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William ‘Refrigerator’ Perry’s appearance adds bit of warmth to Bears’ finale

It was a bad Sunday at Soldier Field, the kind we’ve seen before.

The Bears gagged out a 24-20 loss to the Lions, their seventh defeat at home this season en route to a 6-10 record.

But a surprise guest sent a ray of sunshine through the chilly air. The long-absent William ‘‘Refrigerator’’ Perry, 53, was in the house.

Ol’ Fridge has been through much since he became famous as the heaviest, most entertaining member of the 1985 Super Bowl Bears. But he has survived near-physical and financial ruin, and he’s back. Tentatively, but he’s back.

Years ago, we used to play basketball at the Multiplex in Deerfield. He could dunk at 330 pounds — I saw it — but he had a gentle, agile game and didn’t simply flatten defenders or those unfortunate enough to run into his picks.

There were a couple of times when Perry walked to my house from nearby Halas Hall in Lake Forest, knocked on the door and wondered if I wanted to play. This was when he was making millions of dollars a year from endorsements and appearances. A nicer, simpler, gentler man off the field you won’t find.

So when he asked if I wanted to watch the second half of the game in the skybox the Bears had provided for him, I said yes.

‘‘I can’t feel my feet, from here on down,’’ he said, gesturing from about the middle of his shin downward from his wheelchair. ‘‘My hands, either.’’

He moved his giant mitts in midair. They are beyond massive. People will recall he was fitted for the largest Super Bowl ring in history, a size 25.

But his hands work fine, he said. And they seem to. But the lack of sensation in his limbs, the tingling left from the near-fatal onset of Guillain-Barre syndrome in 2008, his diabetes (he weighs north of 425 pounds) and the medication he keeps forgetting or is unable to take hold him back from a normal life.

He lives in a retirement community in Aiken, South Carolina, and the fortune he made is long gone. Both of his former wives have left him, and things such as his house and bank account flew away, too. He has no steady source of income and had come to Chicago for an autograph signing Monday.

But Soldier Field? A Bears game? He hadn’t been to either since he retired in 1994 after 10 seasons in the NFL, all but the last of those with the Bears.

If he hasn’t been a recluse, he has been way under the radar. Drinking alcohol hasn’t helped, either, though it does ratchet down the pain.

‘‘Yeah, I’m an alcoholic,’’ he said publicly in 2011.

But his health issues are put aside for now. Now it’s just a matter of ‘‘Welcome back, big fella!’’

Former teammate Otis Wilson came by for a hug and a smile.

‘‘Good to see you!’’ he shouted.

‘‘You, too,’’ Perry said.

‘‘Have you seen the boys?’’


‘‘The old guys.’’

‘‘Un-uh,’’ Perry mumbled.

Perry doesn’t hear well, but he won’t wear a hearing aid. And he sometimes has memory issues.

‘‘Concussions and the mild cognitive effect from Guillain-Barre — that’s a double whammy,’’ said Perry’s older brother, Willie, who traveled here with Perry and his manager, Jai Jones, who is trying to get his finances straight.

‘‘You can’t say for sure,’’ Willie said of whatever effects head trauma might have had on his brother.

John Bostrom, the Bears’ vice president of business operations, dropped by. He was a youngster in the PR department when Fridge played.

Next came senior director of business development Brian McCaskey, who had a white No. 72

Bears jersey with Perry’s name on it. Back in the glory years, McCaskey was one of the trainers.

‘‘He came to me in a game and said, ‘What do you think?’ ’’ McCaskey said. ‘‘He held his arm out, and it was bent down and up like this, broken all the way through.’’

Fridge smiled and pulled up his sleeve to show where the plate went into his forearm during surgery.

‘‘And he tore his ACL,’’ McCaskey said. ‘‘We have that test where we hold the leg and move it, and I couldn’t get my hands around both his thigh and his calf to do it.’’

McCaskey looked at Perry.

‘‘Ever get it repaired?’’ he asked.

‘‘No,’’ said Perry, who just kept on playing.

Last to come in was Bears president and CEO Ted Phillips, clad in parka and stocking cap. He looked like a kid who had found a shiny bike under the Christmas tree.

‘‘Welcome back!’’ he bellowed. ‘‘You’re always a Bear. We love you!’’

The game ended, and Fridge promised not to stay away so long.

‘‘I’m fighting back,’’ he said. ‘‘Get stronger. Keep living.’’

Follow me on Twitter @ricktelander.