After an injury ended his football career as a lineman with the Los Angeles Rams and the Atlanta Falcons in 1994, Goldberg joined World Championship Wrestling. Within 18 months, he shot to the top with a 176-0 record, eventually beating Hulk Hogan for the WCW title. Goldberg became a star attraction, the reason kids tuned into TNT’s "Monday Nitro."
Sidelined by contract negotiations since the World Wrestling Federation bought out the WCW in March, Goldberg is looking for a suitable movie role. Though he has written a book, "I’m Next: The Strange Journey of America’s Most Unlikely Superhero," he has recently refused to talk to the media. In this exclusive interview, Goldberg breaks his silence to talk to Beliefnet about religion and his status as a Jewish athlete and role model.
Your father characterized you as a “professional wrestler who happens also to be Jewish.” But you deliberately chose to make your Jewishness central to your wrestling identity.
It was a business decision first, in the sense that In your book, your father, a Harvard-educated doctor, says, “‘Jewish wrestler’ is as oxymoronic as ‘fresh frozen jumbo shrimp.’” How did a nice Jewish boy like you wind up in professional wrestling?
Well, nine times out of ten people consider a nice little Jewish boy the kid who grows up and sits behind a desk preparing your taxes. I’ve certainly broken that stereotype in many ways. But let’s be honest--you have to question the sanity of anybody who enters professional wrestling, not just nice little Jewish boys like me. It’s a grueling job.
On the other hand, it wasn’t an easy decision. Most of the wrestling happens in the South, so I had to ask myself how I was going to be received as a Jewish boy named Goldberg. Then again, I have never, nor would I ever, hide my Jewish identity.
Have you ever encountered anti-Semitism as a wrestler or in the NFL?
I have never, ever, received any taunts or any form of anti-Semitism. And I suppose being a Jewish football player with the Atlanta Falcons was no different than being a Baptist football player with the Atlanta Falcons. But in the back of your mind, you always expect something to happen. You know, when you run out of the tunnel as Goldberg in front of thousands of deep-rooted Southern fans who traditionally might not be quite so accepting of someone of my background. But people are often surprised when I say I’ve not experienced anti-Semitism.
Then again, you’re built like a house.
[Laughs.] Well, yes, that may have something to do with it, too.
And you’ve been embraced by the Jewish community as a role model.
That’s something I really appreciate. It’s the goal of every kid to grow up and be admired by his people and his peers. I always wanted to become a good role model for kids as a professional football player. Unfortunately, I didn’t attain that through football, but I was smart enough to realize that professional wrestling provided another opportunity for that.
Adam Sandler has said that you’ve done more for the Jewish religion as a wrestler than he did with his Hanukkah song…
I don’t quite believe him, though I think it’s pretty
So do you see yourself as a Jewish role model in the tradition of Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, and Mark Spitz?
There’s nothing about wrestling that is traditional, so I don’t think I belong in that category. But if my status makes me a role model for Jewish kids, then I’m very happy about that and I hope I’m a good role model for them.
Did you have Jewish sports heroes as a kid?
I did--my older brothers. I come from a very athletic family. But I didn’t have the typical Jewish sports heroes. I mean, like lots of Jewish kids I admired Sandy Koufax. But I didn’t look up to him as the one person who gave me the desire to push on and succeed. My brothers did that for me.
When you were a defensive tackle at the University of Georgia, a rabbi in Jacksonville criticized you and another lineman for playing in the Georgia-Florida game on Yom Kippur.
[Laughs] That rabbi obviously didn’t go to the University of Georgia or the University of Florida! What can I say? I can only take so much. Unlike wrestling, football is a team sport. There’s not much room for individual choice. So if I’ve played sports on one or two Jewish holidays, then I am very sorry. But hey, I think I’m a pretty good person, and I think I’ve done more good than harm. For the record, though, I do prefer not to wrestle on Yom Kippur.
At one point you considered wearing--or at least it was suggested that you wear--the Star of David on your trunks.
Well, I figured the name Goldberg said it all. Hell, if I walk out there as Goldberg and you can’t figure out I’m Jewish for yourself, well, then, I’m sorry. But professional wrestling wasn’t a religious decision for me, not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just wasn’t me. Now if I went in there calling myself “Mossad” [Israel’s secret service], that’d be a whole different story.
Sure. And not many people in the world are worthy of representing a group or a cause, so I'm pleased if I'm somehow looked upon as worthy of that honor.
What was your religious upbringing like?
Unfortunately, it didn't go much beyond my Bar Mitzvah at age 13. When I was a kid you were either Orthodox or you were not, at least that's how it seemed. But I realize now it's different. Last weekend I went to my nephew's Bar Mitzvah, and it struck me that I'd wasted many years not really knowing who I was religiously. Growing up I considered Sunday school a form of torture. I lost a lot of opportunities to learn and grow because I didn't take in as much as I should have. So I've had to go back and really learn who I am. And I'm more proud of who I am every day.
So you consider yourself a religious seeker?
Absolutely. I've tried to connect in every way that I can, whether it's spending time with various rabbis or speaking to groups like Hillel. And I've been reading to try to understand just what my Bar Mitzvah was all about. In a sense, all I did as a kid was memorize stuff. So I told my nephew at his Bar Mitzvah, "Definitely look at this as something serious and learn from it. Make it a springboard for religious growth." But as far as I was concerned as a kid, religion was drudgery, like having to go to more school. That attitude doesn't work for me any more.
Basically, I just want to be as knowledgeable and to grow as much as I can in every way possible. And the most important thing in life is religion, obviously. Now, I'm not going to sit here and pound the Torah for you! I just think it's important for everyone to know who they are.