The latest chapter of William “The Refrigerator” Perry’s downward spiral has left the beloved, former Chicago Bears lineman alone in a retirement facility as his health remains in jeopardy. Perry, 53, was a rookie on the 1985 Bears and quickly became a fan favorite, gaining popularity for his size and spirited personality. In Super Bowl XX, he set a record as the largest running back to score a touchdown after rushing for two TDs and catching a TD pass during the 1985 regular season.
And of course, there was his solo in “The Super Bowl Shuffle,” a rap song performed by those Bears, who would finish the regular season 15-1, three months before their Super Bowl victory.
But, as Rick Telander wrote in Sports Illustrated and others have reported over the past few years, Perry’s health has taken a turn for the worse. The man who blocked for Walter Payton — and once threw him over the defensive line and into the end zone — can barely walk. Perry has trouble hearing but refuses to wear a hearing aid. His weight has ballooned to about 430 pounds, his hands are numb, and he no longer has feeling from the shin down, he said. Michael Dean Perry, William’s legal guardian, suspects his older brother might have “traces of CTE.”
Meanwhile, his finances are a mess and his career earnings are long gone, according to Telander, along with his size 25 Super Bowl ring, auctioned off for $203,000. Further, Perry, who declared publicly in 2011 that he was an alcoholic, has continued drinking despite pleas from friends, family members and doctors to stop.
“None of it matters,” Telander writes. “He’s got drinking buddies. Alcohol’s his special pal. He’s back in slow, sleepy Aiken and, by God, he’s doing what he wants to do. Even if it causes pain and divisiveness in his large family, as members watch him slowly implode and are at a loss to help him.”
Perry’s is a sad story, albeit one not unfamiliar for retired football players. While the frequently cited “78 percent of former NFL players have gone bankrupt” statistic has been disputed, a 2015 study by the National Bureau of Economic Research estimated 15.7 filed for bankruptcy 12 years after retirement. That’s a high percentage considering professional football players are bringing in six, seven and even eight-figure annual salaries. Warren Sapp and Vince Young represent two other cautionary tales.
And then there’s the matter of health. A 2015 study from the American Academy of Neurology showed that “more than 40 percent of retired National Football League players . . . had signs of traumatic brain injury,” while other studies have revealed links between football and CTE. In addition, overweight retired players such as Perry, who is diabetic, may be at higher risk of heart disease and other health problems.
Much of what made Perry so dominant in the 1980s has put his health in jeopardy. As Telander puts it, Perry isn’t searching for a solution and his family members aren’t providing sufficient help. The veteran reporter, who covered Perry during his professional football career, closes the story by describing Fridge sitting in his car — a white Hummer H2 — drinking beer from a cooler, parked a couple blocks from where he was raised in Aiken, S.C.
“I’m home,” he says. “And I’m happy. I can’t say everything is peachy keen, but I’m still enjoying life. I love Chicago, but there’s no place like home.”
The acrid stench from his car interplays with the fragrance of apple blossoms drifting in the breeze. He’s making a stand right here. A declaration.
“I’m my own man,” he says, seemingly tired of people trying to improve him. “It’s simple. I ain’t never trying to be famous. I never, ever try to be extravaganza. I’m just a plain old country boy!”
The old country boy, who charmed Chicago 30 years ago, certainly does remain his own man.