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How ‘The Fridge’ changed football

The Piesman Trophy forefather paved the way for fellow big men to become goal-line weapons to this day.

William Perry, The Fridge Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

Christian Wilkins plays for the Miami Dolphins. Dexter Lawrence, his former Clemson linemate, plays for the New York Giants. If their coaches are creative, they’ll each get touches at a different position. Because Wilkins and Lawrence are part of a legacy.

When 666 pounds of defensive linemen lined up in Clemson’s backfield, it wasn’t a gimmick. Part of the Tigers’ red-zone offense was putting the ball in the hands of defensive linemen, with the catalysts being 315-pound “running back” Wilkins ...

... and 351-pound “fullback” Lawrence:

After they left, Clemson kept rolling out the big-man formation — albeit in a slightly more svelte fasion — with 330-pound John Simpson behind 295-pound Nyles Pinckney.

It is an ode to the big-guy touchdown at all levels of the game — a type of play so beloved, we created an actual trophy just to honor feats of its kind — but specifically to the man who scored the most famous big-guy touchdown in history.

Three decades earlier, former Clemson All-American William “Refrigerator” Perry lined up for the Chicago Bears as a 300-plus-pound “fullback.”

You can see its spiritual successors everywhere: a Chiefs defensive tackle touchdown pass here, a Bears defensive end touchdown run there, and Piesman Trophy plays all over college football.

So it’s fitting that the school that gave us the Fridge also gave us the Fridge package.

“I grew up watching that,” Dabo Swinney told ESPN. “Everyone was so mesmerized when William Perry would go in the game. I’ve always kinda kept that in the back of my mind.”

Swinney was a teenager on Oct. 13, 1985, the day the Fridge package made its debut.

As Perry told The San Francisco Chronicle, Ditka lined him up in the backfield during a practice earlier that week, “slammed a ball in my stomach and yelled, ‘hold onto it.’” Perry thought Ditka was joking.

While Clemson’s Fridge package is built from love, Chicago’s was built on vendetta. Ditka did not forget that the 49ers had put a guard in the backfield during garbage time of the previous season’s NFC Championship.

The Fridge got his first career carry late in a 26-10 win that made the Bears 6-0. They were going in one direction, and the defending champion 49ers were going in another. Perry got the ball twice and landed on the front page of the Chicago Tribune’s sports page.

“They ran a big, fat offensive guard in the backfield against us last year,” fellow defensive lineman Dan Hampton told the paper. “We thought we’d run a big, fat defensive lineman against them

“They gloated just a little bit more than we liked last year.”

Ditka played coy about his motivations, but it was clear he had stuck it to Bill Walsh.

In addition to revenge, Ditka wanted to make more use of Perry’s athleticism.

“I was watching him practice, coming off the ball, and the way he moved for 5 yards, you had to think about what he would be like in the backfield,” Ditka told The Boston Globe the week of Super Bowl 20. “As coaches, we used the old saying that 100 years from now, nobody will care what we did. So we put him in for two running plays when he wasn’t even a blocker. After that we looked at putting him on the goal line.”

Much is made about Wilkins’ quick feet. Clemson lined up all over the field, and he’s got the agility of a much smaller man.

The Fridge was similar. Legend has it that he could 360-dunk a basketball. He was also a strong swimmer as a kid. Bill Belichick reminisced about the time he watched the Fridge do a vertical leap at the combine in near-total darkness. In ‘85, CBS showed Fridge box-jumping.

Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan regarded Fridge as fat and slow and called him “a wasted draft choice” in the first round. Perry would earn a starting spot on defense later in the season, but offense was an inventive way to get him on the field.

Perry had carried the ball a bit in high school in Aiken, S.C., according to a Chicago Sun-Times article. But he never did it in a game for Clemson. However, from a Boston Globe story:

[Perry’s] defensive coordinator at Clemson, Tom Harper, remembers Perry practicing at running back. “We had another defensive lineman, just an ordinary person who weighed about 270,” Harper told The Chicago Sun-Times. “On Fridays when we didn’t practice too hard, he and ‘P’ used to rehearse like a quarterback and a fullback. They’d run the option — drop back, sprint out. He was quicker than they guy we had at quarterback.”

Eight days after his backfield debut against the 49ers, the Fridge got more high-profile work against a rival.

The Bears hosted the hated Packers on Monday Night Football. Again, Ditka used the Fridge to help settle a beef, as he and Packers coach Forrest Gregg “didn’t get along,” per Ditka. Down seven in the second quarter, Ditka inserted Perry to make his Soldier Field offensive debut. You can see him plow the road for Payton:

The next time, cheers were so loud that Payton had to wave his arms to quiet the crowd. It worked, and the Bears went ahead on the first touchdown ever scored by a 300-pound man.

Later, the Fridge again paved the way for Payton:

Green Bay linebacker Scott Cumby is the guy Perry is laying out in those clips, and it was still on Cumby’s mind 25 years later. Via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

‘When I got home, my answering machine was filled up with messages from my Oklahoma teammates saying I let them down and my family asking what happened,’ Cumby said. ‘I struggled with it, wondering why God let this happen to me.

‘As a competitor, I always wanted to be the best. But no matter what the obstacles in life, you can’t quit or give up. I realized the reason God had me go through that with The Fridge on national television. One day, telling that story would help people be more open to my message, no matter what age or culture.’

“I’m just a straight-head runner at the goal line,” Perry said after the Monday Night performance. Two weeks later at Lambeau Field, he made his first start on defense. But he still got some work in on offense. The Bears actually put him in motion and sent him out for a passing play, the first touchdown of a 16-10 win.

He fooled everyone on this play, including a Packers linebacker who, per the Los Angeles Times, blew an assignment:

That’d be #52, Cumby.

As the season wore on, the Fridge became a folk hero. By Week 11, the Bears were 10-0.

In Texas Stadium, Perry failed to score on a carry at the goal line. But the most memorable moment was when Perry made an incredible effort play.

After flattening a defender, he got up and literally tried to carry a stalemated Payton across the goal line. It didn’t work, and Perry got flagged for illegal use of hands.

‘I’m sure I’ve been carried into the end zone before,’ said Payton. ‘But never by anyone of Perry’s stature. I didn’t even know it was him. He said he was kind of trying to keep the defensive players off of me. I appreciate that.’

...

‘I guess William just figures he can carry the ball or the ball carrier into the end zone,’ said center Jay Hilgenberg. ‘It shows the determination he has.’

In Week 12, he scored a hilarious leaping TD against the Falcons:

That was his last touchdown ... until the one everyone remembers.

When Super Bowl 20 came around, Perry was at the center of prop bets.

Perry’s offensive plays were schematically important. To bettors, they were important for another reason. Prop bets existed for things like score by quarter. But odds on specific, bizarre occurrences within a game? Perry helped make those mainstream:

By then [Vegas bookmaker Jimmy] Vaccaro had moved to the MGM. He recalls getting a phone call from a Chicago Tribune writer amazed that someone could bet on whether Perry would score. As Vaccaro recalls, ‘We got national publicity … this proposition went through the roof … everyone in the freaking world called us.’

Exotic prop bets are now an industry within an industry. Depending on whom you believe, the odds on whether Fridge would score were as long as 75/1 in the run-up to the game. By kickoff, however, they were as low as 3/1.

There has been a rumor for years that Ditka was upset with bookmakers about the Bears being too much of an underdog the year before against the 49ers. As the story goes, supposedly to stick it to folks in the desert, Ditka wanted Fridge to score.

A package the Bears worked on all year became one of the most iconic TDs in football history.

Ditka probably didn’t have action on the game, but he sent the Fridge in to score in the third quarter, and Vaccaro’s book lost $48,000 on it:

It was insult to injury for the Patriots, and man, was it awesome.

A big part of the play’s legacy, though, is who didn’t score on it.

Payton, perhaps the greatest player ever, didn’t find the end zone in a 46-10 rout. In the third quarter, up 34 points, Ditka sent in the Fridge, who was grateful to get the chance. Jeff Pearlman’s book on Payton’s life painted the picture of a devastated legend in the locker room. Perry and Ditka have expressed regret that Payton didn’t score multiple times.

Payton had some chances. It’s not like one of the greatest running backs had his only shot at Super Bowl glory stolen by the Fridge. Yes, it would have been a layup for Payton to score from one yard out, but what about the four times Payton didn’t score on carries inside New England’s 5?

Like many great players who don’t record their best stats on the biggest stage, he was so brilliant all the time that he was the defense’s main priority.

He was most effectively used in that Super Bowl as a decoy, per Ditka. The Patriots were so scared of him, it invited the opportunity for his teammates to shine.

“When they’re keying on you, you can’t mind,’’ Payton said.

One moment that gets lost: the Fridge almost threw a touchdown in the Super Bowl, out of the same package.

Since sacks started being recorded in 1982, this play made the Fridge the first player to both sack someone else and get sacked himself. Per Pro Football Reference, Pacman Jones is the only other player to do that.

After that magical 1985, the Fridge didn’t get many more cracks as a ball-carrier.

He would only have three more career carries before retiring in in 1994. His last one was a play where quarterback Jim Harbaugh handed him the ball against the Packers for a 1-yard loss.

Three decades later, Clemson’s Fridge package — and the many similar, beef-heavy variations now used by teams at all levels of football — continually ties the Tigers to the man who made big-guy TDs famous. The hosses who pound away for Clemson continue his legacy, one carry and lead block at a time.