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The Refrigerator phenomenon is so off the wall, so unexpected, so unbelievable in its transformation of a basically average pro football player into an icon, that those who deal with it up close—the advertisers and promoters and even agent Steiner himself—can't begin to explain it. "Twenty years from now we'll all look back and go, 'Huh?" says Steiner.
John Bello, the executive vice-president-marketing of NFL Properties, which licenses Fridge paraphernalia like T shirts, posters, coffee mugs and sweat shirts ($1 million to $2 million in retail sales so far) in a split deal with William Perry Inc., says, "This is the first time in my career here that there's been a player who has transcended football to become a folk hero."
But really, it all adds up. The Fridge was delivered to us via TV, just like all our other pop-culture heroes. Bello recalls watching the Chicago Bears- Green Bay Packers Monday night game last fall in which Perry scored his first NFL touchdown. "I was thinking, 'This is gonna blow up,' " he says. "This was something extraordinary for the NFL. The next day I gathered my people around and said, 'All right, let's get ready.' We can control image to a small degree. And my thought was, 'Do we make him a buffoon, an athlete, a what?' "
Steve Goldstein, the San Francisco-based director of consumer marketing for Levi's Menswear, was wondering the same thing when he went out and signed the Fridge to promote the company's line of big and tall men's clothing. "Here was this person who burst on the national scene, and he happened to be both big and tall," says Goldstein. "So he was a natural for us. We could have gotten somebody like Lyle Alzado, a mean, tough guy. But William's image was more what we wanted."
Aha, the key to all promotion—image. To understand the development of the Fridge's image, take a look at the main events in his brief pro career.
1) April 30, 1985—Bears draft Fridge out of Clemson in first round.
2) Aug. 5—Fridge weighs in at 330 pounds.
3) Aug. 7—defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan calls him "wasted draft choice."
4) Sept. 8, season opener vs. Tampa Bay—Fridge rides pine.
5) Sept. 29, fourth game—Fridge runs downfield on kickoff coverage, demolishes ballcarrier.