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NFL PREVIEW 1988 : STILL THE FRIDGE : William Perry Is Not Slim, but Weight-Loss Center Helped

Times Staff Writer

William Perry, pro football’s most celebrated dieter, is not slim. He’s just back to normal, which really isn’t normal at all.

His stomach still has more rolls than a Sunday brunch. The flab still tumbles out of his football pants. The large and large of it is that he’s still the Fridge.

The consensus guess is that he’s somewhere around 330 pounds, although neither he nor the Chicago Bears are saying. No need to focus so much attention on his weight, both parties say.

In fact, Perry, about to begin his fourth pro season, hasn’t said much of anything since returning from 28 days as a patient at a weight-reduction center. That’s abnormal for someone regarded as recently as three years ago as a superstar of Madison Avenue.

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Now, he seems to shun the spotlight, probably because he knows the weight question will be coming. That territory is off limits to the outside world. One of the things he and the Bears learned from the 28 days is that attention does not help the problem, so team-imposed rules about meeting weight limits have been dropped.

Thus, although the William Perry of 1988 may look a lot like the 1987 and 1986 and 1985 gap-toothed models, there are distinct differences inside.

“Just like I’m born again,” Perry said here at the Bears’ training facility.

Question: Do you still have the same enthusiasm for the game?

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Answer: That will always be there. I don’t worry about that.

Q: Did you miss football--perhaps even the two-a-day workouts--while away from the team?

A: Yeah. (Pause). I missed it, in a way. But in a way I did something to help me out. I’m just ready to get back into the swing of it.

Q: Did the treatment save your life?

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A: I can say that it will help me a whole lot down the road.

Q: So you feel better about yourself?

A: I always felt great about myself, but it was a great boost.

Perry’s return was also a boost to the Bears, who suddenly have a defense in transition. Linebackers Wilber Marshall and Otis Wilson have been lost, Marshall to the Washington Redskins through free agency and Wilson to knee surgery. And backs Gary Fencik and Todd Bell are gone, too, Fencik having retired and Bell having been cut. All are former Pro Bowl players.

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“He was in surprisingly good shape, considering the circumstances,” safety Dave Duerson said of Perry’s first day back. “I expected his cardiovascular (system) to be off, but he was able to run with the rest of us.”

There was talk that the 6-foot 2-inch Perry had ballooned to 420 pounds in the off-season, but he was 377 at a mini-camp in May and 358 about two months ago. Coach Mike Ditka, who called Perry’s obesity life-threatening, wanted him at 320.

Where he lost control of the situation is anyone’s guess. More than one person, however, has pointed to a possible reaction to the death of his mother, Inez, Feb. 28 of complications from diabetes.

“She was his heart,” said San Diego Charger defensive lineman Tyrone Keys, a teammate of Perry on the Super Bowl champion Bears of 1985 and a close friend since.

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“That wasn’t the first time he was over 370. His mother passed away and I’m pretty sure that kept him in the dumps. He wasn’t working out.”

The rearranging of the Fridge takes effect in the commercial arena, too, where he is a shell of his former self. He swallowed that industry whole after his rookie year, earning an estimated $2 million to $4 million.

Fees for one-hour appearances alone knocked many for a loop--$10,000 for anything in Chicago and $15,000 for anything out of town, according to agent Jim Steiner. Trips had to include first-class tickets for Perry; his wife, Sherry, and personal manager, Conrad Ford. From November 1985 to March 1986, Perry made 35 to 45 such trips, Ford said.

The commercial descent began not long after, mainly because of overkill. He was endorsing so many products that he really couldn’t be identified with any, which works against the logic of the industry.

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Believe it or not, now he’s almost like a regular football player.

“He has matured each year, and this one has been no different,” linebacker Mike Singletary said recently. “But as the season goes on, we’ll know a lot better.”

Perry has had success at his current weight and proved to be a great athlete. In 1984, his senior year at Clemson, he was a finalist for the Outland and Lombardi trophies while playing at 335. When he joined the Bears as a first-round draft choice, he started the second half of the season on a dominating defense and, of course, put the full in fullback.

Along the way, he mystified people, downright stunned them. Slam-dunking a basketball was usually an attention-getter.

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“Fridge would play point guard, and a lot of times we’d lay back on defense when he came charging down the lane, thinking there’s no way this guy is going to get off the ground,” Keys said. “But, and it was amazing, he could dunk with his right hand and then dunk with his left hand.”

So the Refrigerator can run at this weight. But he can run and jump and tackle a lot better in his current mental state.

Keys, for one, won’t be the least bit surprised if Perry, who is being moved from tackle to end this season, emerges as a star again.

“I don’t think we’ve heard the last of William Perry,” his friend said. “He is a very good football player. If he keeps his weight under control, there’s no way he won’t be able to do anything he wants to do as a defensive lineman.”

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