Thirty-five years ago, the Chicago Bears dominated the NFL like few teams. With a rock-solid defense, the Bears went 15-1 and steamrolled New England 46-10 in Super Bowl XX.
One of the feelgood stories that season centered around a 335-pound rookie defensive lineman, William “The Refrigerator” Perry. Coach Mike Ditka would insert “The Fridge” in the backfield on goal-line plays, and on Oct. 21, 1985, Perry became the first player weighing 300 pounds or more to rush for a touchdown when he scored against the Green Bay Packers in a Monday night game at Soldier Field.
It was a big stage, but not the biggest. With the Bears leading 37-3 in the third quarter of Super Bowl XX, Perry scored again, barreling into the end zone with such force that broadcaster Dick Enberg noted that the TD “registered 3.8” in the Louisiana Superdome.
The jersey Perry wore during the Super Bowl will be part of Heritage Auctions’ Summer Platinum Night Sports Collectibles Catalog Auction, which will be held Aug. 29-30. As of Thursday, the high bid was $25,000.
The jersey is signed in the upper right chest by Perry, who is now 57 and has been facing some medical setbacks that have confined him to a wheelchair. But in his prime, Perry was a folk hero full of charisma whose broad, gap-tooth smile endeared him to football fans, particularly in Chicago.
According to Heritage Auctions, the jersey also was worn at least during the 1987 and 1990 seasons and may have been used during 1991. That was verified by the NFL logo patch at the front of the jersey’s collar, which debuted in 1991. “It would appear that the reason for the jersey’s long use and its plenitude of repairs are one and the same,” the auction description reads. “Wilson simply didn’t make jerseys this big back then and had to custom build this one for the Fridge’s massive frame, with elasticized side panels to contain his girth.”
The jersey is accompanied by a letter from Resolution Photomatching, which confirmed the jersey’s authenticity. There are also LOAs from Heritage Auctions and from PSA/DNA.
A first-round draft pick by the Bears in 1985, Perry originally was disdained by Bears’ defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan. Perry’s speed and athleticism, surprising for a man of his size, soon convinced even Ryan that the Fridge was not “a wasted draft pick.”
“This is one of the most significant jerseys in Super Bowl history, maybe the most famous for any player other than quarterbacks,” stated Chris Nerat, Heritage Auctions’ consignment director. “The Fridge already was a larger-than-life star, enormous and enormously popular among fans of the Bears and fans of football in general. Before he scored in the Super Bowl while wearing this jersey, it was unheard of that a lineman would be given the ball.”
The jersey has Perry’s No. 72 on the front, back and shoulders, and his surname spans across the rear nameplate. Heritage said the numbers and lettering are slightly cracked from wear and age but added that the jersey has held up well over time.
Perry, whose size 25 Super Bowl ring was the largest of its kind at the time, also mugged it up with other members of the Bears in the rap video, “The Super Bowl Shuffle.” That ring, by the way, commanded more than $200,000 in July 2015 in another Heritage Auctions sale.
While the touchdown is a memorable moment in NFL history, it is also a bittersweet one. The handoff to Perry denied the chance for Walter Payton — the team’s offensive star — a chance to score in a Super Bowl. Naturally, Payton was unhappy with the call, and Ditka has expressed regret at not allowing “Sweetness” the chance to score in the NFL’s biggest game.
Meanwhile, Perry played 10 seasons in the NFL. In 1986, he had five sacks and a career-high 84 tackles, but only carried the ball once. After that, he was never able to recapture the magic of his rookie season. He retired after the 1994 season.
These days, Perry lives in an assisted living facility, getting around on a wheelchair or a walker. But to most football fans, the youthful exuberance Perry exhibited on the field will remain.