Food for thought: What's really inside of The Refrigerator?

December 29, 1991|By Robert Markus | Robert Markus,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- William Perry lumbers to his locker stall in Halas Hall and finds a note from a reporter seeking an interview. The note tells Perry the reporter understands he no longer talks to the media but wonders if he would make an exception.

Attached is a copy of a story the reporter had written long ago, about Perry's family after a visit to the Perry home in Aiken, S.C.

The Bears' larger-than-life defensive tackle takes only a moment to scan the note. He does not look at the attached story. He crumples both pieces of paper in one huge fist, takes two steps toward a trash barrel and deposits the litter with a look of utter disdain.

Standing nearby, the reporter says to himself, "I take it the answer is no."

The Refrigerator is no longer a user-friendly appliance. The warmth he once projected has turned cold.

The outside world seldom sees that gap-toothed grin anymore, the one that beamed ubiquitously from your television screen way back when his world was young and every man, it seemed, was his friend.

The whole world, with the possible exception of Buddy Ryan, loved the Fridge back in 1985 when the Bears were romping to the Super Bowl and a rookie tackle from Clemson was romping into your hearts.

There are those who still love him -- his family, his teammates, his few close friends.

"He's still very bubbly to the players and coaches," says defensive coordinator Vince Tobin. "He has not changed. He's a very warm human being. He enjoys life; he enjoys football. He's a pleasure to be around. The thing he's changed is the way he relates to outside people."

Even that hasn't changed all that much, according to his agent, Jim Steiner, who says Perry never really was comfortable being the center of attention.

"I can remember when he was going through the situation with all the endorsements. He always said, 'It's fun, I like it, the money's great, but I don't crave it.' He was never the type who sought out the attention. It was not a major priority with him," Steiner says.

Although the flood of commercial endorsements that brought him millions in his first few years with the Bears has dried up to a trickle, his agent says it has little to do with Perry's new insularity.

"You may be aware that he's not talking to the press," Steiner says, "but I don't believe people across the country are aware of it.

"When companies consider endorsements, they look at Q ratings, the popularity of athletes and how they will help market products. He's still known as the Refrigerator. He's still probably one of the best-known pro athletes in the world.

"That name is recognized by people beyond the sports world. He carries an impact if he were to attach himself to a product."

So where have all the commercials gone?

"The William Perry situation in 1985-87 was a phenomenon," says Steiner, "and it tied in with the phenomenon of the Chicago Bears. He wasn't the only one getting a lot of endorsements. McMahon, Payton -- there were a lot of them.

"He was unique because of the way Mike Ditka used him. That Green Bay game [when Perry plowed for a touchdown on Monday night TV] is what created the explosion. The Super Bowl run made them all household names. Now they've all fallen off. It goes away unless you're a Joe Montana."

It went away quickly for Perry after his early success. The Bears, especially Ditka, began to nag him about his weight. The media began to take up the cry.

His body, in which he had always been comfortable, began to break down. He suffered a broken arm one year, a knee injury the next. While recovering from the broken arm, Perry stayed away from the team, irritating many of his teammates. For the first time, he started shunning the media. What probably hurt him most was the death of his mother, Inez, a woman with an electric personality who was the center of Perry family life.

Without question, however, it is the weight question that has driven him to distraction and into semi-seclusion.

"When he first came here," says one Bear insider, "he felt that people were laughing with him. Now he feels they're laughing at him."

Ditka has been after him almost from the start to control his weight. He has used both the carrot and the stick to get Perry to respond. Neither has worked.

It was Ditka, of course, who made Perry, drafting him over Ryan's objections, insisting that his defensive coordinator find a place to use him. When Ryan was slow to respond, Ditka took matters into his own hands, putting Perry in the backfield in goal-line situations in that 1985 game against Green Bay.

He said at the time he did it because, with Ryan reluctant to use Perry on defense, he was trying to find a position for Perry. It's more likely that Ditka, who has a wicked sense of humor, was merely tweaking the hated Packers.

Regardless, Perry became an instant legend and he has Ditka to thank for it. Ditka still insists he has Perry's interests at heart when he preaches weight reduction, but Perry has heard it all so many times, he may no longer be listening.

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