A household name to sell U.S. game Biggest booster: Former NFL star William "The Refrigerator" Perry is making a comeback in Britain as the smash- mouth ambassador of American-style football.

April 11, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- In his first weeks as potential savior of the London Monarchs football team, William "The Refrigerator" Perry has waded through the world-famous food stalls at Harrods, been interviewed by a man in drag on national television, taken in the sights from Big Ben to the Tower of London and squeezed in a night at the theater, enduring the long-running hit "Miss Saigon."

"Too much singing for me," says Mr. Perry. "And too much crying."

The Fridge is back, bigger, if not better than ever.

The World League of American Football, which is struggling to gain a foothold in Europe, needed a household name to sell the game. Enter Mr. Perry, who still is held in high regard by many Britons. They recall Mr. Perry's wonder years with the Chicago Bears in the mid-1980s, when he played on defense and offense, smashing quarterbacks one moment and rumbling for touchdowns the next.

The Fridge was a commercial phenomenon who rode his aw-shucks manner, gap-toothed grin and phenomenal girth to international celebrity. It was a college teammate at Clemson University who gave him the nickname that launched not just a career, but a legend.

Like many 1980s fads, the Fridge soon faded and became just another National Football League defensive lineman with a well-publicized weight problem. After playing with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1994, Mr. Perry retired to his hometown of Aiken, S.C.

The Fridge is 33 now, with two surgically repaired knees that prevent him from performing one of his old athletic tricks -- dunking a basketball. His weight is a mystery. He is probably the first player in football history to have his weight officially listed as 350ish.

If polyester could talk, it would probably scream every time Mr. Perry pulls a jersey over his head. He claims that with all the hard work he has put in, "I could be 300 pounds by the end of the season."

Britain's "mad cow disease" scare could help the Fridge's diet. He's off the cheeseburgers.

"I never discuss his weight with him. Man gave me his word he'll be ready. I'm putting in pass plays for him," says Monarchs head coach Bobby Hammond, a former Morgan State University star who played and coached in the National Football League.

The Fridge says he's ready to play. The 10-game season opens Sunday, with London taking on the Scottish Claymores at a grand, old soccer stadium named White Hart Lane.

The Monarchs averaged just 10,500 in attendance last season, as the six-team league re-formed after a two-season hiatus. The league has a few European players, but rosters mostly are filled with Americans trying to showcase their skills for the NFL. Among those on the Monarchs is Tony Vinson, a running back from Towson State University.

The British showed in the 1980s that they liked American football, filling Wembley Stadium for exhibition games between powerhouse teams. To be honest, many showed up to watch the cheerleaders.

But the British aren't thrilled with the American game anymore. There is a familiar lament that football is too slow and the rules too confusing for fans raised on soccer. And football is sold as family entertainment, which the British find puzzling.

In British soccer (called football here), they don't tailgate and they don't do halftime shows. But police do escort fans of visiting teams to keep post-match brawls to a minimum.

Mr. Perry was lured to Europe to win the fans' hearts, minds and wallets. He is turning into an outstanding football ambassador, telling a group of sportswriters, "Hey, I played in the NFL for 10 years and I don't understand all the rules."

He uses phrases not usually heard around here, such as "smash-mouth."

"What I know you'll see is a team that is smash-mouth," he tells sportswriters who often use words like "genius" and "brilliant" to describe soccer players.

"If you don't want to hit or be hit, just stay on the sidelines," Mr. Perry says. "We're gonna have a smash-mouth offense, defense, special teams. We want to see blood."

The sportswriters laugh nervously.

Mr. Perry appears rejuvenated by the renewed attention.

Toward the end of his NFL career, the Fridge wasn't the most approachable personality. He was worn down by fame and the endless questions about his weight.

"I just got tired of speaking the same thing over and over again for 10 years," he says. "For me, the Fridge thing wasn't crazy. I didn't live off it. I took it and ran with it, and then let it go. That's the kind of guy I am."

Now, place this man in front of a camera and he'll talk, no matter the environment. He was unfazed when drag queen Lily Savage lured him onto a bed for their interview on the daytime "Big Breakfast" show.

"That was a good interview," Mr. Perry says. "The man asked me about my family."

Family is a big thing with Mr. Perry. He says he is coming back because the coach asked him to, his 3-year-old son wanted to see him play and his wife wanted to live in England for a while.

"If I hadn't done this, I would have gone into pro wrestling," Mr. Perry says.

Wrestling's loss is Europe's gain.

Pub Date: 4/10/96

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