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Ditka helping Perry in dire times

The famous image unites them forever. William Perry helping to carry Mike Ditka off the Superdome field following the Bears' Super Bowl XX victory reflects the happiest of times.

The last time the two saw each other reflected the saddest.

"I asked him a question the last time I saw him [during an autograph show in Chicago in late February]," Ditka said during a recent phone interview. "I don't know if he even understood me, but I asked, 'Do you want to fight this? Do you want to live?'

"He was completely blank. I don't know if even at that time that he was coherent about what I was saying to him."

Perry, 46, has ridden a roller coaster of health issues for more than two years, but particularly in the last six months with two diseases -- Guillain-Barre Syndrome, as well as CIDP (chronic inflammatory demyelinating polyneuropathy), which wreaks havoc on an individual's peripheral nervous system, but often can affect the central nervous system, and nearly killed Perry in April. From October 2008 to April of this year, Perry lost 150 pounds, leaving him at 205 pounds, the lightest he's been since his early teens.

"William was in a bad state," younger brother Michael Dean Perry said during a recent phone interview. "It could have gone either way, even when they got him to the hospital because of the condition he was in with the dehydration and renal failure. Those were the two most important things everyone was concerned about."

Even when he was riding in an ambulance to the hospital, Perry continued to downplay just how ill he really was.

"Most men always have that kind of mindset that they'll be all right, that they'll tough it out," said Michael Dean, who like his sibling played 10 years in the NFL. "Then, you throw in the fact he's an athlete, it goes up another notch.

"He played it off, no big concern, not a problem -- but as we found out, that wasn't the case. He told us that he's battled this before, that he'll be all right, and he'd been through tougher things physically, but that wasn't the case. It was a very serious illness."

Money to pay for Perry's treatment became a serious issue as he was hospitalized for over six weeks in his native Aiken, S.C. Despite what he earned as an NFL star, and with the resulting lucrative endorsements, Perry was nearly broke and had no health insurance when his family sought treatment and care.

The diseases not only prevented him from working the last year and a half, they also progressively robbed him of physical functions. He first lost his ability to walk, followed by further erosion of his fine motor skills, leaving him in a wheelchair. Then he lost his ability to communicate, to both talk and hear.

When his former coach heard Perry had been hospitalized in April, Ditka started working on plans to help Perry through the Northbrook-based Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, a program designed to help former NFL players who have fallen on hard times either physically or financially. Ditka has devoted much of his time and effort over the past years spearheading the cause of the Gridiron Greats.

"He was really bad," Ditka said. "He could have died that weekend if he hadn't have gotten the treatment he did."

Ditka initially tried to get Perry treated at Northwestern University's Medical Center and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. But the treatment was too cost-prohibitive for the Gridiron Greats.

"The tab would have been over $300,000, and we just don't have that kind of money to do that," Ditka said. "It's just a shame. To say he didn't bring some of it on, yeah, he probably did, but he has a disease that can be controlled and through treatment, he can be helped."

James Sliwa, of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, told Ditka about Carolinas Rehabilitation, a division of the renowned Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte. Carolinas Rehabilitation stepped up and had Perry transferred to its care, providing extensive therapy and treatment for free.

The results are promising: Perry has regained about 80 of the 150 pounds he's lost. He's slowly learning how to walk again with assistance, and he's able to recognize and understand those around him.

"William's doing fine," Michael Dean said. "He's getting better each and every day. It's a slow process, but he's moving in the right direction, which is great."

Admittedly, though, some damage has occurred. Whether it's temporary or permanent remains to be seen.

"He recognizes his brothers and individuals that come visit him, but short-term memory loss has happened," Michael Dean acknowledged. "He can recall the '85 Bears and what he did, that type of thing, but if you ask him what happened six hours or six days ago, he might not be able to recall, but that is getting better.

"His fine motor skills are getting better, too. He's not totally recovered from that, so he's working with occupational and physical therapists as far as walking and moving around. Hopefully in about 90 days, he'll be able to do all those things without the assistance of any apparatus."

Perry is slated to move to an assisted living facility to continue his rehabilitation. He's expected to be there for at least two to three more months before he'll be able to finally return to his Aiken home.

Still, he has a long way to go, with an at-best uncertain future.

"I'll be honest with you," Ditka said. "I don't know if we'll ever get the old William back. I think we'll see significant improvement, but I don't think we'll get back to the happy-go-lucky, smiling guy with the big toothless smile. I don't know if you'll see that, but I do think you can still see a guy that can really lead a constructive and positive life."

Ditka and Gridiron Greats president Ken Valdiserri both vow to continue helping Perry. Additional fundraising efforts are in the works, which will be based upon how much further rehabilitation and treatment he needs.

"There's no doubt [Ditka] really got the ball rolling with his organization, and along with Ken, have been very helpful and very supportive, not only with William but with a lot of other players that need some assistance and help," Michael Dean said. "Gridiron Greats have been very instrumental in helping get William to certain places so that he can get treatment."

The McCaskey family, which owns the Bears, recently made a sizable donation to Perry, said Valdiserri, who previously spent 17 years with the team as an executive.

"They saw William was in need and I can't say enough about that gesture," Valdiserri said. "That was very, very kind of them."

Ditka recalls with a smile Perry's glory days with the Bears, when he was known as the Refrigerator, and how Ditka essentially took a country bumpkin from South Carolina and molded him into a star.

"William is different in the sense that I'm the guy that wanted him," Ditka said. "We wanted him with the Bears; nobody else really wanted him when we drafted him. My reasoning was real simple: Nobody on the Bears could block him. I watched his speed and the guy was absolutely super.

"He was special to me. He wasn't a project when I got him. He was actually a great athlete. Sure, he was 308, but he could dunk a basketball. So, he wasn't a project. We had a lot of fun with him."

Even though the prognosis is still somewhat cloudy, Ditka is praying Perry can get back close to his old self.

"He played at a time when he made fairly good money, but he's fallen on hard times," Ditka said. "Everybody has a right to dignity of life. Sure, I'm close to William, but I played with guys like John Mackey, Joe Perry, Willie Wood, so it's personal with all these guys in a different way."

In the past year, Gridiron Greats has raised over $600,000 and arranged for the donation of more than $1 million in free services -- including medical treatment and other assistance -- to help ex-players.

"There's guys that are, unfortunately, in dire shape," Valdiserri said. "I field anywhere from 10 to 15 calls a week from people that are either in very, very bad shape, either medical or financial condition. We try to help in all different kinds of ways, and we don't discriminate against anyone. The end game is to provide relief and quality of life to guys who may have lost their way along the road after their NFL careers."

Michael Dean likens Ditka to a savior for helping his brother in his darkest hour and time of need.

"They have big hearts, and when they see one of their own in need, they rush to try and help," Michael Dean said. "They're willing to help and do what they can to assist."

Ditka waves off plaudits. He's simply helping a good friend, he insists.

"Because you're a disciplinarian and because you're demanding in certain things, especially athletically, it doesn't mean you can't be sentimental, and it doesn't mean you can't have a soft heart," Ditka said. "I mean, right's right; it's just the right thing to do.

"I think anybody in my position would do it. It didn't get dumped on me, and I'm not running from it. We're going to do all we can to help as many people as we can, and especially in this case, help William as much as we can. It's truly been my pleasure. You can be hard in a lot of ways, but that doesn't mean you don't have a good heart."

The image has changed. Now it's Ditka, in a way, lifting Perry on his shoulder, hoping to find happier times.

Fans can go online to send well-wishes or donate to Perry's rehabilitation at www.FridgeFund.Homestead.com. They can also send checks in care of Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, 707 Skokie Blvd., Suite 636, Northbrook, IL 60062. The fund's Web site is www.GridironGreats.org.

Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.