As the supersized man affectionately known as “The Fridge” tumbled into the end zone, the manager of the sportsbook at Caesars Palace could scarcely hide his dismay.
Art Manteris dreaded explaining to his bosses that the casino had just lost well over $100,000 because the Chicago Bears had entrusted a 340-pound defensive tackle with a goal-line handoff instead of their Hall-of-Fame-bound running back.
It had been Manteris’ idea to post odds on whether William “The Refrigerator” Perry would score a touchdown in the 1986 Super Bowl, to that point easily the zaniest proposition bet ever offered on pro football’s biggest game. Manteris hoped to capitalize on the country’s fascination with the massive gap-toothed rookie, by drumming up some extra attention and enticing average fans to make a wager.
Perry rose to prominence midway through his rookie season when Bears coach Mike Ditka began experimenting with using him in the backfield as a bulldozing fullback. The portly first-round draft pick from Clemson scored two rushing touchdowns and caught another, catching the interest of everyone from McDonald’s to Vince McMahon to David Letterman.
And, come Super Bowl XX, he caught the attention of Las Vegas.
Bookmakers of the era have conflicting memories of what odds Manteris initially set that Perry would score, but they all agree it was at least 20-1. Chuck Esposito, Manteris’ assistant and close friend, pointed out that Perry hadn’t carried the ball in over a month and assured his boss that Ditka wouldn’t risk The Fridge fumbling during the Super Bowl.
“We were thinking this was free money,” Esposito said. “What were the chances he’d even get an opportunity to come into the game on offense? They had to be winning big and the ball had to be on the 1-yard line. It had to be a perfect storm.”
To the delight of Manteris, his ploy to generate extra business worked. Gamblers poured into the sportsbook to bet on The Fridge, and TV and newspaper reporters from across America showed interest in the story.
As the buzz over the Perry prop grew, other sports books began offering the same bet. So much money came in on The Fridge that bookmakers adjusted the odds to as low as 2-1 before kickoff in an effort to diminish their risk.
It became clear that Perry was part of Chicago’s game plan when he entered late in the first quarter and unsuccessfully attempted to throw a pass. Then in the third quarter, with Chicago comfortably ahead 37-3 and poised to add to its lead, Perry jogged onto the field on offense for a second time.
Roars of delight from victorious gamblers emanated from sportsbooks up and down the Las Vegas strip after Perry plowed into the end zone. Meanwhile, on the other side of the counter, the mood was not so joyous.
“I remember making eye contact with Art and we exchanged a couple of choice words between us,” Esposito said. “Little did we know that it would be the best loss we ever took.”
The prop bet boom
The hundreds of thousands of dollars Las Vegas sportsbooks lost on the 1986 Perry prop bet were offset by the valuable knowledge bookmakers gained. Besieged first by gamblers who wanted to put money on The Fridge and then by reporters intrigued that the casinos had lost big on such an unusual bet, bookmakers quickly realized what a huge draw Super Bowl props could be.
Until 1986, sportsbooks only offered a few rudimentary prop bets on Super Bowl Sunday, stuff like what the score would be at the end of each quarter or who would score the first touchdown of the game. Perry’s improbable touchdown gave rise to a phenomenon that altered the way Americans gamble on the Super Bowl.
“From that point on, prop betting took off like a rocket,” South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro said. “We got so much publicity from the prop involving Refrigerator Perry that each year we started trying to have more and more fun with them. That’s one of the main reasons we’re here today with all these exciting prop bets.”
When tens of thousands of football fans pour into sportsbooks across Las Vegas on Sunday for Super Bowl LIV, the majority of the money they wager won’t hinge on the outcome of the game at all. Many Las Vegas sportsbooks now make more than 50 percent of their Super Bowl handle via the hundreds of prop bets they offer.
In Las Vegas, the prop bets that traditionally attract the most interest from gamblers hinge on the outcome of the coin toss and whether a safety or two-point conversion is scored in the game. Bookmakers also flex their creativity with quirky cross-sport bets tied to anything from LeBron James to Sidney Crosby to Premier League soccer.
“We think it’s big now, but these props keep expanding year after year,” said Jeff Stoneback, MGM Resorts Director of Trading Operations. “You sit out here in the book, and it seems like almost every play there is somebody cheering about something. It keeps people entertained from start to finish.”
Whereas regulatory standards limit Las Vegas sportsbooks to props that are easily quantifiable, bookmakers from out of state or overseas have the freedom to get even more wild with their offerings. They compete to outdo one another with outlandish novelty bets on everything from the number of tweets President Trump will send during the game to the length of the national anthem to the color of the Gatorade dumped over the head of the winning coach.
At Bovada, online bettors can wager whether President Trump will tweet more than 13.5 times on Super Bowl Sunday. At PointsBet, another online sportsbook, San Francisco 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan is 100-1 to blow another 28-3 lead like the Atlanta Falcons did three years ago, when he was offensive coordinator.
The Fridge becomes a household name
Who knows how long it would have taken bookmakers to recognize the potential of prop betting were it not for Ditka’s penchant for holding a grudge.
In the previous year’s NFC title game, San Francisco 49ers coach Bill Walsh had drawn the ire of Ditka by using agile 265-pound guard Guy McIntyre as a blocking back several times during a 23-0 shutout of the Bears. Ditka got his revenge in October 1985, when he inserted Perry at fullback and had him carry the ball on the final two plays of a 26-10 victory over the 49ers.
“The McIntyre thing was the ultimate finger in the eye,” former Chicago Bears defensive lineman Dan Hampton said. “Ditka not only wanted to get back at Bill Walsh but also make a statement that if anyone in the future wanted to get cute with us, this is what was going to happen.”
The Fridge’s popularity really exploded a week later when again he lined up in the backfield during a Monday Night Football game against the Packers. Football fans across America were mesmerized when Perry twice created running lanes for Walter Payton by flattening 225-pound linebacker George Cumby and later became the heaviest man in NFL history to score an offensive touchdown with a 1-yard dive across the goal line.
A Chicago Sun-Times columnist declared it, “The best use of fat since the invention of bacon.” Lamented Green Bay defensive lineman Donnie Humphrey to the Chicago Tribune, “It was national TV, Monday night, Coach Ditka had his chance to embarrass us and he did it.”
For the rest of that charmed season in Chicago, the Fridge was the NFL’s most beloved novelty act. He landed a flurry of marquee endorsements and made an appearance on The Today Show before defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan declared him physically fit enough to make his first start at defensive tackle.
“The three defensive tackles on that team — me, [Steve] McMichael and Fridge — all had the same agent, a guy named Jim Steiner,” Hampton recalled. “I talked to Steiner two days after the Monday night game, and he said he had to hire a second girl to answer the phones. He had over 300 offers for Fridge to do commercials within the first 24 hours.”
Though Perry responded to the onslaught of attention with grace and self-deprecating humor, the notoriety he achieved irritated a few of his teammates. They resented being upstaged by a rookie who wasn’t an integral part of the team’s success and lacked the stamina to play more than a couple downs in a row.
Especially disappointing for some of the Bears was Ditka’s decision to bypass Payton and give Perry the goal-line handoff during the third quarter of the Super Bowl. Unbeknownst to Ditka at the time, it was a dream of Payton’s to score a touchdown in the Super Bowl, a dream he never got a second chance to achieve.
Did Ditka have money on The Fridge?
Ask former Bears why Ditka would call on The Fridge in that situation instead of Payton, and the responses vary wildly. Recently, a couple of ex-Bears have even floated the possibility that Ditka himself bet on The Fridge scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl.
In October, ex-Bears receiver Dennis McKinnon told Chicago-based radio station 670 The Score, “I will tell you emphatically that Mike profited from taking Payton out and putting in Perry.” That came on the heels of former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon suggesting during a February 2018 interview with a Las Vegas radio station that Ditka made a bet.
Asked earlier this week if he still believed that Ditka might have had money at stake, McMahon told Yahoo Sports, “I wouldn’t put it past him.”
“He likes to gamble and he was in control of the play-calling,” McMahon said. “I couldn’t confirm or deny, but I wouldn’t doubt it. Let’s just put it that way.”
Hampton, on the other hand, adamantly argued that Perry’s touchdown was just Ditka putting an exclamation point on a magical season by giving the fans what they wanted. He dismissed the theory that Ditka placed a bet as an example of the “Yoko Ono back-fighting bullsh-t” that has plagued the ’85 Bears in retirement.
Longtime bookmakers side with Hampton. Not only are they suspicious of an accusation that didn’t leak for more than three decades, they also wonder if Ditka could have placed a big enough wager to make jeopardizing his career worthwhile.
“How much could he have bet?” said Michael “Roxy” Roxborough, who founded the world's top oddsmaking firm, Las Vegas Sports Consultants, in 1982 and ran it through 1999. “Maybe Caesars might have taken up to $1,000 on it, but he couldn’t have gotten the opening price on it because he wouldn’t have even known it was offered until he read about it in the Trib or the Sun-Times.”
Regardless of why Ditka called upon the Fridge in the Super Bowl, bookmakers are glad that he did. The growth of prop betting has long since made up for any money lost that day.
When Manteris met with his bosses at Caesars Palace after the Super Bowl, he did not receive the tirade he expected. The owners of the casino felt the publicity the Perry prop bet generated outweighed the financial hit.
The impact of the Perry prop bet was apparent by the following Super Bowl. Sportsbooks began to expand the number of prop bets available, though they were initially reluctant to offer anything with such long odds again.
“I think we were a little gun shy,” Roxborough said with a chuckle. “For a while, we offered more props that were closer to even money.”
The saga of The Fridge has taken a sad turn recently as Perry has reportedly fought alcoholism, diabetes and a slew of other health issues. The same issues that kept him from becoming a dominant force in the NFL have plagued him in retirement.
Although Perry has largely receded from the public view while battling his demons, he remains a staple of football lore. He scored one of the most unlikely touchdowns in Super Bowl history and unwittingly changed the way Americans bet on the game as a result.
“It really all started with that Fridge Perry prop,” Esposito said. “It was a considerable loss for the industry at the time, but it became a big win because of where prop betting is today.”
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