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Inside William ‘Refrigerator’ Perry’s extraordinary Clemson career: ‘The cat was an entertainer’

Grace Raynor Oct 1, 2021 comment-icon@2x.png 51 save-icon@2x.png

CLEMSON, S.C. — The details are a little fuzzy for Ray Brown and his Clemson teammates, but the when — 1981 — and where — a small elevator in Clemson’s Mauldin Hall dormitory — are still clear 40 years later when it comes to the genesis of one of the greatest nicknames in sports.

Brown thinks he might have been coming back from one of coach Danny Ford’s legendary two-a-day practices and on his way to his fourth-floor room when he and defensive tackles William Perry and William Devane all stepped into the same elevator. Or maybe he was taking a trip to the laundry room when he ran into the pair in the all-male dorm.

Either way, Perry, a freshman on Clemson’s 1981 national championship team, was huge. And Brown, who had a penchant for concocting nicknames, was moments away from his very best work.

“Ray looked at us, and I’m not going to say his exact words, and you can’t print his exact words, but he said something to the effect of, ‘Man, you look like a refrigerator,’” Devane recalled.

“In the moment, (there) was probably some expensive language in between,” Brown echoed. “We were tired, and I was just like, ‘Oh, man. You’re like a M-F refrigerator or something.’”

The moniker stuck, morphing into “Fridge,” the most famous nickname wide receiver Perry Tuttle says Brown ever bestowed.

“It was all in fun, though,” Brown said. “No harm, no foul. But it was just like, ‘Get your butt out of the way.’”

Four decades later, everyone still has a Refrigerator Perry story. And on Saturday, when Clemson plays Boston College, the Tigers’ 1981 national championship team will be honored during the homecoming festivities. Perry, now 58, who lives in an assisted living facility in Aiken, S.C., will not be in attendance, but he is doing well and is expected to be able to go home in the next several months, his brother, Michael Dean Perry, said Thursday.

On the field, Perry became a three-time All-American, a national champion and the 1984 ACC Player of the Year before he went in the first round of the 1985 NFL Draft to the Chicago Bears, winning a Super Bowl as a rookie. Clemson’s Dabo Swinney has even named his jumbo package, which features big men in short-yardage or goal-line situations, “Fridge” as a nod to Perry lining up as a fullback for the Bears.

Off the field, Perry regularly scarfed down a loaf of bread with dinner, inhaled extra-large pizzas, dunked a basketball flat-footed and turned flips off the diving board.

“He wasn’t going to put on a show just to show off,” said former Tigers linebacker Jeff Davis. “He was going to put on a show because it was organic. Because he was enjoying what he did.”

In honor of Perry’s career, The Athletic asked those who knew him — and a few competitors — for their best Fridge stories at Clemson.

All participants in this story are listed as they were during Perry’s Clemson career, from 1981-84.

Mark Richardson, defensive end: The first time you saw him in person, it really just kind of took your breath away.

Jeff Davis, linebacker: Fridge has presence. It’s one thing to be big and 300 pounds. It’s another thing to be big, 300 pounds, with presence.

Danny Ford, head coach: Very uncommon.

Perry Tuttle, wide receiver: I’ve never seen anybody that big and that fit. I mean, his calves. I remember looking at his thighs and calves and I thought, “That’s not right.”

William Devane, defensive tackle: Back then, we had what was called “The 1,000-Pound Club,” where you combine the maxes of three different lifts — squat, bench press and leg extension. He set the record as a freshman.

Bubba Diggs, tight end: It was kind of unheard of, the kinds of things that he did, to be honest.

Dan Benish, defensive lineman: William as a freshman was just crushing people. But it wasn’t that he was just crushing them. He would get them into the ground and just keep driving them into the ground.

Diggs: I never, ever got in front of him during practice.

K.D. Dunn, tight end: That wasn’t going to ever happen.

Diggs: Man, please.

Homer Jordan, quarterback: That was the best thing for me, that he couldn’t hit me in practice.

Dunn: There was one instance he almost hit me. I caught the ball in practice, I’m fumbling around … I see this cloud, and I (intentionally) fell down.

Diggs: He lined up in front of me one day and I got out of the drill. No, man. You have lost your mind.

Dunn: It was amazing how we couldn’t practice with him.

Diggs: I’d tell them, “Hey, I ain’t doing that. I will run the stadium steps before I get in front of that cat right there.” I meant that.

Richardson: He could destroy whatever play he chose to destroy.

Diggs: He could lift the average man up with one arm, and I’m not just talking. I’m telling you what I’ve seen. Hell of an athlete.

Jordan: When he tried to tackle you, he tried to kill you, basically.

Davis: You could never get his fun-loving personality confused with his football player, because he could be a very fun-loving guy — but he could also wreck your life in a football game.

Perry was a freshman when the Tigers stunned Nebraska and won their first national championship in 1981. The 6-foot-3 rookie spent the season rotating series with Devane, which typically gave opposing offensive linemen fits. But against the Huskers in the Orange Bowl, the duo faced their biggest challenge yet: center Dave Rimington.

Rimington won the Outland Trophy, presented to the best interior lineman in college football, in 1981 and 1982. He’s still the only player in college football history to win the award twice. The Rimington Trophy, awarded annually to the best center in college football, is named after him.

Tuttle: (Rimington) was a beast.

Ford: Probably the best offensive center in college football at that time, and maybe of all time.

Don Criqui, NBC’s play-by-play broadcaster from the booth: A player professional scouts, many of them say right now, is the best college football player in the country at any position. … They say he’d be No. 1 in the draft if he was a senior.

John Brodie, NBC’s analyst from the booth: It’s tough playing Rimington.

Tuttle: The first play, or at least the first series, it was almost like he drove Fridge into (middle linebacker) Jeff Davis.

Rimington: I think I was about 318 (pounds) and (Perry) was probably 306, something like that.

Davis: Rimington put it on Fridge, oh yeah.

Brodie: That’s gonna happen when you play a man of his quality.

Tuttle: And Jeff got so mad at The Fridge. He says, “If that ever happens again, I’m going to kick your ***.” (Actually), Jeff is not going to cuss, so it was, “I’m going to kick your butt if that ever happens again.”

Davis: That’s a true story.

Ford: They really had quite a battle, (Rimington) and William.

Davis: I didn’t have to speak to him more than once. I got my message across, and I was just thankful that he obliged.

Clemson beat the Huskers 22-15 and Perry’s teammates said he dominated the line of scrimmage the rest of the night. Toward the end of the game, Davis recalled Perry telling Rimington something to the effect of “I’m the Outland Trophy winner,” talking a little trash.

Rimington: I played against him in the pros when I was with the Cincinnati Bengals, and the hardest hit I’ve ever taken was from William on an interception that I didn’t see coming.

I’ve never left my feet in a football game like that. He crushed me. That, I was upset about (laughing), because I didn’t see it coming. I said, “Jesus, he about killed me.”

Ford: But probably the most impressive play was, one time he blocked a punt with the upback.

Indeed, Clemson played Wake Forest in November of 1984, when Perry, then a senior, pulled off one of the most memorable plays of his career. According to an article in the Washington Post by Michael Wilbon, Perry “picked up an opposing blocker (216-pound Toby Cole), ran with him and threw him into the punter, causing Harry Newsome to punt the ball into Cole’s rear end. Perry, for that feat, was credited with a block and a 36-yard punt return.”

Toby Cole, blocker: Was not my rear end. It was my head.

Devane (laughing): Knowing him, he probably picked the guy up and slammed him right into the punter. Yep.

Cole: On the back of my helmet was this leather imprint. … At that point I realized that he had pushed me back so far, so quickly, that when Harry punted the ball, it hit me in the back of the head and ricocheted down toward the goal line behind us.

Ford: I don’t know that I realized what happened, but it was quite a sight to see on the film on Sunday morning.

So too, were Clemson’s matchups with Georgia.

Devane: Of course we played Georgia every year, and Georgia, of course, they had (Heisman Trophy-winning running back) Herschel Walker.

Benish: The way he handled himself and attacked Herschel Walker — we just beat those guys up.

Diggs: William and Herschel knew each other. They were in camp together and that kind of thing, so naturally on the field, that was a big rivalry.

Devane: The national championship year we played Georgia in Death Valley and … (Georgia quarterback) Buck Belue was attempting to hand the ball off to Herschel. I didn’t see it of course during the game, but you can actually see it when we did film study: Herschel was actually looking at William instead of concentrating on getting the ball.

Diggs: All eyes on Fridge.

Devane: So of course it was a fumble, and of course William recovered it. … I have this picture, it’s actually a cool picture. Me and William gave each other a high-five. … Both of us were pretty good little athletes. We could get off the ground a little.

Davis: When you think about football and you think about the different reasons that people love it, entertainment is high on the list. The cat was an entertainer. … And boy, he never let his audience down.

(Courtesy of William Devane)

Tuttle: We used to have a pizza place in downtown Clemson called Chanello’s. The older people would know about Chanello’s. (Perry) was being recruited, and Jeff Davis and I took him out.

Davis: He had such an infectious personality, he was one of the biggest humans at the time in college football, and Perry Tuttle and I, we had an opportunity to understand why.

Tuttle: We let him order first and he ordered this large pizza — the largest pizza you can get, with the works. And so, just like the waitress, Jeff and I assumed that it’s for (all of) us. She was walking away and he says, “Oh, they haven’t ordered yet.”

Davis: You don’t ever think to go to a place to eat pizza and somebody orders a large pizza and it’s for themselves.

Diggs: I’d take him to Pizza Hut. Man, when he put down two or three pizzas, I mean, seriously.

Tuttle: McDonald’s was one of his favorites. … It wasn’t just like a Big Mac. … It was like, “Let me just look up on the board and just give me all of those on that left side.”

Diggs: That’s when I first noticed it: “Like this cat, he can throw down.”

Benish: He’d come in the meetings after lunch and he’d sit there and kind of prop his head up against the wall to watch film, and he would bring in an extra sandwich, a couple pieces of fruit, whatever. Some fried chicken. … He’d lay all that food on his stomach.

Richardson: We’d go through a buffet line and then at the end of the line was the bread. He wouldn’t reach into the bread. He would rip open the top of the bread pack and he’d just take out a whole loaf of bread in his hand.

Richardson: He’d take a piece of bread and he’d fold it in twice — fold in half twice. It was like a square, a small square. And so he’d eat a bite of food, eat a piece of bread. Eat a bite of food, eat a piece of bread. By the time dinner was over, he ate his meal plus a whole loaf of bread.

Benish: At training camp (in 1982), doctors put him on a diet. They told him just to eat fruit to try and lose a little bit of weight. … In the dining hall, you’d walk in and he’s sitting there with a tray. And he had every banana that they had in the fruit bowl in the whole dining hall.

Devane: But the thing you knew right off the bat was his strength and speed. His quickness. He could move for 300.

Rimington: The one thing I remember from my preparation getting ready for him in the Orange Bowl was they had videos of him standing underneath the basketball hoop and dunking it flat-footed from right underneath it.

Richardson: Without taking a step or run, he could stand underneath the goal and two-hand dunk backwards. Just straight up. Not one step.

Diggs: I went to a basketball game, it was during the time I was recruiting him and everything, and he was playing basketball. I walked into the gym and he was part of a fast break on the wing. They passed the ball to him and he slammed it. I walked back out. That’s all I needed to see.

Ford: I was very surprised to see that he could dunk a basketball.

Brodie: When a guy can dunk a basketball, dunk a football over a goal post and he weighs over 300 pounds and he’s only 6-3, you’ve got some kind of rare athlete.

Devane: We would go to Fike Gym and have pickup games. … He became the point guard for our pickup team and the guy was amazing. Absolutely amazing.

Davis: Having the audacity to think that you’re going to play point guard — not with your big self on the block. Just that personality. That was amazing. It was fun, and nobody was going to say anything.

Richardson: When we were practicing in Florida, getting ready for the Orange Bowl, they had a swimming pool in the hotel we were staying in and there was a diving board. I don’t know if he had ever done flips before, but somebody talked him into trying it.

Ford: You could challenge him on anything and he’d prove you wrong.

Richardson: He’d bounce off the end of the diving board and the diving board would go all the way down and slap the water.

Ford: We went out to Twin Lakes (in Pendleton, S.C.) … the board went underwater and he did a perfect one-and-a-half.

Diggs: He went to the top at the aquatic center. … Everybody just tripped out.

Ford: He could do anything he wanted to do.

Dunn: Unbelievable freak of nature.

Ford said that as Fridge got bigger, so too did his personality, which many of his teammates gravitated toward. When Perry got married in 1982, he asked Diggs to be part of his big day.

Diggs: I was so honored to be his best man.

Ford: Just a big ol’ teddy bear. Very likable person.

Diggs: We came home the weekend of his wedding and we had rehearsal that Friday. … I got stopped by state patrol. I always wore a Clemson T-shirt, jersey or something, and the guy stopped me and he said, “Where are you going, Tiger?” I told him that I had to get back to Aiken. I just used William.

Davis: People loved him.

Diggs: I said, “I’m the best man in William Perry’s wedding tomorrow.” He said, “Really?” He said, “Hold on one second.” He went back to his vehicle and he came back to me and gave me a piece of paper for me to get an autograph.

The highway patrolman told Diggs that he would be at the same location the next day on Jefferson Davis Highway, where he had pulled him over. The highway separated Digg’s Augusta, Ga., hometown from Perry’s Aiken, S.C., stomping grounds. That night at the rehearsal dinner, Perry happily signed the paper. Sure enough, the next day, Diggs found the officer waiting in their agreed-upon location.

Diggs: He was right there where he said he was going to be and I gave him that and he said, “All right, take your time and tell him congratulations!”

The highway patrolman let Diggs off without a warning.

Diggs: That’s Fridge.

Many teammates keep up with Perry through his brother, Michael Dean, a fellow Clemson legend himself. Perry was diagnosed with Guillain-Barré syndrome more than a decade ago and was in a wheelchair at a 2018 South Carolina Football Hall of Fame event. Ford said he saw Perry about two to three years ago.

Ford: We really hope his health is better and he’s getting better. I hope he’s taking care of himself.

Devane: It’s just unfortunate that he struggled with that, but just, the bond remains strong. It’s a bond that’s going to last forever.

Davis (getting emotional): When you think about a refrigerator, everybody goes to the refrigerator, right? People want to be around him. People want to open him up.

That someone so opposing could yet be so contagious and be so magnetic, I think that was the power of who William Perry was.

(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Ronald C. Modra / Getty Images; courtesy of Clemson Athletics)

Grace Raynor is a Staff Writer for The Athletic covering Clemson Tigers football. A native of Morganton, N.C., she's a college hoops junkie and has a degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina. Grace covered the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees as an intern at MLB.com before working at The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., where she eventually picked up the Clemson beat. Grace has covered both of Clemson's recent national championships. Follow Grace on Twitter @gmraynor.
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