By Richard Roeper
VSiN Guest Columnist
It didn’t begin when Ditka opened the Fridge on the sports world’s biggest stage, but it sure took off from there.
I speak of the Prop Bet, arguably the most ridiculously entertaining genre of wagering this side of two guys sitting in a bar and one saying, “Give me 10-1 odds on the next person walking through the door being a redhead.”
The prop, or proposition bet, has become an increasingly popular element of Super Bowl week over the years. Try to find a local morning newscast or a sports and/or entertainment website that DOESN’T run at least one story about prop bets in the coming days.
You can bet “heads” or “tails” on the opening coin toss.
You can make an Over/Under bet on the length of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
You want action on the color of Lady Gaga’s hair? There’s a prop bet for that!
Some baseball fans were making prop bets in the stands at Wrigley Field and Fenway Park decades ago, and it stands to reason there have prop bets of some kind for as long as there have been competitions of some kind. (“I’ve got the ‘under’ in the Christian/lion matchup on Sunday. No way that guy lasts for two clicks of the sun dial!”)
But the explosion of the modern, legal, well-publicized prop bet can be traced back to Super Bowl XX, pitting the legendary 1985 Chicago Bears against the upstart New England Patriots.
The Bears of Ditka and Payton and McMahon, of Hampton and McMichael and Singletary, were prohibitive favorites against the outmanned Pats. Looking to drum up a little publicity and spike interest in the game, a handful of Las Vegas oddsmakers offered up a prop bet on William “The Refrigerator” Perry scoring a touchdown in the game.
A little background.
By Super Bowl week of 1986, the rookie defensive lineman William “Refrigerator” Petty had already become a folk hero, due to his then enormous size (more than 300 lbs.!), his gap-toothed grin, his engaging personality; that catchy nickname—and the fact Coach Mike Ditka occasionally inserted Perry into the Bears’ backfield on goal line situations, first as a block back and then actually carrying the ball.
Perry’s first appearance in the backfield came in Week Six of the ’85 season, when the Bears defeated the San Francisco 49ers 26-10. Late in the fourth quarter, with the game safely tucked away, the Fridge rumbled onto the field to join the offensive huddle and rushed two times for a total of four yards.
It was no coincidence that Perry’s backfield debut came against the 49ers. In San Francisco’s 23-0 shellacking of the Bears in the previous season’s NFC championship game, 49ers coach Bill Walsh had used offensive guard Guy McIntyre as a blocking back, irking Ditka in the process.
The Fridge was Iron Mike’s revenge.
The week after the 49ers game, in a “Monday Night Football” matchup between the Bears and the Packers at Soldier Field, the Fridge plowed into the end zone--and the legend was born.
Still, it seemed like a long shot that Perry would even carry the ball in the Super Bowl. After all, the Bears had maybe the greatest running back of all time in Walter Payton. Why mess around with gimmicks?
The legendary Jimmy Vaccaro opened the line on Perry scoring a touchdown at 50-1, but the action on the Fridge was so hot he quickly lowered the line to 8-1. At other sportsbooks, the Fridge bet was so popular some lines fell all the way to 2-1.
Cut to late third quarter of Super Bowl XX. Already crushing the Patriots 37-3, the Bears had the ball on New England’s 1-yard-line.
Perry lined up in the backfield with Payton, who had yet to score a touchdown in the game.
The call seemed obvious; let the rookie gimmick clear the way for the veteran great to make his way into the end zone.
But Bears’ QB handed off to Perry, who lumbered into the end zone, scoring a meaningless touchdown in the context of the game but a painfully meaningful TD for the Vegas bookies.
The only upside was the avalanche of publicity about the prop bet.
By the early 1990s, the prop bet was a staple of Super Bowl Week, with the number of wagers going up from year to year. You could bet on which player would score the first touchdown; whether or not there would be a safety; if Michael Jordan would score more points in a hoops game that day than the Cowboys would score later that evening; etc., etc.
These days, the prop bet is as much a part of the fabric of the Super Bowl experience as the commercials, the halftime show…
And oh yeah. The game.
Richard Roeper is the nationally syndicated film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. He is the author of nine books, including Bet The House: How I Gambled Over a Grand a Day for 30 Days on Sports, Poker and Games of Chance.