I felt a tinge of sadness the other day when I read that the Chicago Bears had waived their massive defensive tackle, William "Refrigerator" Perry. Unless you lived in Chicago during the 1985 football season, you'll probably find it hard to understand what was so special about "The Fridge," as everyone called him back then.
But in a year when the Bears won the Super Bowl, William, as then-coach Mike Ditka insisted on calling him, was the fans' favorite.
Having gone through the excitement generated by last year's run for the NBA title by the Suns, however, you can appreciate how some players become folk heroes. They really don't have to be the team's star. They just have to capture the imagination. Frank Johnson is a good example. That's how it was for "The Fridge," then a rookie fresh out of Clemson University and Aiken, South Carolina.
He was the Bears' first pick in the draft that year, but Buddy Ryan, then the team's outspoken defensive coordinator, took one look at him and proclaimed him a "wasted" pick. "He'll never make it in this league," Ryan said. Buddy was wrong, of course. And not for the last time.
Despite Ryan, the fans were fascinated by the sight of the huge rookie flailing away on the defensive line. It turned out he had less body fat than anyone else on the team. Most of that weight was actually muscle. At least, that's what the Bears said.
One day, "The Fridge" recovered a fumble and ran 50 yards with it before the opposition ran him down. They ran those replays over and over again on television for a week. Almost overnight, Chicago adopted "The Fridge" as its favorite Bear player, even supplanting greats like Walter Payton, who was then near the end of his career.
He was not only doing good things on the field, but he provided a sense of joy, which has always been a rare commodity in pro football. "The Fridge" was a 365-pound defensive tackle who did things no lineman his size had ever attempted before. Despite his enormous bulk, "The Fridge" had quick feet and an almost acrobatic grace. He was so agile he could easily dunk a basketball.
The game of football doesn't call for that particular skill, of course. But Mike Ditka, the Bears' coach, began finding other unlikely uses for his huge rookie performer. The results proved spectacular. Ditka began putting "The Fridge" into the Bears' offensive backfield in goal-line situations. The sight of "The Fridge" lined up in the same backfield with Walter Payton and Jim McMahon titillated the fans and confounded the opposition.
At first, "The Fridge" led the way as a blocker, breaking a path for Payton to the goal. It was a sight that was awesome to behold. What mere mortal could withstand the charge with "The Fridge" bearing down upon him like an angry rhino?
Television loved it. Every time "The Fridge" lined up in the backfield, the camera singled him out and then switched to the glowering Ditka on the sideline. When the play ended, no matter what the result, the camera switched back to Ditka for his reaction. It was simply great theatre.
Inevitably, there came the night when Ditka called his number and "The Fridge" pounded into the pile of bodies at the goal line to score his first NFL touchdown. The crowd went berserk. No one had ever seen anything like this before. "The Fridge," who had something of a comedic sense, followed this up with a dainty little pirouette and then spiked the ball into the turf.
Overnight, he became the talk not only of Chicago, but of the entire league. Business agents came bursting out of the woodwork to represent him. Suddenly, it was reported "The Fridge" had three of them at work. He became the single most-sought-after Bear player for endorsements. In no time, there was a McDonald's commercial with "The Fridge" stuffing Big Macs into his mouth every time you turned on the television.
And his successes on the field continued. Sullen critics contended he was a very ordinary defensive lineman who seemed to make very few tackles. But "The Fridge" always turned up doing something extraordinary.
There was another time when he dived into the end zone for a score and then quickly bounced to his feet, dancing away from the pile like a scatback.
And then there was the time when "The Fridge" even drifted out into the flat in the end zone like a wide receiver and easily grabbed a pass for a touchdown.
Everything "The Fridge" did caused comment. One day the Bears beat the Dallas Cowboys, 44 to 0. But the next day's sports section was filled with accounts of how Perry had attempted to help Payton score a touchdown. He merely picked him up out of a pile at the goal line and attempted to toss him over the defenders into the end zone.
"Who cares about the rules?" people said. "And, after all, he's only a rookie."
During that season, he could do no wrong. Ditka doted upon him and never complained about his weight. The fans loved him. "The Fridge" made personal appearances almost every night of the week. Everyone wanted to see and talk to him. Before the emergence of Michael Jordan, "The Fridge" was the town's greatest hero. At least for that one season.
One night, thousands of fans waited outside a downtown department store for an hour in below-zero weather to await his appearance for an autographing session. Appearing with him was Gary Fencik, then in his tenth year as one of the great Bear defensive backs of all time. But every one of the fans' questions was directed at "The Fridge." They didn't seem to know who Fencik was.
After the season was over, a promoter signed "The Fridge" up for a tag-team-wrestling match in Rosemont Horizon arena. They sold so many tickets that it was necessary to pipe video of the event into neighborhood theatres, which also sold out.
I went to the wrestling match. Consider this one fact and judge for yourself the level of seriousness: G. Gordon Liddy was an honorary judge. Some of the other wrestlers on the card had names like Hillbilly Jim, King Tonga, Big John Studd and the Iron Sheik. Mr. T, then a television celebrity, appeared in a three-round boxing bout which one critic called the worst boxing event ever held in North America.
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The highlight of the night came in the free-for-all when a wrestler named Tony Atlas attempted to lift up "The Fridge" and toss him over the ropes. Atlas did not succeed. "The Fridge" was too heavy, and Atlas finally dropped unceremoniously to the canvas.
Maybe that was the night Ditka decided that "The Fridge" ought to lose some weight. Whatever, from then on, every time Perry's name appeared in the paper, it was about a battle with Ditka over excessive weight. It seemed like Ditka was suspending "The Fridge" for weight problems every season. Nobody ever fully explained why his days as a running back and wide receiver were over. "The Fridge" lasted with the Bears nine years. It was only in that first one that he had any real fun. Toward the end, they said he was turning mean and sullen. He didn't want to talk to anyone anymore.
And the Bears cut him. They paid him off and said goodbye. A few days later, "The Fridge" was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles. But, hell, what's in Philadelphia? It's even worse than being hired by our very own Phoenix Cardinals.