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Monday, April 27, 2009
Updated: April 28, 12:33 PM ET
Chillin' with The Fridge

By Jerry Bonkowski
ESPNChicago.com

The news out of Aiken, S.C., on Monday morning was certainly good to hear -- William "The Refrigerator" Perry has been upgraded from serious to fair condition at a local hospital.

William
"The Fridge" became a cult phenomenon among Bears fans in 1985.
It was nearly two weeks ago that the 46-year-old former Chicago Bears great was hospitalized with a recurrence of Guillain-Barré syndrome, a chronic and serious nerve disorder. The effects of GBS can range from mild distress to, in rare cases, death. Although his condition was of great concern upon its recurrence, Perry is expected to make a full recovery.

This is the second time in the past year that the previously robust Perry has been struck down by the disease. He was originally diagnosed with it in June 2008 and spent the next five months in a wheelchair at Aiken Regional Medical Center.

How long The Fridge will remain hospitalized this time is unknown. But I remember his playing days well, having covered him extensively for USA Today during much of his nine-year tenure with the Bears.

In 1985, during his rookie season with the Bears, he became an overnight sensation. He recorded five sacks and two fumble recoveries as a defensive lineman, as well as rushing for two touchdowns and catching a third.

The Bears had drafted Perry out of Clemson in the first round of the 1985 draft. He was a massive spectacle, with a waistline and an appetite to match -- like how he loved fried chickens.

That's right, the plural form of chicken. He could polish off anywhere between four and six full-sized roasters at a sitting and still have room left over for pie or some other tasty dessert.

The Bears originally listed Perry at 300 pounds, but as his rookie campaign wore on, that number was adjusted almost daily, reaching as much as 360 pounds. Coach Mike Ditka went as far as publicly chastising Perry's wife, Sherry, for feeding him too well, saying that his overindulgence was interfering with his playing ability -- not to mention his health.

As Perry continued his career, he ballooned up to as much as 385 pounds. Fear of a heart attack and early death prompted Ditka to mandate The Fridge go on a diet that eventually took him back down to the 320-pound range.

To this day, Perry holds the distinction of having the largest Super Bowl ring ever made: size 25. The ring size for the average American male is about half that.

Perry's and my careers moved in different directions in 1992. I would not see him for another 15 years, being reunited in a rather interesting way.

It was May 2007, and I was one of the first to board a 30-seat commuter airplane at O'Hare International Airport. Destination: Columbia, S.C.

The plane was about two-thirds full and we were preparing to leave the gate when the flight attendant said there would be a slight delay to wait for one last passenger.

Seconds later, the plane slightly swayed from side to side. There, lumbering through the door, bending over so as not to hit his head on the low ceiling, walked The Fridge, dressed in an out-of-date leisure suit and a Crocodile Dundee-style hat complete with fake croc teeth around the brim.

Looking appreciably larger than he did during his playing days, he nimbly squeezed his way through the tiny aisle. As luck would have it, he took a seat -- actually, two seats -- across from me.

We exchanged pleasantries, and Perry said he recognized me from his days with the Bears. I asked what had brought him to Chicago, and he explained he was heading home from a gathering of Bears fans.

Throughout the nearly two-hour flight, a small trickle of passengers approached Perry with autograph requests, which he graciously accommodated.

Because the seats were close and tight, Perry eventually excused himself and asked to move to the back of the plane for a few extra inches of leg -- and more importantly, body -- room. I understood. He wasn't tired of talking with me; he just needed more space for his ample frame.

It was after we landed in Columbia, though, that I realized just how popular Perry remains, 22 years after his Bears won Super Bowl XX. Granted, this took place in his home state, but he was treated like royalty as he sauntered through the airport terminal.

As we passed the security checkpoint on the way out, there were probably close to a dozen Transportation Security Administration screeners. Virtually every one of them shook Perry's hand, patted him on the back or shouted greetings across the expansive area.

"Hey champ, how you doing?"

"Looking good, champ."

"Good to see you, champ."

Perry flashed that million-dollar, gap-toothed smile he made famous with the Bears, accepted the greetings and kept walking.

Watching all this unfold from a few feet behind him, I didn't want to disturb him. The Fridge was in his element with his adoring public. He was soaking in the adoration, just like when he was the toast of the Windy City, appearing on national TV shows and magazine covers, one of the luckiest guys in the world. He was home.

As he headed to a waiting car, I went off to pick up my luggage.

"Good seeing you again, Fridge. Take care," I said to him.

He didn't say anything, nor did he turn around. He simply waved his right arm back and forth a couple of times and walked out into the stifling South Carolina heat and humidity.

Admittedly, life has not been easy for Perry in his post-football career.

Since a brief stint with the London Monarchs in the World League of American Football in 1996, he's been involved in a number of jobs and promotional deals.

He tried pro wrestling briefly, only to quit. He even took a turn at so-called "celebrity boxing," losing to former NBA center Manute Bol, who is 7 feet, 7 inches tall.

He's endorsed his own line of rotisserie grills -- a la George Foreman, but without the same success -- as well as his own line of barbecue sauce. He even was a "super sub" in the infamous Lingerie Bowl the year the Bears lost to Indianapolis in Super Bowl XLI.

For much of the past several years, he's worked construction jobs off and on, mainly as a bricklayer in and around his native Aiken. He was supposed to return to Chicago this year to join former Bears defensive linemate Steve McMichael as director of football operations for the semi-pro Chicago Slaughter of the Continental Indoor Football League, but his health condition nixed that.

To this day, Perry remains a fan favorite. He's still in demand at sports collector shows, posing for pictures and putting his John Hancock on everything from football trading cards to helmets, jerseys to old photos of him with the Bears.

I still reflect back to that airplane flight from time to time and smile, glad to have renewed acquaintance with the man I always called William. He once told me during his playing days how much he appreciated being called by his real name, as opposed to his more famous nickname.

And like many of his fans, I'm smiling again now that Perry is getting better, slowly but surely.

There's no cure for Guillain-Barré syndrome, but there are treatments to help a person deal with it. That's what he's undergoing right now.

On a gloomy day mired in rain and clouds, Monday's news brought a little sunshine. We've already lost Walter Payton far too early; I'm glad we're not going to lose The Fridge far too early as well.

Leave your get-well wishes in the comments section below. If you'd like to write to the hospital, the address is:

Aiken Regional Medical Center
302 University Parkway
Aiken, S.C. 29801

Jerry Bonkowski is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.