What's in The Fridge?

William `The Refrigerator' Perry was once the biggest thing in American football, famous for his gargantuan frame and enormous appetite. Now he's landed in London. Will he fit in? By Matt Tench
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The Independent Online
Breakfast: six eggs, grits, bacon, cheese, toast, jelly and a quart of orange juice

Lunch: eight cheeseburgers, six portions of chips and six shakes

Dinner: five chickens, steak and ribs

There are many routes to sporting celebrity. Some performers are outrageously gifted, others are unnaturally beautiful; a few find themselves engulfed by scandal. William Perry remains the only sportsman to attain superstar status because of what he ate.

For a brief moment a decade ago, no one was more entitled to believe that he had the sporting world at his feet than the rotund 23-year-old American footballer with a gap-toothed smile and a nice line in ill-fitting pants.

There were better players in the Chicago Bears side that won the Super Bowl in January 1986, but none was bigger - literally or metaphorically - than William "The Refrigerator" Perry. It was no mean achievement to eclipse the other stars of that Chicago team which, in a sport where hype is a common currency, set new standards in self-promotion. From the blunt- speaking head coach who was in open conflict with his equally bombastic first lieutenant, to the loud-mouthed quarterback who sported designer sunglasses and a punk haircut, they captured the attention of a nation.

They were a blue-collar team with attitude to burn. They rejoiced in their nickname "The Monsters of the Midway". And in a sport weighed down by complex strategies, the Bears' approach was appealingly simple: beat the opposition into a pulp, and ask questions afterwards. But by the end of this victorious season, the personification of those Bears was not the head coach, nor the quarterback, nor even Walter Payton, their brilliant running back, considered to be one of the best players of all time. It was William Perry.

This week Perry returns to centre stage - in Britain, at least - as he prepares to make a comeback. His status has long since diminished in America, though his waistline has not, and now, at 33, he seeks to kickstart his career with the London Monarchs in American football's World League.

It is tempting to portray Perry as a man brought down by his desire to eat. He would certainly not see it that way. For "The Refigerator" is something of a sporting rarity: he took to fame naturally, embraced it enthusiastically, but also left it behind swiftly and without bitterness.

Six months before the Bears won their Super Bowl, William Perry had been just another aspiring youngster, one among the hundreds who leave American colleges attempting to forge careers in professional sport. The 10th of 12 children brought up in Aiken, a small town in South Carolina, Perry weighed a stone when born. "I liked to cook, and he liked to eat," his mother, Inez, said of her son's rapid growth. In school, he learnt to bake. "He just loved making cakes. Chocolate, plain, strawberry, whatever. He would share, but I don't know whether he shared a lot."

By the time he left college at Clemson University, young William was 6ft 2in, and weighed somewhere between 22 and 25 stone. "I was big when I was little," he said at a press conference after being picked to join the Bears. "It was his first quote, and his best," remembers Don Pierson of the Chicago Tribune.

Not only was he big and relaxed in the spotlight, he also had a sobriquet that likened him to a kitchen appliance. (His nickname was first coined when he filled a lift so completely as to block out all the light, in the way a fridge light goes out). The next step in the making of a legend was down to Perry's boss, Mike Ditka, the head coach of the Bears. Perry was employed principally for the less glamorous defensive duties, but Ditka used him as an attacking battering ram. Astonshingly, it worked. Instead of the perfectly formed athletes the public was used to seeing grabbing the glory, it went to a youthful blunderbuss who did not know any better.

Perry's success, a Forrest Gump figure before his time, charmed America. A nation plagued by obesity had finally found a sporting hero with whom it could identify. Forget the joggers and the gym freaks, here was a guy who could thrive in the frenzied competitive world of professional football and eat hamburgers. By the dozen.

By the time he scored a touchdown in the Super Bowl he was a national hero. No chat show was complete without "The Fridge" on the guest list, no new advertising campaign sustainable without an endorsement from William Perry. Here, too, his range was surprisingly wide. McDonald's, macaroni cheese dinners, bacon and soft drinks were predictable; tyres, paper towels and thermal underwear less so. By the end of his first season he had 17 separate endorsement deals, and the $500,000 he earned from the Bears was dwarfed by his commercial income.

"He was unique because everything was so intense and and yet he didn't take himself so seriously," Don Pierson recalled this week. "Here was this fat guy in the middle of it all who just seemed to be enjoying himself. We called him the Falstaff of the league. Most players were so sophisticated about the commercial side of things, and here was this fat hick from South Carolina who came along and upstaged all of them. He was almost like a cartoon character who found himself in the middle of a professional sport."

In the summer of 1986, Perry came with the Bears on a pioneering expedition to London. To the British public, still new to the gridiron game, The Fridge personified its larger-than-life appeal. Perry lapped up the attention, posing with an endless procession of policemen, guardsmen and telephone boxes as the game reached its peak of popularity over here.

Back home in Chicago, the hype showed no signs of diminishing. As the Bears prepared to defend their title, the postman would bring plenty of fan mail for the team's stars, but only The Fridge would get it by the sackful. Already, however, there were signs of tension, notably concerning Perry's girth. In a book written that summer, Ditka wrote optimistically: "If he diets and controls himself and gets back into the weight room like he has to do, it will be interesting. You are what you eat. If you eat everything in sight, you'll be everything in sight. I think he'll be OK."

Ditka also pointed out: "His contract is structured so that he doesn't get all his money if he doesn't make weight. He can offset all that with a few McDonald's commercials, but I don't foresee that problem."

In the end, it wasn't the commercials that were a problem. It was the McDonald's themselves.

In the ensuing seasons, The Fridge's weight ballooned from 25 stone to something approaching 30. As the pounds went on, so his effectiveness as a player declined; the Bears tried in vain to control their serial eater. Perry was fined, publicly humiliated, privately lectured, given his own personal dietitian and even sent to a private clinic. The relationship with Ditka never fully recovered once the coach had blamed Perry's wife for not feeding her husband properly. The American public, eager to save their new folk hero, swamped the Bears with suggested diets and exercise programmes.

Nothing worked. Perry still made the team but was never able to match the phenomenal impact of that first, magical season. As his powers declined, the endorsements evaporated and in 1993 The Fridge finally left Chicago, playing out his career with two nondescript seasons in Philadelphia.

And so to London, and his new career with the Monarchs, who will be playing their home games in the rather less glamorous surroundings of Tottenham Hotspurs' football ground. Reflecting on the transitory nature of his fame this week, Perry betrayed no signs of lasting regret. "It was all fun," he said with a chuckle, before adding simply: "It came and it went."

The World League is the latest attempt to popularise the game on a global scale, and Perry is happy to play along with the playful publicity. He insists that he doesn't mind the fact that his diet - or lack of it - still dominates the conversation. "Oh, it don't bother me," he says. "I just eat what everybody else eats. People say, `Why you so big?' I say, `It's just me.' I come from a big family. I got a brother that eats more than I do."

He does maintain, a little indignantly, that details of his intake have been grossly exaggerated. "I never said anything like that," he says of reports of his daily menu. "I ate breakfast, lunch and dinner like a normal person. But all the quantities the people put in. There was a lot of myth, but that was the way they sold newspapers. It was dramatic. One person said it, then another person said it, and by the time you get to the 20th person it gets bigger and bigger, and you say, `He ate what?' "

So familiar has the question become that he has even converted his current weight from the traditional American poundage to a sum more readily understandable for a British audience - though his estimate of "around 25 stone" appears to have lost a little in translation.

The current BSE crisis has presented a problem to someone who admits that cheeseburgers remain his favourite food. "I haven't had any beef yet," he said. "I'm trying to keep off it. I'm waiting for it to get back to normal a little bit."

When Perry lines up for the Monarchs in their first game of the season against the Scottish Claymores on Sunday, it will be difficult to avoid the impression of a superstar in his twilight years. But it would be wrong to portray him as someone worried about his weight.

A TALE OF TWO REFRIGERATORS

William Perry Electrolux ER 3004C

6ft 2in Height 5ft 9in

25 stone Weight 9 stone

3ft Width 2ft

Untested Capacity 69 litres

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