By Roger Wolmuth
September 09, 1985 12:00 PM

When the Chicago Bears made William “The Refrigerator” Perry their first-round draft pick this year, club officials figured they were landing a big talent. Real big. Perry, a 6’2″, 318-pound defensive lineman from Clemson University, had been gobbling up college quarterbacks like so many hors d’oeuvres, and the two-time All American seemed just the man the Bears needed to improve on last year’s 10-6 record. Moreover, the team had a tradition to uphold, having once been coached by portly Abe Gibron, affectionately known as The Face That Lunched a Thousand Shrimps.

Trouble was, when the Fridge waddled into training camp two weeks late after a contract holdout this summer, he looked less like a lineman than a tub of linguini. Huffing through his second day of practice, the 22-year-old Perry shed 13 pounds in the heat and humidity, developed muscle cramps and headed for home. That afternoon, Buddy Ryan, the Bears’ tough-talking defensive coordinator, pegged him “a wasted draft choice and a waste of money” and told a Chicago radio audience, “He’s an overweight kid and a helluva nice kid. But you know, I got twin boys at home that are nice kids, and I don’t want ’em playing for me.”

While Chicago sportswriters were feasting on the unexpected controversy, the Bears slapped the Fridge onto a spartan diet in hopes of trimming off a few of the 330 pounds he had hauled into camp. “We’re trying to change his life-style so that he’s aware of what food values are,” says team strength coordinator Clyde Emrich. Mindful no doubt that his $1.4 million four-year contract hangs in the balance, the Fridge has accepted both the regimen and his coaches’ rancor with grace. “That’s his motivation factor,” he says quietly of Ryan’s radio outburst. “Sometimes it motivates you, and sometimes you just gotta let it go.”

The 10th of 12 children, Perry weighed a whopping 13½ pounds at birth in Aiken, S.C. and didn’t lose any time getting bigger. “I liked to cook and he liked to eat,” says his mother, Inez, a school dietician who, at 5’11” and 230 pounds, is no minnow in life’s fishpond herself. (Father Hollie, a housepainter, is more compact at 5’9″, 240.) Then in junior high school, young William took a cooking course and learned to bake, guaranteeing that supply would keep up with demand. “He just loved making cakes,” says Mom. “Chocolate, plain, strawberry, whatever. He would share, but I don’t know whether he shared a lot.”

Perry’s weight, which peaked at 385 pounds, couldn’t keep him out of the Clemson record books, nor did it discourage Sherry Broadwater, his sweetheart since junior high, who married him in his sophomore year at the university. “I never took him as being fat,” she says. “He always looked good to me.” At first, though, she found that feeding him posed “kind of a problem. I’d cook grits and bacon for breakfast,” says Sherry, who tips the scales at a meager 125 pounds, “and he wanted that, but eggs and cheese, toast and jelly and milk and orange juice too.”

These days, of course, the Fridge’s intake is a bit more modest: for breakfast, “a little cheese omelet with one egg and apple juice;” for lunch, fruit plus “some baloney with no mayonnaise and wheat bread;” for dinner, a piece of fish (“baked dry”), plus juice, salad and fruit. “It took me a while to get adjusted,” he concedes, “but I’m gonna stick to it.” He is impatient with press reports to the contrary, particularly one story that he had wolfed four slices of watermelon during a training camp lunch. “That made him sound greedy,” objects Sherry. “He said it was because the slices they served him were so thin, just like little blobs.”

Whether Perry conquers his own blob syndrome will become apparent in the weeks ahead; the National Football League season opens this Sunday. Most Bear coaches prefer to be optimistic. “What you’re looking at is a genetically big-boned man,” says strength coordinator Emrich, who is beginning to suspect that The Fridge’s current 320 pounds, with a little muscle substituted for flab, just might be his best weight after all. “There’s a little fat, but really, it’s in the percentage range with a lot of other ball players today.” Head Coach Mike Ditka, mixing tact with firmness, has said only that Perry’s “gonna be a good football player, but on our terms, not his.” Offensive linemen around the league are watching the Fridge’s progress with interest. If getting him lean makes him mean, they just might have their hands full with a very angry household appliance.