield the previous season, in an NFC championship game victory over Chicago, and Ditka remembered. A feisty, vindictive competitor, Da Coach had no problem with payback. Give me big? I’ll give you immense. Plus, as Ditka always says: It was fun.
But Fridge’s notoriety really exploded, like a grenade in a tomato patch, when he lined up and ran for a touchdown on Oct. 21, 1985, in a Monday night game against the Packers. Much of America was watching as he became the heaviest man in NFL history to score a touchdown off a set play. All the overweight, Barcaloungered, chip-dipping, vicariously living fans across the country were mesmerized and thrilled. Hot damn! This was entertainment.
Back then, you have to remember, 308 pounds (and that was the lightest he ever weighed as a pro) was a crazy-big deal, like something from a tent show. Fridge was the “best use of fat since the invention of bacon,” one sportswriter wrote.
Now there are hundreds of players in the NFL Fridge’s size or larger. Many high school teams have one or two. Looking back at the video from when Fridge went on Late Night with David Letterman in November 1985, it is stunning how slim he actually appears compared to what we’re used to seeing on the football field these days. Humor was maintained that night on Letterman with some gags about eating, and when Fridge saw 43-inch, 36-pound teenage actor Emmanuel Lewis (of TV’s Webster) in the green room, he told a reporter, “Man, last time I was that small was when I was born.”
Classic photos of William “The Refrigerator” Perry
So who could dislike this fellow? As long as he wasn’t played for a complete yokel or freak, he could get along with anybody. And as long as you weren’t lined up opposite him, trying to stop him—like, say, 220-pound Packers linebacker George Cumby, who drew that assignment on one play that fateful Monday night and got plastered like a mayfly on a truck grill—then he posed no danger to anyone or anything.
As Fridge, 53, says now, “I’m not doing anything bad. That’s not in me, not in my family—we weren’t raised that way. I do things in a correct way, a respectful way.”
But not, alas, in a healthy way. And not—if we’re thinking of life as a brief moment to be tended to with diligence and care—in a proper way. Fridge drinks. Too much. That he drinks at all, really, is a problem. He has physical and mental issues that demand sobriety. (“I’m sure he’s got traces of CTE,” says younger brother Michael Dean, himself a former NFL defensive lineman.) In 2011, just 11 years after he flashed his famous imperfect smile for the cheery cover of Sports Illustrated’s first Where Are They Now? issue, Fridge declared publicly that he is an alcoholic. He has been to rehab. He’s been told by doctors to stop drinking. He’s been told by family members.
None of it matters. He’s got drinking buddies. Alcohol’s his special pal. He’s back in slow, sleepy Aiken and, by God, he’s doing what he wants to do. Even if it causes pain and divisiveness in his large family, as members watch him slowly implode and are at a loss to help him.
“I’m home and I’m happy,” Fridge says. “I ain’t got no plans. I’m just gonna relax and take my time.”
So the love and support he receives from others is dead-ended by his stubbornness. Perry can barely walk, and only then with a walker. He’s at least 150 pounds overweight—around 430, even 450, according to friends and family. He doesn’t work with physical therapists, or wear the compression socks or orthopedic shoes that he should. His hearing is terrible but he won’t wear his hearing aids, so he ends up virtually reading lips unless you are close to him and speaking loudly.
He has four children and he doesn’t see them much, or at least not as often as one would expect. Both of his ex-wives are out of the picture. He lives alone in a retirement facility.
What does one do? Let him be? He has diabetes and the residual effects of a nasty thing called Guillain-Barré syndrome, which hit him in 2008. Tellingly, one of the concerns with the mosquito-borne Zika virus, plaguing pre-Olympic Brazil and threatening to spread to the rest of the world, is that researchers believe it can cause not only birth defects but also Guillain-Barré syndrome, which creates neurological problems that can leave victims paralyzed and sometimes on life support. Its effects can diminish or last forever.
Fridge was nailed by it, possibly because of a severe dental infection, and at one point in 2009 he was near death. He couldn’t move and was wasting away in bed, dehydrated beyond recognition, without any family near. Willie, one of his older brothers, says that when he found Fridge, he looked like a gaunt war camp victim, down to 190 pounds. Look at Perry now and you might guess that his skeleton alone weighs 190 pounds.
Oh, and the millions of dollars that Perry made over his 10-year NFL career are long gone too. So is his Super Bowl ring—at size 25, believed to be the largest ever made—auctioned off a year ago for $200,000, without Fridge getting anything for it.
It’s all a mess, it seems, from health to finances. And sadly, in a sense, the people suffering the most from Fridge’s demise are his children (three girls and a boy) and family members, who all claim to want to help him, but who are too busy fighting amongst themselves to actually accomplish any change. Michael Dean, a six-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle who lives in Charlotte, was named by a judge as guardian and conservator of Fridge’s affairs when the big man was first incapacitated, in 2008. But Perry’s son, William II, told a Chicago TV reporter last year that he has doubts about Michael Dean’s stewardship and legal control. “It’s a bad situation,” he said. “Hopefully we can get guardianship over [my dad] and go forward, and get him removed so he can do the right thing and be independent.”
Willie is more desperate than that. “Jealousy,” he says, is why Michael Dean keeps Fridge under his power. “When William was messed up, it made sense, but not now.” Willie claims that Michael Dean, who lives 150 miles away from Fridge, is only giving his brother the “minimum care” that he needs; he suggests that Fridge doesn’t see the necessary doctors or attend certain autograph and celebrity outings where he could make much-needed money. This Michael Dean finds hilarious; he says that he was the one who nursed Fridge back to health in 2009, that his sister Patsy is now in Aiken taking care of their brother and that William’s own stubbornness explains his missing appointments. He also claims that Willie wants to pry guardianship away so he can use Fridge himself as “his cash cow.”
If this makes no sense, so be it. The Perry family is tight but torn, with age difference, gender and competitiveness all leading to a big, interwoven, fractious ball of domestic dysphoria. Willie claims that Michael Dean profits off Fridge’s minimal income (from social security and from his NFL pension; public records show Perry with total equity of $35,245 and net income of $13,921 for 2015) so that it’s financially worthwhile to keep Fridge down, pointing to an annual $1,250 “caretaker/conservator” fee in his records. But Michael Dean flat out denies any improprieties; any money, he says, goes toward accounting and bookkeeping. “I’m getting rich off Fridge?!,” he says, incredulous. “I don’t want anything to do with the mess! He still owes a couple hundred thousand to the IRS. Everything you put in place, he fights. I’m out of options. I can’t babysit him for the next 20 years. I’ve tried to get rid of the guardianship and conservatorship for the last three or four years. I’d give it up to anybody—except Willie. Anybody but him.”
Fridge is in his office—that is, he’s in his white Hummer H2, parked in the driveway of a ramshackle house on Ridgewood Lane in Aiken. It’s 6 p.m., early April, 72º outside, and 10 or more people hang around the SUV as if it’s a tiki hut on a beach. Fridge is tipping back a beer and appears to be a tad inebriated, louder than usual, more demonstrative.
Hanging by the driver’s window is a hefty guy in a white T-shirt, smoking a menthol cigarette, drinking vodka from a plastic cup. His name is Darrell Epps. Both Willie and Fridge’s sometimes manager—a mysterious woman from Aiken who goes by Jaye, whose email begins Perrymediamgt and who occasionally finds him paying gigs—feel that Epps is the worst enabler around. What she wants to tell all these friends is: “You’re sitting there watching him die!” Willie says simply of Darrell, “He’s William’s leech.” Again, fingers point across the divide like daggers. Epps says that Jaye is the real fraud in all of this; “a b----!” Michael Dean, meanwhile, paints Jaye and Willie as trying to make money off it all, “trying to drain [Fridge].”
Despite all the tumult, this is pretty much what Fridge does every day now: hang out with people who lack apparent jobs or places to be, shoot the breeze and drink. He’s got his own vodka cup. Maybe it’s not that much different from what high-class retirees do at the 19th hole of country clubs, calling it socializing rather than wasting away. The thing is, Fridge can’t move from his driver’s seat. His car reeks of urine because he sometimes can’t control his bladder, sometimes doesn’t care. And there’s not a medical journal on diabetes or the central nervous system anywhere that recommends alcohol consumption of this frequency for good health.
“I’m his best friend,” says Epps, cordially pouring a little vodka for a visitor. “Listen to me. I’m his best friend!”
I remember the good old days back in Lake Forest, Ill., when the Bears practiced at the original Halas Hall on the east side of town and the Ditka-led circus was the wildest, craziest thing ever to hit the NFL. Before the 1985 Bears went on to outscore their foes 91–10 in the playoffs, before the regular season was even over, half the team filmed an arrogant rap video called The Super Bowl Shuffle. Their coach got a DUI on the way home from one game. Their star QB mooned a New Orleans news helicopter on the eve of the Big Game.
And that’s not even mentioning the amazing Fridge, who was penalized in one game for attempting to throw Payton over the goal line. Fridge would sometimes walk over to my house, a block from the training facility, just to see if I wanted to play basketball. Once he sat in my kitchen and watched, mesmerized, as Manute Bol, his physical opposite, played hoops on TV. Who would have guessed that a decade and a half later Perry would box the 7’ 7” Dinka Dunker in as absurd a Las Vegas fight as has ever been seen? “What a great visual image this is!” said ringside announcer Chris Rose that night, not long before Fridge—so fat that he looked like a truck tire inflated 10 times past its limit—almost collapsed from exhaustion and lost a unanimous decision to the human pencil.
Back in the mid-1980s, Perry was a naïf. Maybe he still is, though the world has taken its toll on his innocence. He has lost several Aiken houses, one of which went into receivership and is starting to rot, another of which—a semimansion with a palm tree in the huge front yard and big football cutouts in the surrounding metal fence—is occupied by his first wife, Sherry. Perry has been diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment, perhaps from the Guillain-Barré, perhaps from headbanging. “Nah,” he says when I ask him about football-related brain trauma. “I didn’t get concussions. I gave ’em.” Funny line. Maybe only half-true.
The thing about Fridge is that early on he was a rare physical talent, not simply lard. He was a very good swimmer, a former lifeguard at the park pool just a couple hundred yards from his childhood home. His short-burst running speed was shocking, his basketball jumper deadly, his raw strength unworldly. “On the D-line, all of us—me, Richard Dent, Mike Hartenstine, Steve McMichael—could power clean 370 pounds,” says Hampton. “But Fridge just did it like he was picking up a cat. We called it goofy strength.”
“He was a different individual when I had him, at 308 pounds,” says Ditka. “He was a hell of an athlete, with a great attitude. Most of it now has to do with alcohol. You think you’re invincible, nothing can hurt you. . . . I know. I’ve been through it.”
But the William Perry I see here in the spring dusk, in his car, in this driveway, doesn’t look invincible in the least. He simply looks like a man trying very hard not to think about anything at all.
The following night we meet at an Applebee’s. That the actual intersection of Whiskey Road and Easy Street is nearby tells you something about this town that is by parts pretty and decrepit, with Civil War memorials, gas costing $1.37 9/10 and a place that’s still referred to as the Aiken Colored Cemetery. Nearby, off Willow Run Road, there’s a weedy field where a black fellow named Harry McFadden, an acquaintance of Willie Perry’s, was reportedly lynched in 1978.
Fridge comes in with Epps, placing his walker next to the table. He doesn’t eat much, just nine wings. “Not like the old days,” he says. But he has four double Jack Daniels and Cokes, and once he has hobbled back to his car he asks Epps to go back and get him some pecan pie and a brownie to go.
A couple of months before this I had visited Fridge at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in downtown Chicago. He had come to town for a 30-year reunion event celebrating Super Bowl XX, with his brother Willie and Jaye escorting him. But after being roundly cheered at halftime of a Bears-Lions game at Soldier Field he’d become ill with a leg infection related to his diabetes. He told me he could no longer feel from the shin down and that his hands were numb, too.
That night there was talk that he might need to have a foot amputated if things didn’t improve. Lying in his bed with a hospital gown on, catheter in place, Fridge didn’t frown or complain. He’ll never say he’s hurting. Former Bears trainer Brian McCaskey remembers when Perry came to the sideline during a game, held his forearm out and said, “What do you think?” “It was bent down and up,” recalls McCaskey, amazed, “broken all the way through.”
The doctor comes in. He says that for some reason Perry has been taking pills he wasn’t prescribed; meanwhile, he’s not taking the ones he should be. Willie and Jaye think this shows, again, how little Michael Dean is caring for his brother. They think it might be damn close to poisoning him. Which Michael Dean finds bewildering; guardian though he is, he points out that Patsy is the one who now oversees William’s medicine intake.
But when it comes down to it, shouldn’t a grown man take care of himself? Especially one who in 2014 was declared by a doctor, cognitive issues and all, to be capable of managing his own affairs and no longer in need of a guardian?
“When I’m ready, I’ll take [Michael Dean] back to court and I’ll get my guardianship back,” Fridge says. But he’s done nothing. And it’s likely he never will. He’s slip-sliding away. He seems tired of any struggle whatsoever.
“Talent can be a curse,” says Hampton. “At 14, Fridge was the biggest thing in Carolina. Everybody expected him to play football. It’s almost like he was a reluctant participant. He didn’t have to sell out to be the best, and now he doesn’t have to care.”
Ditka, whose Gridiron Greats charity has helped pay for some of Perry’s debts, finds it all heart-wrenching. “It’s a great life wasted,” he says. “There’s no reason it has to happen. A bad deal? No, he got a great deal! In life you gotta help yourself. It’s tragic. I think he’s given up. And the question in my mind is, Why?”
The air is clear and fresh at 1 p.m. on a Wednesday in Aiken; it’s 78º, bright sun. The Masters will start soon in nearby Augusta, Ga., and flowers will start opening from south to north, like popcorn seeds cooking in a pan.
Fridge is in his car, parked under a shade tree near some men playing checkers. Two months from now he’ll be hospitalized briefly for what Willie describes as a ministroke, his second in a short period. Michael Dean will deny that either ever occurred. But for now the big man is at ease, drinking beer from his cooler, his buddy Epps nearby, smoking and drinking, wiping away sweat with a white towel draped over his shoulder. We’re barely two blocks from where Fridge was raised, and that seems relevant.
“I’m home,” he says. “And I’m happy. I can’t say everything is peachy keen, but I’m still enjoying life. I love Chicago, but there’s no place like home.”
The acrid stench from his car interplays with the fragrance of apple blossoms drifting in the breeze. He’s making a stand right here. A declaration.
“I’m my own man,” he says, seemingly tired of people trying to improve him. “It’s simple. I ain’t never trying to be famous. I never, ever try to be extravaganza. I’m just a plain old country boy!”
As if that explains it all. Or anything, really.