In 1984, the Chicago Bears had the NFL’s third-ranked defense and held opponents to just over 15 points per game.
That talented defense helped Chicago to a 10-6 record and an appearance in the NFC Championship Game.
The following spring, the Bears added even more firepower to the unit by selecting Clemson defensive tackle William Perry with the 22nd overall pick.
Perry, otherwise known as “The Refrigerator,” immediately became a fan favorite for his size and fun-loving personality.
He was a hugely talented athlete who started nine games as a rookie and stopped many a ball carrier in their tracks.
Chicago reached the Super Bowl that year, and Perry thrilled the national audience when he scored a touchdown in the game as a running back.
On this day in 1986, Bears DL William "Refrigerator" Perry scores 1-yd TD as CHI routs NE in Super Bowl XX, 46-10. pic.twitter.com/caznN32YT3
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 26, 2015
For the next few years, Perry battled opponents while also battling his weight.
By the late-1990s, he was out of the sport and struggling to find his place in life.
This is the story of William “The Refrigerator” Perry.
Aiken’s Star Athlete
William Anthony Perry was born on December 16, 1962, in Aiken, South Carolina.
— Ken Crippen (@KenCrippen) December 16, 2015
The Perry family was a large group in more ways than one.
William was the tenth of twelve children and each family member was at a different point on the size spectrum.
By the time he was in sixth grade, Perry tipped the scales at 200 pounds.
Because of his size, classmates teased Perry. The teasing only got worse when a cousin shot out one of his front teeth with a BB gun.
The incident created a gap in his teeth that was evident whenever Perry smiled.
When he got older, Perry’s elementary school principal, T.W. Williams, coaxed Perry into playing football.
In order to pay for the fees associated with the sport, Perry worked odd jobs for Williams until the debt was paid.
Soon, the Aiken community could see that, even though Perry was growing in size and girth, he was extremely athletic.
”I believe they got their athletic ability from me,” said his mother, Inez Perry, in 1986. ”I was a basketball player. I was a superstar.”
Perry astounded onlookers during the summers when he would take a break from his lifeguarding duties at the town pool to make various flips and tricks off the diving board.
Sports Fact of the Day:
— SLEDGE Tells Dolan To Sell Team 🇳🇬🇨🇲🇲🇱 (@SLEDGE_Report) July 2, 2019
Then, when he was a student at Aiken High School, Perry showed off his moves on the basketball court by dunking the ball.
Even though he wasn’t quite 6’2” and was creeping close to 300 pounds, Perry could also successfully complete a 360-degree dunk.
Perry Draws Interest from Colleges
On the gridiron, Perry used his size to his advantage and became a nose tackle on the Hornets’ defensive line.
Just as he could stuff away copious amounts of food, Perry stuffed dozens of would-be ball carriers.
He was also adept at sacking the quarterback. The scouting report for Aiken’s opponents warned about running the pigskin in Perry’s area code.
Not only was Perry strong enough to fight through double teams, but he was also fast enough to keep up with the skill position players.
That was evident when Aiken’s coach, Eddie Buck, issued a challenge during practice one day.
“I want all my fastest guys to line up for a 100-yard dash,” Buck said.
As expected, a gaggle of receivers, running backs, and members of the Hornets’ defensive secondary assembled near the start line.
Seconds later, Perry also joined the group, much to the bewilderment of his coach.
“What’re you doing?” Buck asked his 295-pound nose tackle.
“You said you wanted your fastest guys, didn’t you?” William said.
Perry didn’t win the race, but he was timed as the sixth-fastest player on the Aiken team.
His speed was on display again during track season when Perry ran the 100-meter dash in under 12 seconds.
The sneers and jeers that were spewed from fellow runners toward Perry before the race disappeared by the event’s conclusion.
Perry also found time to compete in the shot put and threw it nearly 54 feet.
By the spring of his senior year, word of Perry’s athletic feats had reached scores of college coaches. He was courted by schools such as Ohio State, UCLA, and Clemson.
Classic Pic: Clemson's William "The Refrigerator" Perry pic.twitter.com/yByX61Vmcq
— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) September 1, 2014
Primarily because the campus was only a few hours away, Perry chose to matriculate at Clemson.
Perry arrived at Clemson in 1981 just as the Tigers football team was about to embark on one of the greatest seasons in team history.
During his freshman season, Perry became a contributor at nose tackle and helped Clemson go 12-0 and defeat fourth-ranked Nebraska in the Orange Bowl for the national championship.
— 40JetOn1 (@40JetOn1) January 10, 2017
It was also during his first year that Perry received the nickname that would follow him for the rest of his life.
One day, he was traveling in a school elevator with his laundry basket when the elevator car stopped.
In walked teammate Ray Brown, who also had his own load of laundry.
As he tried to squeeze inside the small confines between Perry and his basket, Brown made a quip.
“Man, you’re about as big as a refrigerator,” laughed Brown.
The moniker stuck, and Perry was soon called “Refrigerator,” “Fridge” and even “GE” (as in General Electric) by his Tigers teammates.
Perry Dominates for Clemson
For the next three years, Perry gained national notoriety while he gained more weight.
He was a three-time All-American between 1982 and 1984 and piled up 100 tackles as a senior. This was the first time in program history that a down lineman led the Tigers in tackles.
“William Perry has a magnificent self-image,” said Clemson defensive coach, Tommy Harper. “He does not see himself as a fat person. He sees himself as a 220-pounder. When someone told him he shouldn`t be able to do things off the high dive, he thought he could do it.”
That same year, Perry’s younger brother, Michael Dean, joined him. The two played together for one season.
With the duo anchoring the Tigers’ defensive line, they caught numerous foes in the backfield and combined to get 42 tackles for a loss in 1984.
“Even when I was little, I was big.”
— Sons of Clemson (@SonsOfClemson) April 30, 2013
The Fridge also led the Atlantic Coast Conference with 27 tackles for loss.
During his Clemson career, Perry set a school record with 25 sacks and 60 total tackles for loss.
(Michael Dean would pass his brother in both categories only a few years later.)
When he wasn’t dominating on the gridiron, Perry began a bad habit at Clemson that would one day contribute to his health woes.
On several occasions, Perry would join his teammates for off-campus parties and drink two-three cases of beer in one sitting.
When he returned home to Aiken during a college break, Perry’s older brother, Daryl, watched his brother easily consume at least three six-packs of beer.
“This is getting out of hand,” thought Daryl.
However, Perry would just flash his gap-tooth grin, and everyone would carry on as if nothing was wrong.
Ditka Gets His Man
In 1984, the Chicago Bears were a team on the verge of destiny.
The team had ended the season 10-6 and beat Washington in the Divisional round, 23-19.
Then, during the NFC Championship game against San Francisco, the Bears met their match and were shut out, 23-0.
At one point during the contest, 49ers head coach Bill Walsh sent out starting guard Guy McIntyre as a blocking back in a short-yardage situation that led to a Niners’ touchdown.
Bears head coach Mike Ditka was steamed at the stunt and felt that Walsh was simply pouring salt in an open wound.
A few months later, the 1985 NFL Draft approached and Ditka really liked the big ball of life from Clemson.
— Sun-Times Sports (@suntimes_sports) February 5, 2016
Ditka had watched Perry play a few times during the 1984 college season and liked the energy and ability he brought to the field.
With an exasperated Ryan looking on in disbelief, Ditka grabbed Perry with the 22nd overall selection in the first round of the 1985 NFL Draft.
The Rookie Becomes a Fan Favorite
Perry couldn’t believe his good fortune.
When he was a freshman at Clemson, the Tigers won a national title.
Now, as a rookie with the Chicago Bears in 1985, he was part of an organization that was a Super Bowl contender.
The unit would rank first overall in the NFL that year and pulverize their opponents each week.
However, Ryan was not quite convinced his rookie was ready to claim a starting spot and tethered him to the bench for the first part of the season.
Ditka, on the other hand, had his own plans for Perry.
In Week 6, the Bears traveled to San Francisco to meet the 49ers.
During the game, Ditka purposely sent Perry out as a running back in short-yardage situations, just like Bill Walsh did to Chicago in the ‘84 playoffs.
— David Wisniewski (@DaWozz1) September 13, 2012
Both times, the Bears only picked up a few yards, but Ditka believed he’d gotten his point across.
Then, the following week, Chicago faced Green Bay in a Monday Night Football game.
Once again, Ditka sent out Perry to act as a lead blocker for tailback Walter Payton.
The first time the Bears were in a position to punch the ball in for a two-yard score, Perry blew through Packers’ linebacker George Cumby to give Payton more than enough room to score.
“It was like a Mack truck smashing a Volkswagen,” said Fridge, laughing.
“I thought he killed him,” said former Bears tackle Jimbo Covert.
“Fridge, you’re knocking more guys out of the league than the drug policy,” joked linebacker Jim Morrissey.
Perry opened the proverbial door again later in the game for a Payton touchdown and Ditka also ordered quarterback Jim McMahon to hand off to Perry so the Fridge could score himself.
— NFL Retweet (@NFLRT) September 28, 2017
The result was a 23-7 win that put Chicago at 7-0 and made Perry a household name.
Just like that, Perry was a star.
Several of the Bears players received endorsement opportunities that year but nothing like the attention Perry got.
— Craig Benoit (@CraigBenoit1) November 19, 2015
He was soon selling products for Coke and McDonald’s, became a G.I. Joe action figure, and appeared on David Letterman’s show.
“If you didn’t like Fridge,” said Ditka years later, “you didn’t like anybody.”
Around the same time, Buddy Ryan realized that Perry was better than he’d thought and started him for the final nine games of the season.
Perry used the opportunity to gobble up quarterbacks five times, recover two fumbles for 66 yards, and make 31 total tackles.
When Chicago met Green Bay again in Week 9, Ditka put Perry in on offense, and McMahon tossed him a touchdown pass in the second quarter.
Two weeks later against Dallas, Perry was a lead blocker for Payton at the goal line, and when Payton got bottled up, Perry just turned around and threw his teammate into the end zone.
Since that was highly illegal, Perry was flagged on the play.
The Super Bowl Shuffle
Then, in early December, most of the Bears players got together and sang a song called The Super Bowl Shuffle.
On this day in 1985, the @ChicagoBears recorded “The Super Bowl Shuffle” 🕺
— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) December 3, 2022
The song, done for charity, was essentially a challenge to the rest of the league.
Even though Chicago had lost for the first time to the Miami Dolphins a few days earlier, the team was still confident in its ability to reach the Super Bowl.
During the ditty, several players sang lines, including Perry, who sang about his athletic talents as well as his intelligence.
“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,” crooned Perry.
Super Bowl XX
Chicago ended the 1985 regular season with a 15-1 record.
In the playoffs, the Bears’ defense manhandled the Giants and Rams by a combined score of 45-0.
That put the franchise in its very first Super Bowl where they were set to meet the New England Patriots.
The media gave the Pats no chance in Super Bowl XX and installed them as 10-point underdogs.
Shortly after the game began, Payton uncharacteristically fumbled, which led to New England taking an improbable 3-0 lead.
From then on, it was all Chicago.
The Bears’ offense had its way against the Patriots’ defense. Even the Chicago defense got in on the act.
In the third quarter, cornerback Reggie Phillips intercepted Steve Grogan and returned the ball 28 yards for a score.
On Chicago’s next possession, the offense drove down to the New England one-yard line.
49. PUT IT IN, FRIDGE
Jan. 26, 1986
William "The Refrigerator" Perry, the 308-lb rookie DL, scores from 1-yard line in Bears' 46-10 win over Patriots in Super Bowl XX.
— Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) July 18, 2019
Instead of giving Payton the ball, Ditka trotted out Perry, who easily blasted his way into the endzone for a 44-3 lead.
“We practiced doing that during that week,” Perry recalled with a laugh. “When we got down to the goal line, [Ditka] called the same play and called me over and said, ‘Big guy, here’s your chance.’ So he put me in and there it was. I scored in the Super Bowl.”
Years later, both Perry and Ditka would feel remorse over the play because it took a scoring opportunity away from Payton, who didn’t touch the end zone that afternoon.
Despite that issue, the Bears backed up their Shuffle and won easily, 46-10.
Perry now had both a college football national title and a Super Bowl ring.
He was just getting started.
Perry’s Weight Becomes an Issue
There was no doubt that Perry was a large man.
He also happened to be very athletic and agile for his size, which was something everyone in the NFL took notice of.
“William was unbelievably quick,” recalled Bears linebacker Ron Rivera. “We had great players up front—Dan Hampton, Steve McMichael, Richard Dent—and Fridge was beating them all off the ball.”
In 1986, he tallied a career-high 84 tackles and added five sacks as Chicago went 14-2 and lost in the Divisional round to the Redskins.
The issue, especially for Ditka, was that the Fridge kept putting on more pounds.
When Perry arrived for training camp in ‘86, he weighed 340 pounds.
That was a problem for Ditka who wanted Perry to play closer to 320.
A look back to 1987 Bears training camp. William 'the Refrigerator' Perry. pic.twitter.com/wqpy3RGvcW
— Bill Campbell (@1billcampbell) July 27, 2019
As Perry gained more weight, his play began to suffer, though the Bears did everything they could to incentivize him.
“We had weigh-ins, and we fined him,” Ditka said. “And it was fruitless after a while. I didn’t want to take his money. He couldn’t get it down at that point.”
In 1987, the Fridge had 55 tackles and three sacks, but the coaching staff was exasperated because they believed Perry should have contributed much more.
Alcohol and Over-Eating Takes its Toll
Before the 1988 season began, Perry was climbing past 370 pounds. Ditka was getting concerned.
“He’s a hell of a football player,” said Ditka. “His movement is astounding, scary at his weight. But I told him he won’t be able to last beyond a quarter. The whole organization, his wife, and others are involved with him, but Bill’s got to make it happen.”
In addition to his over-consumption of food, Perry continued drinking like a fish, and it was obvious that he was an alcoholic.
Perry’s wife, Sherry, and Ditka worked together to put the Fridge in an alcoholic treatment center to try and kick the habit.
“He (Ditka) told me, ‘Big Guy, you got to handle the situation and get some help,'” Perry said. “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.'”
As if on cue, Perry’s 1988 season ended after three games due to a broken arm that required a plate to be inserted into the limb.
Perry Briefly Turns the Corner
Perry returned in 1989 to start nine games and collected four sacks, two fumble recoveries, and 61 tackles.
Then, in 1990 and 1991, he started every game both years and posted four sacks and 70 tackles in 1990 and a career-high 5.5 sacks and 80 tackles in 1991.
William 'The Refrigerator' Perry @ the Chicago Bears… pic.twitter.com/iB90s0ZPfp
— Selena Robinson (@SelenaRobinson3) July 7, 2017
Meanwhile, Chicago kept trying to replicate its 1985 magic by compiling winning records and appearing in the playoffs five times between 1986 and 1991.
Each time, the team flamed out and failed to advance past the NFC Championship game (in 1988).
Ditka and Perry Leave Chicago
By 1992, it was obvious that time was running out on the Bears.
Jim McMahon was long gone and Payton had retired after the 1987 season.
The core of the Bears’ defense was still there, but the offense just wasn’t the same. The franchise ended the ‘92 season with a 5-11 record.
Perry started 14 games that year and had two sacks and 48 tackles.
His weight was still an issue as Perry continued to hover around 400 pounds.
However, he still had a home as long as Ditka was around.
“I would never trade him,” Ditka said at one point.
Unfortunately for both men, Ditka was fired after the 1992 season, and Dave Wannstedt took over.
Wannstedt didn’t have the allegiance to Perry that Ditka did. He waived the Fridge after Week 7 of the 1993 season.
— PFRPA (@ThePFRPA) October 5, 2017
Not long after, the Philadelphia Eagles picked him up, and he played the next year and a half with the organization.
Perry had one sack and 68 tackles total as an Eagle.
Perry Goes to London, then Retires
After the 1994 season concluded, Perry briefly retired.
He attempted to start a pro wrestling career in 1995, but terms could not be reached.
— Legends In The Wrong Uniforms (@WrongUnis) August 5, 2022
Perry returned to play football in 1996 after signing with the London Monarchs of NFL Europe.
“William loves London,” Perry’s agent, Jim Steiner, said. “This whole deal came together quite by accident.”
Steiner also shared that Perry had grown weary of Chicago due to the constant reference to his weight.
“The stress and strain and abuse that William took from the coaches to the media in Chicago really got to him,” said Steiner. “Every comment had to do with his weight. That’s why he liked Philadelphia so much better. The weight issue was a non-issue.”
The British people loved Perry and he was a cult figure everywhere he went.
WILLIAM "THE REFRIGERATOR" PERRY
🏈 Chicago Bears (1985–1993)
🏈 1985 / Round: 1 / Pick: 22
🏈 Super Bowl champion (XX)
Career NFL statistics:
Offensive TDs: 3
— The Bear Facts Podcast (@TheBearFactsPod) April 3, 2023
He played most of the 1996 season with London then left the team before the last two games of the season, this time retiring for good.
“I had some god-given talent,” said the Fridge in 2000. “I put in 10 years in the league. I’m grateful for that, and I’m happy that it’s over. I’m real happy where I am now.”
During his career, Perry racked up 524 tackles, 29.5 sacks, five fumble recoveries, and three offensive touchdowns.
Perry’s Initial Life in Retirement
Without football to keep him (somewhat) in shape, Perry let himself go after he retired from the game.
By 2000, Sports Illustrated caught up with him, and Perry was back in Aiken working with his father-in-law as a bricklayer.
Today’s Big Fella Friday goes out to William “The Refrigerator” Perry of the Chicago Bears. At a height of 6’2” and weight of 335 lbs, The Fridge, one of the jolliest guys in the NFL, holds the record for largest Super Bowl ring size. An absolute unit. pic.twitter.com/NTs6qbVhrX
— Big Fellas (@fellas_big) April 28, 2018
If he was considered out of shape by others, Perry didn’t agree.
“You put up six scaffolds, then lay brick all day in 100-degree heat,” he said, still smiling. “We’ll see what kind of shape you’re in.”
He was happy, lived in a large house with Sherry and their four kids, and spent considerable time fishing.
“Don’t get no better than this,” said Perry. “This is me now. Those things you’re talking about, that’s just stuff in the breeze.”
Perry’s Health Issues Nearly Take His Life
Only a few years later, Perry was no longer a bricklayer. He and Sherry had divorced (and Perry gave her the house), and he had remarried a former high school classmate, Valerie.
He was still making decent money signing autographs, but whatever money Perry got went straight to booze.
At one point in the mid-2000s, Perry paid to have all of his teeth replaced, so he no longer had his famous gap.
However, shortly after the procedure, he developed an infection that wasn’t properly cared for.
His mouth ached, but Perry just drowned out the pain with more alcohol.
“Whenever he would drink, he didn’t feel any pain,” said his brother, Daryl. “So he was masking the pain with the alcohol.”
Eventually, the infection worsened, and he could barely move.
"Refrigerator" Perry Suffering From Guillain-Barre' Syndrome http://tinyurl.com/nce9bp #NFL
— ProFootballTalk (@ProFootballTalk) July 3, 2009
In 2009, he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, which affects muscle strength. It also started playing havoc with the Fridge’s peripheral nervous system.
Valerie tried to make Perry get help, but he didn’t believe he needed any.
“I played football, you know,” he said. “And whenever you broke something, you keep playing. No worry, you keep going and not run to a doctor. You don’t run going, ‘Mama, mama, mama.’ So you know, I just ignored it.”
By 2009, Perry’s condition had gotten so bad that he lost considerable weight and got down to as low as 190 pounds.
Michael Dean Perry was given guardianship over his brother, but Perry’s son, William II, wanted to be granted guardianship.
With Michael Dean watching over his brother in Charlotte, North Carolina, and making sure he went to rehab, Perry’s health improved.
Just when things were looking up, though, he demanded to return to Aiken.
Once he arrived home, Perry slid back into his old habits.
Sports Illustrated caught up with him again in 2016 and reported that Perry spent his days with shady characters and sitting in his Hummer H2 consuming large quantities of alcohol.
One of the hometown(Aiken,SC) Legends William "The Refrigerator" Perry stopped through by my moms house to chat! pic.twitter.com/stDinHkyF0
— Michael Miles Jr (@MrMilesPHA) October 11, 2015
The article also mentioned that Perry had so much trouble walking that his Hummer smelled like urine, a result of his inability to get to a restroom in time.
Even worse, Perry was living in a retirement home at the age of 54.
— Yahoo Sports NFL (@YahooSportsNFL) January 6, 2016
On the rare occasions that Perry met with his old Bears teammates, they were shocked at his poor health.
“Talent can be a curse,” said Dan 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.”
Those closest to Perry could see that his alcoholism was affecting his cognitive abilities and exacerbating his pre-existing conditions such as diabetes.
Ditka stepped in at various points with his Gridiron Greats charity to help Perry with his medical expenses.
“It’s a great life wasted,” Ditka said. “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?”
Thankfully, by 2022, Perry was doing much better. He was even appearing at events such as Clemson football games.
“Everything is going well. I’m getting back up, moving around and doing things,” Perry said. “I’m really enjoying myself.”