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William and Michael Dean Perry reunite to share stories of their triumphs and struggles

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Perry Brothers

Michael Dean Perry (left) and William Perry (right) spoke at the South Carolina Football Hall of Fame Speakers Series on Thursday. The Perry brothers are two of the most memorable Clemson defenders in program history. Grace Raynor/Staff 

GREENVILLE — The two of them don't talk as much as they used to when they were wrecking opponents at Clemson's Death Valley in the 1980s together, and they don't see each other as frequently, either. 

They both have families. 

Michael Dean Perry, 52, lives in Charlotte. 

William, 55 and best known as The Refrigerator, is still in Aiken. 

Their relationship has had its emotional highs and lows all play out in public while the elder Perry has fought alcoholism and a slew of health issues over the years, instigating family divide. 

But on Thursday night, at the Embassy Suites of Greenville for a South Carolina Football Hall of Fame Speaker Series event, the former Clemson standouts came together as one unit — one family — to make a public appearance. 

William, the 1981 Clemson national champion who went on to win a Super Bowl with the Chicago Bears, wore a grey suit and a black beret as he moved around by wheelchair. Michael Dean, who was a six-time Pro Bowl selection and the 1989 AFC Defensive Player of the Year with the Cleveland Browns, opted for a black suit.

The crowd was thrilled. 

"It’s always nice coming back to Tiger Town and the area," Michael Dean said. "I think Clemson has the greatest fans." 

Aware of the elephant in the room — William's health after his life spiraled following his NFL career — the legendary brothers were gentle, yet honest when they fielded questions about where they are now. 

William, who played in the NFL at 6-2, 350 and had a larger-than-life personality, seems to still have his struggles, both mentally and physically. Michael Dean has gone on record saying he believes his brother has CTE. 

But the large smile and the bubbly personality? They both have aged well. In that department, he hasn't missed a beat. 

"I'm mainly just rehabbing and getting back totally healthy and really just taking my time. We're getting there," William said. "Things happened and you’ve got to have big shoulders and brush it off and keep going and look forward for bigger and better things.

"My recovery and everything is going well and going in the right direction right now and I couldn’t say no more. I’m just taking it day by day." 

William — who was as popular as they came both at Clemson and in the NFL — declared publicly he was an alcoholic in 2011. He has lived with diabetes for years. He has struggled financially and has had his fair share of difficulties in keeping his life on track after football. 

But Michael Dean, who has been vocal about trying to help his older brother over the years, made sure to help him again Thursday. The younger brother assisted in wheeling his brother up on stage for a question and answer session with the audience, and then took the lead on those answers when William struggled to hear the questions. 

The two of them joked about playing for coach Danny Ford and told stories of the 20 years between them in the NFL. They laughed about how great it would have been to play for a Clemson team with the offense that the Tigers have now. They reminisced on specific in-game memories and the times William would physically pick up opponents and move them at will. 

When Ford walked into the room, William's face lit up. 

"I'm doing much better," he told his former coach. 

"Y'all would have loved their momma and daddy," Ford would later tell the crowd.

Ford spoke of his love for the Perry Brothers, who will forever be remembered as two of the best defenders to ever come through Clemson. They both still love football. William says he watches Clemson games on television when he can, adding that he would love to catch a game in Death Valley sometime. 

"From my perspective, he's doing OK," Michael Dean said. "Could he be better? Yes. If he dove in 100 percent on his rehab, he would be much better. But he's going to do it at his own pace and you just leave him alone. 

"From the rehab standpoint, for example, if the therapist says, 'You know what? You need to work four days a week,' well, he might do two days a week. (If the therapist says) 'You might need to stay away from this,' he doesn't stay away from that. So that's how it could be better — if he followed the instructions of the therapist ... trying to get him back to 100 percent." 

When the Perry brothers will make another appearance together remains to be seen, as Thursday was the first time in about four years. But it was as if no time had passed on a night when for a couple of hours, personal issues were put aside in favor of old, fond memories. 

"(Michael Dean) is the epitome of what a Clemson football player should be," said former linebacker Jeff Davis, who thanked the younger brother for his time and charitable contributions to Clemson. 

Ford followed with a few closing remarks about William.

"This guy has been through a lot lately. He's working his way back to being healthy and we're really proud of what he's doing. William Perry — one of the greatest defensive linemen that I've ever had the privilege of coaching." 

The crowd agreed.

Follow Grace Raynor on Twitter @gmraynor

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