Note: The following appears in the Boston College football gameday program.
Editor’s Note – This is the 40th anniversary of Clemson’s first national championship season in 1981. For each program in 2021, Tim Bourret takes us back to that season with features on players or games from the landmark year.
It was the week of the Tulane contest, the second game of the 1981 season, and Ray Brown was waiting to get on an elevator in Mauldin Hall, the dorm that housed all the Tiger football players.
When the elevator door opened, there were only four people inside, but it was full. At the very front of the group was 310-pound freshman middle guard William Perry, who seemed to take up half of the elevator by himself.
At 6’4” and 245 pounds, Brown could see there was no room for him.
But as he looked at Perry in the elevator, Brown said, “William, you are as big as a refrigerator…I am going to start calling you ‘GE’.”
GE to this day stands for the worldwide corporation General Electric, which makes appliances among other products.
Clemson Student Assistant Jeff Rhodes was working on a story for a future gameday program about the Tiger student equipment managers that week and spent a lot of time around the players. One afternoon, Brown told Rhodes about the story.
Rhodes then related the tale to Clemson Sports Information Director Bob Bradley, my boss at the time.
“Mr. Bradley got that smile on his face where you could tell the wheels were turning,” Rhodes told me last month in recreating the story.
Bradley was a master storyteller and put a couple of paragraphs in his notes column that previewed the game against No. 4 Georgia the next week about the nickname’s creation.
The story of William “GE” Perry started to gain some traction when the Clemson compliance services department told Bradley he needed to stop referring to him as “GE,” because Perry was in effect promoting the corporation and its line of refrigerators.
However, it was too good of a story not to use, so Bradley referenced Perry in further releases and in meetings with the media as the generic “Refrigerator” Perry.
As the season continued, the wins piled up and Perry continued to make plays from his middle guard position, and his fame grew.
The entire program gained in notoriety when the No. 2 Tigers defeated No. 8 North Carolina 10-8 in November in the first meeting of top-10 teams in ACC history.
With repeated references from ABC announcers Bill Fleming and Ara Parseghian as “The Refrigerator,” the nickname stuck nationally. The following week, Sports Illustrated writer Alexander Wolff authored a story on that game and the growing legend of Perry.
And it stayed that way the rest of his career and into his professional career with the Chicago Bears. Perry reportedly made $5 million during his rookie year in endorsements. I wonder what he would have made during his Clemson career under the new name, image and likeness rules.
There are many Perry stories from that memorable 1981 season. He became a cult figure as the stories were told. If we had Twitter then, he would have been among the most famous sports personalities in the world.
One day, senior All-America wide receiver Perry Tuttle took Perry to McDonald’s in Clemson for lunch. He told everyone that the bill was over $22. Tuttle spent $4 on himself and $18 on Perry.
There were also stories of Perry going to Fike Fieldhouse to swim and witnesses remarked of his ability to dive into the pool with great technique. He was also a legend from underneath the basket in pickup basketball games at Fike Fieldhouse.
However, Perry’s greatest athletic feats came on the gridiron. Despite splitting time with William Devane on the defensive line in 1981, Perry had 48 tackles and four sacks, a mark for a first-year freshman that stood for over 30 years.
Perry and Devane were big reasons the Tigers were able to limit Nebraska’s vaunted running attack in the Orange Bowl. It was quite a matchup against Dave Rimington, the College Football Hall of Fame center who is the player the Rimington Award (best center in the nation) was named after. Nebraska scored just 15 points in the game, eight of which came on trick plays, and gained a season-low 193 rushing yards in Clemson’s victory.
My favorite “Fridge” play took place against Wake Forest in 1984, his senior year. Believing Wake Forest would go for a first down on fourth-and-one, Head Coach Danny Ford told the defense to stay on the field. That meant Perry remained at middle guard.
Wake Forest decided to punt after all, and when the ball was snapped, Perry bull-rushed. He hit the blocking back with such force that he knocked him backwards toward the punter, Harry Newsome. Newsome punted the ball off the backside of his teammate and the ball bounced backwards 36 yards, where it was recovered by a Tiger.
Statistically, Perry was correctly credited with a 36-yard punt return, which must be a puzzling number with historians who review Perry’s numbers on Sports-Reference.com.
It is another unusual story about the legendary Perry.
And they are all true.