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'The Fridge' improving his health with help from family, friends

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Michael Dean Perry knows the day is coming when his good-natured, gap-toothed older brother, who's nicknamed "The Fridge," will be back to his old, affable self.

But that will take some time, and William Perry understands that, Michael Dean said. William, the former NFL defensive lineman famous for his smile and 360-pound size, spent more than a month at Aiken Regional Medical Center this spring, suffering from Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disease where the body's immune system attacks its peripheral nerves.

Now Michael Dean visits William each day at the North Carolina rehabilitation center -- sometimes to encourage him and sometimes to participate in his lengthy recovery.

Career Statistics
Seasons: 10

Games: 138

Sacks: 29.5

"Baby steps I call them," Michael Dean said Wednesday, adding that William still wasn't up to granting interviews. "But we can see improvement."

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Web site, Guillain-Barre syndrome causes "...the loss of reflexes ... and paralysis of respiratory muscles also can occur. A small proportion of patients die, and 20 percent of hospitalized patients can have prolonged disability."

The National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke says on its Web site that there's no known cure for Guillain-Barre.

Perry's Chicago Bears coach, Mike Ditka, saw something wrong in February when his former lineman showed up for an autograph session at Rosemont, Ill. Perry needed a wheelchair to get around and was 150 pounds lighter than when Ditka last saw him, said Ken Valdiserri, the Bears' spokesman during Perry's time in Chicago and now president of the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund.

Perry "did not look very good," Valdiserri said.

Charlie Timmerman, Perry's friend from Aiken, says Perry had been hospitalized before. This time, though, doctors thought Perry's condition was much more serious.

In April, one of Perry's brothers, Daryl, stopped in to check on him and found his famous sibling weak and dehydrated. William was listed in serious condition when he was taken to the hospital, where he remained.

Michael Dean says his brother, always outgoing and friendly, was reticent to complain or ask for help. As a former athlete, Michael Dean said it's difficult to give in to the idea that you are no longer invincible and perhaps that's what kept the 46-year-old William from seeking treatment sooner.

Perry rose to stardom as a rookie lineman during the Bears' 1985 Super Bowl run. Perry was on television screens everywhere as a smiling pitchman for McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken. He also made a guest appearance on the hit television show, "The A-Team."

Perry played 10 NFL seasons before retiring.

"Someone of his stature, you always think of your vitality," said Michael Dean, who followed William to the NFL and became a six-time Pro Bowler with 61 sacks for the Cleveland Browns, Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs. "This opens your eyes."

Perry's doctors in Aiken saw his condition improve enough to release him in late May.

Valdiserri said Ditka and others in the Gridiron Greats organization attempted to bring Perry to Northwestern University's Memorial Hospital. However, it would have cost Perry about $350,000 for 8-to-12 weeks of necessary therapy.

Valdiserri says Northwestern helped secure a place for Perry at Carolinas Rehabilitation near Charlotte -- at no cost -- where Michael Dean and sister Patsy can monitor their brother and cajole him into sticking with his rehab.

William must undergo six to seven hours of speech and physical therapy each day to improve his deteriorated motor skills, Michael Dean says.

Once frail-looking at 200 pounds, "The Fridge" has found his appetite and is back up around 275, his brother said. "I don't know if that's a good thing," Michael Dean said with a laugh.

William will need another two to three weeks at the rehab center, then move to a nearby assisted living facility -- Michael Dean declined to identify the location because of William's popularity -- to continue his recovery. Michael Dean also wasn't sure when William might return to his life in Aiken.

Gridiron Greats has continued to monitor Perry's progress and used its medical assistance fund to help the Perrys with incidentals, Valdiserri said.

Timmerman, an Aiken veterinarian who grew up playing sports with the Perrys, began The Fridge Fund, where well-wishers and fans could drop a note or donate to defray medical costs. Valdiserri says people also can donate to the fund through Gridiron Greats.

Michael Dean vows his brother won't be left alone in making it back. "We're going to keep a good eye on him," he said.

Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press

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