Among the thousands of images left behind by America’s biggest sporting event, a few live on as indelible. During this week leading up to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, we look back daily on a select precious moment and appreciate the story behind it. Final is a seven-part series.
Certain images just bring a smile. Puppies. A field of wildflowers. A Key West sunset. A fat guy having fun in the end zone.
Who doesn’t like that?
Maybe that’s why the sight of William Perry – not nicknamed The Fridge just because he was so cool – spiking the football in the end zone after a garbage-time touchdown in Super Bowl XX became such a keepsake.
That a 380-pound man (give or take a biscuit) could steamroll his way through a thoroughly downtrodden defense on a one-yard keeper was hardly a revelation. But everything Perry did, like the man himself, was big. He was XL all the way (talking size here, not roman numerals). He had arrived in New Orleans as one of the biggest stars of the carnival midway that was the 1985 Chicago Bears, if for his personality as much as his play.
More on the series
» 1967 Super Bowl: A cigarette and a Fresca
» 1998 Super Bowl: John Elway goes helicopter
» 2008 Super Bowl: The helmet catch
» 1973 Super Bowl: Who stole my watch?
» 1969 Super Bowl: The poolside guarantee
» 1979 Super Bowl: A rare drop at the wrong time
That team played ferocious, voracious defense – Perry’s primary responsibility. But it also had a gift for diversion. Those Bears cut a Super Bowl Shuffle music video before actually winning a Super Bowl (recorded in fact in December, one day after their only loss of the season). Quarterback Jim McMahon mooned a news helicopter during that Super Bowl week in New Orleans. And Perry, with the combination of unnatural athleticism for a barn door of his size and a big, gap-toothed smile, was the designated phenomenon of the bunch.
A first-round draft pick out of Clemson in 1985, Perry did not exactly wow the Bears defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan at the time. But head coach Mike Ditka conceived of a gimmick to use the big fella at fullback near the goal line, like a tank leading infantry. And once in a great while, he just might carry the ball, too.
This is how long ago Super Bowl XX was: It was so long ago that it was before the Patriots knew how to do Super Bowls. And against these Bears, whose defense gave them reason to be considered among the best teams of all time, New England was tragically overmatched.
The Bears would overwhelm the Pats, 46-10, in the second biggest blowout in Super Bowl history. It was one big Chicago party from start to finish that included, yes, a Perry touchdown run from a yard out with the Bears already leading 37-3. That was kind of the unofficial coup de grace of this rout.
But this fun and frivolity had a price. Lost in Perry’s frolic was a slight that left a lasting mark on a Bears great, a real running back.
The fact that the Fridge would have a Super Bowl touchdown run on his resume but that Sweetness – Walter Payton – wouldn’t is almost unfathomable.
The late Payton, after whom the NFL Man of the Year award is named, and the second-leading all-time career rushing leader, was the unhappiest of Bears after that championship win. OK, maybe we did find the one person who didn’t see the joy in a fat guy celebrating in the end zone.
The only Bears player that the Patriots stopped that day was Payton, who on 22 carries had but 60 more rushing yards than Perry. And at the end, the proud back believed he should have had at least the opportunity to score from the 1-yard line ahead of an oversized curiosity (the Bears, it should be noted, also scored on runs of one and two yards by McMahon).
Witnesses remembered Payton being visibly upset in the Bears locker room after the game. He, in fact, retreated to the training room and had to be coaxed out for interviews.
Later, at the Pro Bowl, McMahon said, “When they called the play for Perry to go in, I should have just ignored it and given the ball to Walter anyway.”
“If anybody deserved it, he did,” said McMahon of the Bears first draft pick of 1975 who ran hard through seven losing Bears seasons on his way to that one and only Super Bowl appearance.
After what should have been the frosting atop a Hall of Fame career, Payton “was crushed,” a friend told Jeff Pearlman, the author of the biography “Sweetness.”
Years later Ditka, at a banquet in which he was receiving another award named after his running back said, “I can stand up here now and tell you the greatest regret I ever had was when Walter didn’t score a touchdown in the Super Bowl.”
Alas, there are no second takes in the Super Bowl, no chances to rewrite the script, no photoshopping the lasting image.
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