The Tragic Downfall Of William Perry

For much of his 10-season career in the NFL, William “Refrigerator” Perry was a fan-favorite defensive tackle who stood out for two things — his enormous size and his occasional ability to score goal-line touchdowns. As a 350-pound rookie, he was part of the Chicago Bears team that trounced the New England Patriots at Super Bowl XX and became pop culture legends thanks to their “Super Bowl Shuffle” music video. His instant celebrity status made him an easy choice as one of several NFL players who were invited to appear at WrestleMania II in 1986. He also happened to be a very popular person with his teammates, with his Bears coach, Mike Ditka, once saying that if you didn’t like the Fridge, “you didn’t like anybody.”

Indeed, Perry had it all at that point in his life. Three decades later, he was severely overweight, dealing with alcoholism, diabetes, and cognitive issues, and practically broke. How did Perry go from mainstream celebrity athlete in the ’80s and ’90s to living in a retirement facility and subsisting on social security checks in recent years?

Before the downfall

In order to fully understand how William Perry lost his fortune, one has to look back at his many accomplishments outside the football field. In 1986, the Fridge appeared at the then-WWF’s second iteration of WrestleMania, joining fellow pro football standouts such as Bill Fralic, Russ Francis, and Bears teammate Jimbo Covert in a battle royal pitting NFL stars against WWF wrestlers. Two decades later, Perry was inducted into the WWE Hall of Fame for his memorable performance in the match, as noted by Bleacher Report.

During his NFL career with the Bears and the Philadelphia Eagles, Perry starred in commercials and made guest appearances on a number of television shows. He remained fairly relevant in the years following his retirement, notably taking part in Fox’s Celebrity Boxing II in 2002. Per Entertainment Weekly, Perry, who was then tipping the scale at 375 pounds, lost to 7-foot-7-inch former NBA player Manute Bol, who used his impressive reach to prevent his much heavier opponent from doing much damage.

According to Sportscasting, Perry also tried his luck in the world of competitive eating. Despite his reputation as a big eater, he only ended up consuming four hot dogs in five minutes in the 2003 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.

The Fridge's battle with the bottle

Most fans who remembered William Perry from his glory days in the NFL were first informed of his dire situation in a 2011 article from ESPN’s Tom Friend. The piece took a look at how the defensive tackle was still doing quite well for himself after retirement, starting a construction company with his father-in-law and living in a large house with his then-wife, Sherry, and their four children. However, the Fridge’s drinking started spiraling out of control due to how easy it was to score free booze during the autograph sessions he hosted around that time. That led to Sherry filing for divorce in 2003 and gaining custody of the kids and the house.

While Perry moved on quickly and started a relationship with an old high school classmate, his drinking continued to be a problem after he had his upper and lower teeth replaced and developed an infection. As the report noted, he allegedly refused to take the antibiotics prescribed by his doctor, instead opting to medicate by drinking copious amounts of vodka.

“Whenever he would drink, he didn’t feel any pain,” his younger brother Darryl Perry recalled. “So he was masking the pain with the alcohol.”

Various medical conditions and financial issues

William Perry also dealt with a number of medical conditions following his dental procedure, including an advanced case of Guillain-Barre Syndrome — an autoimmune disease that could start with muscle weakness and eventually progress to paralysis or even death. While he recovered after spending five months in the hospital in 2008, he suffered a relapse a year later, resulting in pneumonia, hearing difficulties, and severe weight loss — at that time, he reportedly weighed only 190 pounds. 

By 2016, Sports Illustrated’s Rick Telander published another lengthy update on the Fridge, revealing that he was living alone in a retirement facility in his hometown of Aiken, South Carolina, weighing about 430 to 450 pounds and barely able to walk. He was also dealing with diabetes and still suffering from hearing problems, and another younger brother, fellow NFL alumnus Michael Dean Perry, suggested that William might have “traces of CTE.” His drinking was likewise a concern as he consistently disregarded the advice of family and friends and kept hitting the bottle.

Telander’s report also focused on Perry’s dwindling finances, given how he did not receive a dime when his Super Bowl ring was auctioned off in 2015. That year, he supposedly earned a net income of just $13,921 from social security checks and his NFL pension. Further, his family affairs were reportedly a mess, with his children and two ex-wives “too busy fighting amongst themselves to actually accomplish any change.”

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