Amidst a media frenzy that is serving him up a la mode on the sports pages and celebrity television shows of the nation, William Anthony (the Refrigerator) Perry, all 304 pounds of him, is staying calm, collected and, well, frost-free.
"It's something new, new to me . . . everything each and every day. But I'm just taking it day by day," said the man whose meat-locker bulk has almost overnight made him the biggest, most amiable symbol of power-through-appetite since Bill Cosby's Fat Albert.
In recent sports history in this increasingly sports-obsessed nation of spectators, there has not been a phenomenon quite like the Fridge, who today with the rest of the Chicago Bears takes on the Atlanta Falcons. To be sure, there have been bigger humans as heroes: Muhammad Ali and Wilt the Stilt, both taller than Perry, come to mind. And there have been tougher ones, like Ty Cobb and Mean Joe Greene, and those more clever, more graceful, more awesome: Sugar Ray Leonard, Willie McGee, Michael Jordan.
But none quite as refreshing as this young man of good size and good cheer, modesty and decorum, picking his serene way through the mayhem of grim-visaged Sunday afternoon violence. Amid the weekly slow-mo spectacle of grace, elegance, mayhem, and hurt (will our retinas ever erase the ghastly scene of Joe Theismann's leg breaking in two?), the presence of Perry, the defensive tackle who also carries the ball and someday may throw a pass, adds an unexpected sense of sheer, heavyweight delight to the proceedings.
That he also happens to block, squash, bulldoze, clear, compact and steamroll has something to do with it, as does the fact that beneath the pads and padding there beats the heart of a chivalrous knight, ready to protect smaller teammates at the thud of a broken play.
What, for example, was the Fridge trying to do last Sunday when, a few feet shy of the end zone of the hapless, hated Dallas Cowboys, he picked up Walter (Sweetness) Payton, the 204-pound Bears running back, and tried to shot-put him across the goal line with the ball for another score?
"Oh, it was just my instinct," said the Fridge. "I was up there blocking and everybody was piling on Walter, and I didn't like that. So, you know, I went over and grabbed him and I just tried to get him in the end zone."
Had he tried to throw Payton over the line for the six points?
"No," said the Fridge in his soft, southern voice. "I didn't throw him . . . It was more than one or two guys on him, so I was just trying to get him in the end zone."
Instead, the deed got Perry a penalty for illegal aid to the runner.
"I didn't know what was going on," Payton remarked after the game.
"If they didn't call me for holding or something, I believe we both would have got into the end zone," the Fridge told the Chicago Tribune.
Aside from that slight difference of opinion, the world right now is just a big, gaptoothed laugh for the Fridge, whose upper right incisor disappeared a long, long time ago in a line of scrimmage far, far away. "Everything's going well," he said in an interview at the Bears' headquarters in suburban Lake Forest a few days ago.
"Everything" has become a lot. Featured once in People magazine (a snide September article reported how he "waddled" into his first serious pro football practice), the Fridge has made guest appearances on the "Today" show, faced David Letterman late at night a few weeks ago and is scheduled for the "Tonight" show Dec. 17.
His business agents have been flooded with lucrative offers for endorsements of merchandise from appliances to extra-large clothing lines to hamburgers. He has been given a crash course in television fundamentals, and together with phalanxes of Bears teammates, is learning firsthand the media blitz that an NFL won-loss record of 11-0 can touch off.
Among the milestones Perry is passing while headed toward a glowing financial balance sheet is this fundamental American achievement: He has just shot his first McDonald's commercial. Crain's Chicago Business, a local weekly, recently took note of the Fridge's presence in the marts of trade, in an article headlined, "Red-Hot Refrigerator Blasts into Promotional End Zone."
His wife "is loving" the media blitz. "She talks to the press and everything and she likes that."
Measured by any standard, the career of this 22-year-old Clemson University graduate is taking off. It has been that way ever since Mike Ditka, the Bears' head coach, appalled many of his aides by choosing the Fridge in the first round of the National Football League draft months ago. Perry was pleased, but held out for a hefty salary. When he finally came to the preseason training camp, he had a four-year, $1.35 million contract in his pocket.
He's been losing weight ever since.
The 10th of 12 children of Inez and Hollie Perry of Aiken, S.C., the Fridge weighed about 330 lbs. when he first reported. Even that was about 50 pounds below his salad days at Clemson. But the Bears' coaches were not impressed with the lighter version of their rookie.
Perry quickly found "there's nothing similar" between college football and the pro game. The very first day he practiced, he lost 13 pounds -- in the morning.
"Everything's different," he declared. "When I first came to the rookie camp, Clyde Emrich the strength coordinator and the trainer, they pushed me a whole lot so I could get in better shape."
The body-building program has dramatically changed the ratio of rubber tire to muscle, altering his profile. In fact, up close, wearing street clothes instead of lineman's armor, the Fridge doesn't look much different from any other hungry 6-2, 300-pound man you might happen upon at your favorite lunch counter.
"You watch what you eat," he said of his svelte new self, "and eat small portions, and the weight'll stay the same."
Gone are the gargantuan breakfasts of eggs, grits, sausage and orange-juice quarts. Gone are the 21-Big-Mac-Attack midday snacks. Gone are the thirst-quenching sessions that centered around 48 cans of beer.
"No breakfast," he said firmly. "No breakfast at all."
"Maybe a salad, something like that." This was said with no detectable enthusiasm.
"Maybe a small portion of . . . like, a steak, and some salad. Diet Coke, something like that." The Fridge smiled pleasantly as he uttered these words.
The weight training and muscle building have been so successful that he actually fretted during the impromptu interview over the things he was losing. This may be hard to swallow, but the Fridge has become a confirmed weight watcher in reverse.
"I don't know what I weigh today," he said with a trace of worry in his voice. "The last time I stepped on the scale I was 304, 305, around there. It's hanging around that area. I don't want to get no lower than what I am now . . . I don't want to lose my strength and lose what I have."
His worries mirror those of the rest of us. No one wants to see the Refrigerator become just another portable ice chest.
As the 1985 football season took shape, the public's awareness of the Fridge grew and grew. By November, the mere presence of No. 72 along the sidelines would bring an eager response from stadium crowds hopeful their newest love object would be deployed in the line.
Now, when the Fridge lurches forward for action, there is a rising roar from the crowd -- Bears baiters as well Bears fans shouting, laughing, pointing together. It isn't only that they want to see the Fridge pulverize and pummel, although gridiron violence is as American as the apple pie Perry now spurns.
There is more. More than just the slightly unhealthy thrill of this huge man wheeling and charging in a sea of strangely huge men. It has to do with the fact that the rookie is cheerfully helping his coach, Ditka, break the rigid (and dull) rules of pro football -- to test the envelope.
"It's Ditka's idea. He's a genius," said the Fridge. "That's what he says I should call him if he gets everything right, so he's a genius. He thought of everything."
And there is that as well . . . the Fridge's own unassuming nature, and his delight -- totally devoid of arrogance -- at his own accomplishments and unexpected success.
"I think they just accept me as I am," the Fridge said. "I'm just as I am, just a regular person. Not trying to imitate anybody. People just accept me as I am . . . I'm just William Perry."
This William Perry has been playing football continuously since the age of 7, when he joined a Peewee League team in Aiken, a city of about 14,000 near the Savannah River. Ever since then, his world has been that of a dedicated, but not obsessed, athlete.
He was an All-American at Clemson, and a star his freshman year, when the Tigers were Atlantic Coast Conference champions, undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country. He married his childhood sweetheart, Sherry Broadwater, four years ago, and they have a child, Latavia, who is 3.
For this William Perry, life is as much fun as it has ever been, more fun even than the year the Tigers were national champions. The fun is playing in the line, facing the other gladiators, nose to nose, helmet to helmet. The essense of football.
"It's what you're doing all your life. You go out there and you just have fun with what you're doing. You're the guy on the line instead of the guy running the ball. You just go out and play and just have fun with the whole thing . . . That's all there is to it.
"Everybody's relaxed on the team, everybody's just ready to play."
With his quiet voice and his pleasant, low-key modesty, the Fridge hardly seems the most ferocious member of a team that gritty, blue-collar Chicago cheers as the Monsters of the Midway.
"You have to have two personalities -- one on the field and one off the field," he said. Even at age 22, he has spent so many years playing football that he seems easily able to make the the transition between the world of practice and home life to the world of the Game. "I just put on my uniform and get ready to play," said the Fridge.
"You're getting paid to perform and you have to perform. And everything is just like a job. But you have a job that you have fun at, and it's what you've been dreaming about all your life. And you're having fun with it, each and every day, and that's nice.
" Most people go to work with a sad face. But here, you go to work with a fun face and just have fun with everybody. And you have fun playing the game on Sunday."
And there is, at last, something else as well that pleases the Fridge.
"When I first came to the Bears , everybody was saying negative things about me and everything, and the whole thing's changed around. It's the other way, and you know, that's what you look forward to -- people saying positive things about you, not negative."