Commentary

How 'The Fridge' lost his way

William 'The Refrigerator' Perry does what he wants -- and that includes still drinking

Updated: February 8, 2011, 8:56 AM ET
By Tom Friend | ESPN.com

AIKEN, S.C. -- Every day begins with William Perry needing help out of bed. Usually, it's 10 a.m. before he even gives it a try, and to support his 400 pounds, he shuffles to the living room on two legs that barely work and his sturdy black cane.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Perry
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesWilliam Perry, during the Bears' 1985 season.

Once he sits down, he and his chair are in a long-term relationship. He doesn't move, except to go to the bathroom, and the concerning part is that he has no desire to move. A home gym is just 20 feet away from him, but he mostly scowls at it from a safe distance. A walking path is only 40 feet away, but he mostly hisses at it from the comfort of his seat.

His day consists of watching television and eating three or four meals prepared by his heart-broken wife, Valerie. She nags him to exercise, but says she gets "cussed out'' for it. She bugs him to take his medication but says she gets ignored over it. Her new trick, just to get him on his feet, is to tell him he has to come to the kitchen to eat his lunch. That's her best way to get "The Refrigerator'' to walk near the refrigerator.

Of course, then when she least expects it, her husband will hobble out the door and into his car. She knows exactly where he's headed: to the liquor store.

Because every day ends with William Perry needing a drink.

The insecurities

The rise was so much less complicated than the fall. William Perry, now 48, was once America's mascot -- a pear-shaped, gap-toothed football player who could sing, dance, sack quarterbacks, score touchdowns and muss Mike Ditka's hair.

The fact that he did it with an innocent smile made it all the more endearing. But, turns out, he was never as innocent as he seemed.

The insecurities came early. It's hard enough weighing 200 pounds in the sixth grade, but it's even worse if your front tooth's been shot out. William was in grammar school when one of his cousins mischievously pulled the trigger of a BB gun, blasting William straight in the mouth. One of his front two teeth was splintered. So William entered his Aiken high school as, essentially, the funny-looking fat kid.

One way to shut everyone up was to become an athletic marvel, and that's exactly what William turned into. He could do flips off the pool's diving board, could throw down a 360-degree dunk in basketball and could out-run some of the fleetest members of the football team. During practice one day, coach Eddie Buck said, "I want all my fastest guys to line up for a 100-yard dash.'' A couple of wide receivers, a couple of running backs and a defensive back stepped forward -- soon joined by William.

"What're you doing?'' Buck asked his 295-pound nose tackle.

"You said you wanted your fastest guys, didn't you?'' William said.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Perry
Ronald C. Modra/Sports Imagery/Getty ImagesPerry during his playing days at Clemson in 1982.

William eventually timed out as the sixth-fastest on the team. College coaches were bound to knock on his door, and before long Perry had a full scholarship offer to Clemson. In case he didn't notice, he wasn't the ugly duckling anymore. He had a high school sweetheart and a secret admirer -- both of whom would become the two women in his life -- and when he showed up on the Clemson campus, he started to come out of his shell.

His freshman season of 1981 was about as good as it gets. Not only did his Tigers walk away with the national championship, but he walked away with a nickname for the ages. He was taking an elevator up to his dorm room one day, carrying a load of laundry, when fellow defensive lineman Ray Brown walked in with his own load of clothes. There was barely any room in the elevator for either of them to breathe, at which point Brown announced, "Man, you're about as big as a refrigerator.'' That's all it took: the kid was forever more Refrigerator Perry -- or "Fridge'' for short.

Perry might have been ambivalent about the nickname, but he was ecstatic to be one of the guys. Or at least he assumed he was one of the guys. When the players went out partying, they made sure the Fridge came along, if only for the entertainment value. One thing about being a 300-pounder -- a six pack doesn't even crack the surface. He says he could drink two cases of beer in one sitting -- maybe three on a hot, steamy day -- and his teammates all wanted to be witnesses, as in every weekend.

When he came back to Aiken that summer, his younger brother Daryl saw him throw down a six pack or three and remembers thinking, "This is getting out of hand.'' But Daryl also figured it was just a college phase his brother was in. Surely, when the Chicago Bears picked the 325-pound Perry in the first round of the 1985 draft four years later, the Fridge would get serious. Right? He'd go to Chi-town, bring his lunch bucket and get to work. Right? He'd just blend in and be anonymous, overshadowed by Walter Payton, Mike Singletary and Jim McMahon. Right?

Right?

Playing offense

From the start, Perry was a just pawn in the verbal spat between Ditka and Buddy Ryan. Ditka, the head coach, personally scouted the Fridge and advocated selecting him in the first round. Ryan, the defensive coordinator, threw up his hands on draft day and called it a wasted pick. Welcome to the NFL.

At least Perry had support from his high school sweetheart, Sherry. They married in 1982 while he was at Clemson, and by 1985 they were the parents of a 3-year-old daughter, Latavia, with another one on the way. Ryan would barely let Perry on the field the first half of the season, but from all appearances, the Fridge seemed like a grounded, non-descript family man who would persevere. He had no problem covering kickoffs.

But while Ryan was holding the Fridge ransom, Ditka had a wonderful, awful idea. Against the Packers, on Monday night Oct. 21, 1985, the coach decided to move the kid to offense. The 49ers had used guard Guy McIntyre as a short-yardage fullback against the Bears the year prior, and Ditka decided if anyone was a born blocking back, it was Perry. McIntyre could open a hole; the Fridge could blow one to pieces.

With an entire nation watching, Ditka waved Perry in on a goal-to-go situation from the 2-yard line. The Fridge lined up in front and to the right of Payton and was told to eliminate any linebacker directly between him and the goal line. That poor soul was Green Bay's George Cumby.

"It was like a Mack truck smashing a Volkswagen,'' says Fridge, laughing.

"I thought he killed him,'' says former Bears tackle Jimbo Covert.

"Cumby wasn't the same for the rest of his career,'' says another former Bear, safety Dave Duerson.

Payton scored amid the wreckage, and Ditka's mind started racing. The next time the Bears reached the 1-yard line, he lined up the Fridge in the same spot and ordered McMahon to hand him the ball. Easiest touchdown you ever saw. The Fridge danced and spiked the ball. Frank Gifford, usually calm and collected during "Monday Night Football" broadcasts, was giggling.

The next time the Bears reached the 1, Ditka directed the Fridge to the front and left of Payton and asked him again to seek out a linebacker. Cumby was back for more -- and got pancaked. Payton could've scored with his eyes closed.

[+] EnlargeMike Ditka
AP Photo/Phil SandlinThe Fridge helps carry coach Mike Ditka off the field after the Bears' win in Super Bowl XX in New Orleans, La.

The fallout was off the charts. In the ensuing weeks, Perry appeared on David Letterman's show, the "Tonight Show" and a Bob Hope Christmas special. McDonald's and Coca-Cola also hopped into the Fridge conga line. Mr. T wanted him for his "A-Team'' action show.

Oh, and Ryan wanted him on defense, too.

The quiet, ugly duckling from Aiken was a sudden icon, and that was a little bit of an adjustment. Fortunately for Perry, Bears players convened every Thursday for a night of food and drink -- and more drink -- and the camaraderie felt a lot like Clemson. He got to be one of the guys again, which is all he ever wanted, and he blew off steam by drinking his usual two or three cases.

"I couldn't say no,'' he says.

Ditka and the rest of the organization caught wind of it -- "I didn't realize how much beer he could drink,'' the coach says -- and they filed that away for future reference. But in the short term, the Fridge was now alongside Payton, Singletary and McMahon on the team marquee and had a solo in the Bears' legendary "Super Bowl Shuffle:"

You're lookin' at the Fridge

I'm the rookie.

I may be large, but I'm no dumb cookie.

You've seen me hit, you've seen me run,

When I kick and pass, we'll have more fun.

I can dance, you will see.

The others, they all learn from me.

I don't come here lookin' for trouble.

I just came here to do

The Super Bowl Shuffle.

Not only could he carry a tune, he got to carry the ball in the ensuing Super Bowl XX, scoring on a 1-yard blast -- the operative word being blast. He was just following orders and had no idea his TD would cost Payton a chance of getting in a Super Bowl end zone. He loved Payton; he and Ditka both have said they wish they had it to do over. But the truth was, the Fridge was now not only a household appliance, he was a household name.

Perry's way of celebrating was getting away from it all. In other words, he returned to Aiken, dug out his fishing pole and drove to the nearest lake. He sat all by himself for hours. Just him, the trout and the beer.

Off the field

He came back to Chicago for the 1986 season weighing upwards of 340 pounds. The Bears were not pleased, and it'd be a constant theme the rest of the Fridge's career.

His hype never matched his production. Off the field, he was beginning to command anywhere from $10,000 to $25,000 for 90-minute personal appearances, and considering his rookie salary had been $138,250, this was nothing to sniff at. He was not a Pro Bowl-caliber player, and he'd never end up with more than 5 sacks in a season. But he did ads for Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, Mr. Big Paper Towels, bacon products and a supermarket chain in Europe. There was even a G.I. Joe action-figure doll of the Fridge.

The Bears didn't want a carnival act; they wanted someone to dig in and stop the run. His weigh-ins became a source of contention, and by 1987, Ditka -- the person who made him a star -- was starting to grow irritated.

"We had weigh-ins, and we fined him,'' Ditka says. "And it was fruitless after a while. I didn't want to take his money. He couldn't get it down at that point.''

Bears management felt his drinking was at the core of it all. Perry had branched out from beer to vodka, and he says Sherry, at home, was griping about the hours he kept and the alcohol he consumed.

"It wasn't one or two beers, I'll tell you that,'' he says. "I mean, it was a whole lot.''

Eventually, in 1988, Perry says Sherry flat-out told him he had a problem and needed treatment, and he says they decided he would go first to trainer Fred Caito and admit he had a problem.

"And it was a big problem,'' Perry says. "I got my family here and my career here and I'm sitting here in the middle, and I'm stuck. So I have to do something, you know, have to reach out and get some help.''

He says Caito heard the news and immediately went upstairs to tell Ditka. The organization then arranged for Perry to go to an undisclosed alcohol rehab center, and he says Ditka pulled him aside before he left.

"He told me, 'Big Guy, you got to handle the situation and get some help,'" William says. "He said, 'You ain't the only one, so don't worry about it. Just go through it, get some help and you'll be fine.'"

The Fridge spent 28 days in treatment and began going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, even though he couldn't possibly have been anonymous.

"My name is William, and I'm an alcoholic,'' he says he'd say at meetings.

That was murder for him to admit. And after he stopped AA after about just eight meetings, he wouldn't admit it again for years.

The constant issue of his weight

By the end of his Bears career, the Fridge was still drinking and still botching his weigh-ins. His highest unconfirmed playing weight was 382, but because Ditka still had a soft spot for him, he wasn't going anywhere. "I would never trade him,'' Ditka says.

However, once Dave Wannstedt replaced Ditka in 1993, the Fridge was gone, off to the Philadelphia Eagles. Members of the Bears organization from the 1980s, such as public relations director Ken Valdiserri, remember their regret when they heard the news, how sad they felt about what might have been.

"His weight was just a constant issue,'' Valdiserri says. "Particularly after that first year because he couldn't manage his weight in the offseason. ... I really believe if he would have worked in the offseason like some players do today that he could have set some unique records for not only offensively but defensively. He really could have become a Hall of Fame player had he taken care of himself in the offseason.''

Instead, he left the NFL in 1994 with a paltry total of 29 sacks. He didn't seem over-concerned, though, and, to this day, says he's convinced he reached his full potential. Besides, the London Monarchs of the World League of American Football were calling, not to mention the World Wrestling Federation.

After playing one unremarkable season in London, he embarked on his career after football, and it was a busy one. Between the wrestling and a hot dog eating contest -- he quit after eating four dogs in five minutes -- and a boxing match against 7-foot-7 Manute Bol -- lost a unanimous decision -- his Q rating was virtually as high as his playing days. He had started a construction company with his wife's father and lived in an 18,000-square-foot home with Sherry and their four children. The decorative iron gates out front were in the shape of footballs, and he began building other homes in and around Aiken with his buddies -- drinking on the job and not giving it a second thought.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Perry with brothers Daryl and Michael Dean
Tavy PerryWilliam Perry with brothers Daryl and Michael Dean.

The opportunities were everywhere, and so was the booze. He could sign autographs for an hour and make an easy 10 grand; the drinks were always on the house. But by 2003, Sherry was intent on asking for a divorce. Their breakup was messy, and because Aiken was a small town, almost everyone knew that he was pining to win Sherry back.

On Christmas Eve that year, he was doing last-minute shopping, planning to bring a satchel full of presents to Sherry and the kids. Along the way, he bumped into the secret admirer from his high school days, an old classmate named Valerie who had never told him about her teenage crush on him. Valerie asked him where he was headed with all the gifts, and he told her, "I'm trying to get back with my wife.'' She wished him luck, but the truth is, she crossed her fingers that he'd be a free man. Valerie had been eye-balling him ever since she was a freshman at Aiken High and William was a senior. Twenty-odd years later, she still thought he was cute.

Within 15 months, they were a couple. William and Sherry had split for good, and William found himself despondent and looking for company. He was the 10th of 12 children, and all of his brothers and sisters had never seen him so depressed. Valerie tried to be there for him, and he immersed himself in whatever business opportunities he could muster, including participating in the 2006 Lingerie Bowl. But none of that could relieve his heartache. Sherry had custody of the four kids -- three daughters and a son, William Jr. -- as well as possession of their 18,000-square-foot home along Aiken's Route 19. All he had was that unfinished brick house on the north side of Aiken, and whenever he looked at himself in the mirror, he didn't like what he saw.

So he decided to do something about it.

He fixed his teeth.

The gap-toothed smile

It made news in the local newspaper -- the Fridge's gap-toothed smile was no more.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Perry
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesWilliam "The Refrigerator" Perry, in 1988.

He wasn't messing around. He had all of his upper and lower teeth pulled and replaced. His smile was radiant. The only hitch was that in the ensuing days and weeks, he developed an infection in his mouth. A doctor prescribed antibiotics, but Perry had always been resistant to taking any sort of medication. It must've been a macho thing; he never had a valid answer as to why. But the longer he ignored his medicine, the sorer his mouth became. And the more his gums hurt, the more he began to drink vodka. He kept a gallon of it on his window sill.

"Whenever he would drink, he didn't feel any pain,'' says Daryl. "So he was masking the pain with the alcohol.''

All that being said, the doctors can only theorize now about what happened next. Because at some point in 2007, after the dental work, Perry's feet began going numb. And then his knees. And then his hands. For all intents and purposes, the Fridge was becoming frozen solid.

"I couldn't get up,'' he says. "I couldn't move. I couldn't do anything, couldn't hold a fork or spoon or anything.''

Most people would have hurried as fast as they could to a doctor, but Perry stayed for months upon end in his unfinished brick home, ignoring his body that was screaming out to him. His bride-to-be Valerie says she pleaded for him to go to the hospital, but he would wave her off. "I played football, you know,'' he says. "And whenever you broke something, you keep playing. No worry, you keep going and not run to a doctor. You don't run going, 'Mama, mama, mama.' So you know, I just ignored it.''

But once he was on the verge of paralysis, and was having trouble hearing, Valerie got her way in June of 2008. Perry was taken to Aiken Regional Medical Centers and diagnosed with Guillain-Barre Syndrome, a disorder triggered when a person's immune system attacks his peripheral nervous system. It can start as muscle weakness and result in paralysis and death, and Perry had an advanced case.

Daryl says he was told by doctors that the mouth infection could have caused it and that the heavy drinking could have exacerbated it. Either way, the Fridge was in the hospital for five months.

He didn't feel like flashing his brand new smile.

The booze returns

It's bad enough having an illness you can't pronounce. But it's worse when the doctors tell you there's a chance you'll never be cured.

Guillain-Barre Syndrome, even when treated thoroughly, can resurface 3 percent of the time, according to medical journals, and Perry was warned when he left Aiken Regional Medical Centers to curtail his alcohol use.

Valerie says she kept the beer and vodka away from him as best she could, and because he was still rather immobile and confined mostly to a wheelchair, she couldn't imagine him finding his way to a liquor store.

She was dead wrong.

While she was out running errands, he would ease himself into his car and buy his beer and vodka. Valerie would smell it on his breath, but Perry told her to look on the bright side: at least he was getting some exercise by going to the store.

Over the next few months, he was a relative hermit -- seen only in public on his way to and from the liquor store -- and few realized he'd developed a hacking cough, that he was wasting away. The weight was slowly coming off him, for reasons Valerie couldn't figure out. But soon his wife was about to have some witnesses.

In March 2009, Perry told Valerie he wanted to fly to an autograph show in the Chicago suburb of Rosemont. He'd heard players and coaches from the '85 Bears would be attending, and it was the first thing in months that made him smile. Valerie told him, "Will, you're too sick to go,'' but he wasn't hearing her. He wouldn't even wear a jacket when he landed at O'Hare.

He entered the room in a wheelchair, and 75 heads turned straight to him. Duerson, the former Bears safety, was certain the Fridge had suffered a stroke. Ditka, meanwhile, was speechless. But after a minute of reflection, he morphed into Coach Dik-a from the '80s. While Valerie pushed the wheelchair, the old coach went charging up to the Fridge and started motivating him to get healthy. "We're gonna get you some help and you're going to listen to everything she tells you!'' Valerie remembers the coach howling. "You're gonna do what she tells you!''

Perry tried laughing his old Fridge laugh, but the sound that came out of his mouth was muffled. This was not the William Perry that Ditka championed all those years. Fridge could barely move his hand to sign autographs and spoke slowly, choppily. He squinted when he looked at his old buddies and was hearing only about every fifth word. Duerson and the other players would ask him if he was OK, and Fridge would announce, "Sure, of course.'' But there was a sense he had brain damage, and when Valerie was standing by herself, she says a litany of players would approach her to say basically the same thing: "You've got to find out what's wrong with him. Something's wrong with him.''

There was an overall sense of sadness permeating the room. A videographer hired for the event didn't film the Fridge out of pity. When Perry was wheeled out of the event that day, Duerson told people they might never see him again. And sure enough, after Valerie chaperoned him back to Aiken, his condition turned dire.

On an April afternoon in 2009, his blood pressure dropped. Valerie began to panic, but, fortuitously, Daryl and Daryl's wife, Tavy, happened to stop by that night after going to dinner.

"We said, 'Let's go see bro' and see how he's doing,''' Daryl says. "When we got in the house, he was lying motionless. He wasn't moving. He wasn't blinking. I was tapping him on the shoulder, yelling at him, just trying to get a response. Nothing. So we called the paramedics.''

Consensus from the doctors is that Perry nearly died that day. Not only had he suffered a relapse of Guillain-Barre, he had pneumonia. He couldn't hear out of his right ear and couldn't see more than five feet in front of him.

Worse yet, the Fridge -- famous the world over for his stomach -- weighed exactly 190 pounds.

Getting some help

The news traveled to two important places: Chicago and Charlotte, N.C.

Up in the Windy City, Valdiserri and Ditka began brainstorming ways to help. Both were involved with Gridiron Greats, an organization that supports former players in need, and no one was in more need than the Fridge.

Told that Perry was malnourished and would need extensive speech and physical therapy, Valdiserri and Ditka reached out to Dr. James A. Sliwa of Northwestern Memorial Hospital. They also contacted Perry's brother, Michael Dean Perry, a former 285-pound NFL defensive tackle himself who was living in Charlotte. Sliwa lent his expertise to all of them in a conference call, and it was decided that Ditka and Gridiron Greats would help pay for Fridge's admittance to Carolinas Rehabilitation in Charlotte. It was the least they could do repay him for 1985.

At the time, Perry was still in the intensive care unit at Aiken Regional Medical Centers, a virtual paraplegic. Doctors there said if not for his body strength, he probably wouldn't have survived. He had needed 20 liters of fluids in his first 36 hours of treatment because of severe dehydration, and had to have mucus sucked out of his throat and chest.

"He had a tube down him, and I could hear him calling my name,'' Valerie says of his hospital stay in Aiken. "He wanted me to stop them from hurting him. He kept calling me, 'Help me! Help me!' I mean, you can't help him. I just could hear him crying and howling and I couldn't do nothing for him.''

[+] EnlargeWilliam Perry
Courtesy Carolinas RehabilitationPerry with physical therapist Chris Brown at Carolinas Rehabilitation in Charlotte, N.C.

Perry also was hallucinating and suffering from memory loss. An old friend from Aiken and Clemson, Charlie Timmerman, came to visit, and the Fridge was convinced Charlie was Danny Ford, the old Clemson football coach. He kept asking Charlie when football practice was, and Charlie had to tell him it wasn't 1981.

After a month's stay in Aiken, Perry was moved to Charlotte in May 2009. And when he arrived, no one could believe that this was William "The Refrigerator" Perry. His supervising physician in Charlotte, Dr. Vishwa S. Raj, was a huge football fan and honestly didn't recognize him. At the time, Perry was still dealing with renal failure, was dehydrated and had high levels of sodium in his body. His hands and feet were numb, his hearing and vision was erratic, and Raj diagnosed him with CIDP -- Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy. Essentially, the Guillain-Barre was back, worse than before.

His first day at the Charlotte hospital, Michael Dean stood by his side. Members of the Perry family say they felt Valerie had enabled William more than helped him, and they wanted her away from him in North Carolina. "I didn't even know where my husband was staying at down there,'' Valerie says. "They were ready to knock me out of the picture, because they wanted to take over. ... At first I got kind of upset; I had a feeling they were blaming me for it. But I wasn't worried about that. They already knew how much he drank before I met him.

"I mean, Michael was telling me, 'He's got a lot of brain damage now because of the alcohol.' You see they always want to blame me and the alcohol. The man was drinking before I met him and they know how much he was drinking.''

Whether Valerie deserved blame or not -- and the Perry family says she didn't make an attempt to see her husband in Charlotte -- Michael and his sister Patsy, 12 years older than Fridge, were now in charge of his care. And the hospital needed them both. Those first 24 hours, William couldn't even turn in the bed and had to lie flat until someone could rotate him. Even with his weight up to 220 by then, no one could easily move him, and that first day, Michael Dean had to be the one to transfer him from the bed to a wheelchair to the bathroom.

"The only thing he could lift was his head,'' Michael Dean says. "He looked like a skeleton. He had lost so much weight, his cheekbones were so defined and his neck was so small. He was in bad shape.''

The next day, Michael Dean was back at the hospital and pulled aside by Raj. They began reminiscing about the 1985 touchdown against the Packers; the Super Bowl Shuffle; the McDonald's commercials. "We were talking about what an iconic figure William actually was to many people -- the public, the sports fans and the like,'' Raj says. "We decided we were going to give him everything we could to get him back to that level.''

[+] EnlargePerry
Courtesy Carolinas RehabilitationWilliam "The Refrigerator" Perry does his rehab in the pool with physical therapist Chris Brown and lead physical therapist Joanna Edeker at Carolinas Rehabilitation in Charlotte, N.C.

The game plan was to have Patsy move from Aiken to Charlotte to stay with William full time and have Michael Dean available for the heavy lifting. Raj and the therapists worked on Fridge's mind.

From the beginning, for instance, he wouldn't wear his hearing aid. Raj would talk to him, and he would nod at everything the doctor said.

"What did I just say?'' Raj would ask. And the Fridge would give the wrong answer.

"Well, could you put your hearing aid on?'' the doctor would ask.

"I don't need it,'' Fridge would say.

"Just try,'' the doctor would say.

Eventually, there were breakthroughs -- tiny ones -- but they added up. He began wearing the hearing aid, and with the help of therapists Joanna Edeker, Brittany Lorden and Chris Brown, he would start to get around. Whenever he would beg for a day off or an hour off, Raj or the therapists would bring up Ditka. That was their secret weapon. Perry had earlier told them that his nickname for his old coach was "Slim.'' So on the days he wanted to quit, Raj or the therapists would ask, "What would 'Slim' say right now?''

"Ah,'' Fridge would laugh. "Slim would make me run another 50-yard dash right now.''

Eventually, the real breakthrough was aquatic therapy. Michael Dean would literally lift him into the pool, and his brother's legs began to respond. Life was creeping back into his gaunt face. He would ham it up during therapy sessions, and in a crowded gym one day, he recited every one of his lines from the Super Bowl Shuffle.

You're lookin' at the Fridge

I'm the rookie.

I may be large, but I'm no dumb cookie ...

"We dared him to do it,'' Raj says, "and this was in a gym with plenty of patients who had illnesses, things that were pretty devastating. But he just went right into it, and when he did, everyone paid attention. I've never seen the gym be so electric with patients who were just worried about their recovery. He brought joy to everybody for one brief moment."

For the first time in two years, he looked like Refrigerator Perry.

William PerryESPNWilliam "The Refrigerator" Perry, at age 48.

The message: No alcohol

He checked out of the hospital in early 2010 and moved into a Charlotte apartment with Patsy. He was an out-patient now, and although Patsy's job was to care for him and make certain he made it to therapy every day, her real job was to make certain he didn't drink.

The Perry family felt William could walk all over Valerie, but they said Patsy was a mother figure, a tough one, who was unafraid to call him on his BS.

He would make her believe that he was too sore to walk, but when she'd put a fresh batch of homemade cookies up in the cupboard, she'd spy him walking over and eating them. There was no pulling the wool over Patsy's eyes, and she was not about to let him drive to the liquor store for his beer and vodka.

Finally, in September 2010, he asked if he could return to Aiken, and Raj gave him his blessing. It was an emotional goodbye for the entire staff, but also an encouraging one. Raj told him that exercise was crucial and that he had one other bit of advice.

"I told him, point blank, no alcohol,'' the doctor said.

Perry seemed uncomfortable, didn't want to hear it. But Raj explained that given his functional deficits, the risk was too extreme.

"What's more important is him recovering and getting back to his old life, getting back to what he's known for, for being a wonderful personality in society,'' Raj says. "And if even minimal alcohol use could stop that from happening ... . Well, at least when he left the hospital, I think he accepted that he shouldn't do it.''

Perry wanted so badly to be back in Aiken, back with Valerie, and -- as husband and wife -- they intended to continue his rehab together. It was all up to her, considering Michael was back in Charlotte and considering William had chosen Valerie over Patsy. The rest of the Perry family preferred that Patsy continue to oversee his recovery, but whatever William's reasons were -- and some in the family say it's probably because Patsy ruled with an iron fist -- he chose to rehab with his wife.

Valerie joined a gym; she says she had the best intentions. But by November 2010, all the bad habits, all the excuses and all of William's old demons were back.

He was drinking beer again; not an excessive amount, but enough to manage his cravings.

"Yeah, I admit to myself, yeah, I'm an alcoholic,'' he says. "It just keeps going, keeps going, keeps going and keeps going.''

Valerie says he drives to get the beer when she's not home or not looking, and even though he has his home gym and his home walking path, those drives to the liquor store are about his only exercise. It's not what Raj or Michael Dean or Patsy had in mind, but, now, not even Ditka and the '85 Bears can get him out of his rut.

In November, the Bears organization staged its 25th anniversary reunion of the '85 team, and planned a raucous weekend in Chicago. The Fridge didn't attend, and when asked why, he says, "I didn't even know of the anniversary.''

The truth is, he did know about it and filmed a video message to be read at the event. But the mind of William Perry is going again, and no one knows where it'll end up. According to Michael Dean and Valerie, he's also been diagnosed with diabetes and high blood pressure, although Valerie rolls her eyes because she cannot get him to take his medication.

[+] EnlargeWilliam Perry
ESPNWilliam Perry needs the help of a cane to get around.

"What about your diabetes?'' a reporter asked him in late January.

"I don't think I have that disease.''

"What about high blood pressure?''

"I might, I might have that one. I say 'might' because lately when I went to the doctor, he said my blood pressure is fine.''

"Are you taking your blood pressure medicine?''

"No, no.''

"Are you supposed to be?''

"Am I supposed to be taking my medicine? Yes, yes.''

"Have you been?''

"I take it sometimes, sometimes I don't. I mean, I'm not going to lie to you.''

"Are you risking your life by not taking it?''

"I don't think I'm risking my life by, you know, not taking my medicine all the time. Sometimes I take it, sometimes I don't. It just slips my mind.''

Fridge's family members want Valerie to chop his medicine up and pour it into his food, want her to do something. She says she's trying. And they admit William is going to be William. He is stubborn; he is not the innocent Fridge from '85. He is not coachable. William Perry does what he wants.

The unfinished home he lives in is cold. The heat doesn't work in all spaces of the cavernous house. He sits all day watching his TV, wearing Topsiders with no socks, sitting sometimes in his own urine. His family says he is incontinent; it's another one of his issues. But sometimes, it's just too difficult to stand up and simply walk to the bathroom.

Ditka knows only bits and pieces of this, and he says the last time he spoke to the Fridge, he felt he understood that he couldn't drink, that this was "his last chance.''

Perry doesn't believe he's putting himself in jeopardy, though. He looks in the mirror and he sees a body that now weighs 400 pounds. That's better than 190, he says. That's progress, he says. He still does occasional autograph signings in Chicago, making a bit of cash here and there. He says he can't be in too bad of shape if he can climb onto a plane and write his name 100 times. He says he can't be too bad off if he can still recite lyrics to the "Super Bowl Shuffle." He says he can't be too sick if he's down to only one or two beers a night.

The gap in his teeth is gone. The gap between William Perry and reality has apparently taken its place.

Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN.com.