march / april 2007:
The Rebirth of a Man Named Goldberg
After leaving his football career behind him, Bill Goldberg went on to become the world's most famous wrestler -- making millions by prancing around in nothing but boots and underwear. Now the 40 year old is reinventing himself again, this time as a reality television host, a family man, and a proud Jew.
Profile by Gerri Miller | Photo by Sam Norval
As the familiar figure walks toward you, extending a massive hand in greeting, it's impossible not to feel very small, even if you are 6’1”. Standing several inches taller and packing 275 pounds of muscle, Bill Goldberg is a commanding presence, and with his shaved head and goatee he’s one of the most recognizable celebrities in the world, having parlayed a stint in the NFL to a professional wrestling career and more recently, television broadcasting and hosting, giving a generation of Jewish kids a real-life hero to look up to.
“It’s the biggest honor I could ever have,” he says of being seen as a role model. “For one kid to look at me and smile because of what I’ve done is a huge honor and a very big responsibility.” It’s one that he took on from the start, never considering adopting a pseudonym in a sport where it’s the norm. “I said, ‘My name’s Goldberg. Call me Goldberg.’ It was that simple. If I changed my name I’d be hiding something, and I have nothing to hide.”
He became one of wrestling’s most popular stars, embraced by cheering fans raising “Happy Hanukkah” banners from the stands. “An arena full of 20,000 to 40,000 people in the Deep South yelling ‘Goldberg!’ is an accomplishment,” he notes with a laugh, adding that he never once encountered anti-Semitism. Could those prejudiced individuals have been afraid to voice it to his face? “No,” he insists. “They never hesitated to get on my case about other things.”
While he’s flattered to be mentioned alongside Sandy Koufax as an influential Jewish athlete, Goldberg says his own role models were closer to home: his late father, who was a doctor, and two older brothers, Mike and Steve, with whom he remains close. The youngest by 14 years (he also has an older sister), Goldberg followed them into football, and to financial success. Mike owns a cargo shipping company, Steve’s a restaurateur in San Diego and Aspen, “and they co-own a chain of nightclubs. I fell a little far from the tree, but as long as I’m a success, that’s all that matters.”
Goldberg has fond memories of growing up in Tulsa, Oklahoma with his accomplished parents (his mother, now retired in Miami, was a concert violinist) and siblings. “It was a great place to grow up — no crime, terrific Midwest values. It made me the nice Jewish boy that I am,” he chuckles. “Passover was always fun for me,” he remembers, calling his bar mitzvah a highlight. “From what I remember it was the biggest party on the planet, but I’ve been hit in the head way too many times and I can’t remember everything.”
Mobbed as a celebrity at his 10th high school reunion, Goldberg was less popular there as a teen. “It was a social school and I was an outcast. I was the best athlete, but I didn’t get into the social games,” he explains. “Sports were my main focus. I wasn’t concerned with anything but going to college and playing football. I was good in school but I never applied myself.”
Goldberg was a gridiron star at the University of Georgia, and segued to a five-year stint in the NFL, playing with the Atlanta Falcons until an abdominal injury sidelined him. “I had to reinvent myself,” he says, explaining his switch to wrestling in 1997, a move his parents didn’t quite understand.
“My dad hung up on me and my mom couldn’t stop laughing. I think it took them about six months, till I was on my first pay-per-view special and had people in the south yelling ‘Goldberg!’” His wrestling career hit another high when in front of family, friends and former Falcons teammates in Atlanta he won the world heavyweight wrestling championship. But age and injury eventually put his ring career to an end, “and I had to reinvent myself yet again.”
Goldberg turned to acting, appearing in such films as The Longest Yard and TV series like Arliss and Yes Dear, and began hosting shows like AutoManiac for the History Channel. While continuing to act, most recently on Law & Order: SVU, he’s serving as a martial arts commentator on Showtime and hosting Spike TV’s new road rally reality show, Bullrun, which premieres this month. For a guy whose passion for cars ranks only second to his family, it’s the perfect job.
“I was pulling 17-hour days, but traveling for three weeks with my wife and son in a Winnebago was great,” raves Goldberg about the 4000-mile rally from the Mexican border to the Canadian border through nine western states. Twelve teams, behind the wheels of their own cars ranging from a Dodge Charger to a Lamborghini Murcialago, competed in various challenges (like one involving a flame-shooting school bus) while navigating their way to checkpoints without GPS, cell phones, or credit cards. Contestants slept in tents, fixed their own breakdowns, and faced penalties for exceeding the speed limit, though some did it anyway. Not even Goldberg escaped the state troopers. “They even pulled me over in the Winnebago,” he reveals.
Goldberg, whose 6500-square-foot garage houses 23 muscle cars, traces his fascination with cars to childhood trips with his father. “The lake was about three hours from our house and he had a Jaguar and used to go extremely fast. He told us it was because he had to clean out the spark plugs,” he recalls. These days, Goldberg attends car shows most free weekends and prefers to drive himself rather than be chauffeured from his southern California home to publicity events. “I don’t do limos,” he says. “Plus, I can drive a lot faster.”
Goldberg’s other passions include fitness and martial arts — he trains five days a week in the gym above his garage and he co-owns a kickboxing school — fishing, surfing, and giving his time to charities, especially ones benefiting children and animals. “I go to hospitals, and Camp Pendleton is 15 minutes from my house, I can go down there and make a lot of guys happy,” he says, adding that he’d like to do more with Jewish groups here and in Israel. While he’s yet to visit the holy land, “I’ve been invited, and I will go, no question. I want to visit as many kids as I can.”
He’s currently unaffiliated with a synagogue, “but I’m going to make it a priority very soon,” he vows, reflecting on his level of observance. “I’m a lazy Jew. I go on the High Holidays. I’m a 21st century Jew, I guess. I’m more proud of my faith than anything on this planet. I wouldn’t change my name. I wouldn’t tell someone that I was not Jewish in any circumstance. It doesn’t mean that I have to be in synagogue every weekend.”
He plans to raise his son Gage with Jewish traditions including a bar mitzvah, even though his wife, stuntwoman Wanda Ferraton, is not Jewish. Last December, like many interfaith families, they had both a menorah and a Christmas tree at their home. A rabbi married the Goldbergs in April 2005. “It was a very liberal Jewish wedding,” he characterizes the ceremony. “My wife said, ‘I get to break the glass too,’ and she did.” While she has no plans to join the tribe, she has read a lot about Judaism. “She tells me things I don’t know,” says Goldberg.
He and Wanda met on the set of a horror movie he made in Canada called Santa’s Slay, “and I had to have her.” As if on cue, the beautiful Mrs. Goldberg approaches. Was the physical attraction as instantly mutual? “I loved his eyes,” she responds. “That’s all she saw. I was in full Santa Claus costume when we met,” her husband explains.
Getting to know him sans Santa drag, Wanda discovered a kindred spirit. “I’m very tomboyish and I always found that I was more masculine than any of the guys I knew or dated and I found someone more masculine than I am. I like the fact that he’s a real manly man. But he’s more of a softie than I am. He’s very romantic,” she continues. “For one of my birthdays I got a candlelit bath and I got in there and he gave me a massage and while he was doing that massage he cooked dinner — appetizer, dinner, and birthday cake.”
The two sometimes work out together — Wanda can “stand on an exercise ball and do 135 straight bar squats,” Goldberg says proudly. “I’m a wuss compared to her.” In quieter moments, Wanda helps him sift through movie offers. “She reads the scripts and tells me if they’re any good,” he notes. “It’s hard to put into words what a wonderful woman she is.”
Wanda also weighs in on his wardrobe choices. “He pulls things out of the closet and goes, ‘What about this?’” she says. Goldberg’s outsize upper body requires custom-made jackets like the one he’s wearing at our interview, “but I can get jeans off the rack. I have certain stores that I go to,” he notes. He’s in the clothing business himself: he sells a line of men’s, women’s, and children’s shirts and via his website, billgoldberg.com.
A hands-on dad, Goldberg helps a lot with Gage, who was born last May. “It’s the greatest thing in the world,” he says about fatherhood. “It’s like the best present you could ever get, and you get it every day.” He’s grateful that his career allows him to spend more time with his family than the average husband and father, and that he can take his family with him when he travels. “It’s a bit of a juggling act, but we’re very fortunate that we don’t have nine-to-five jobs,” says Wanda. “We’re very lucky.”
When Gage is older, Goldberg will encourage him to play sports, “if he has any bones that aren’t broken from riding dirt bikes with his mother,” he quips, noting that at the moment, the baby “looks like his mom, thank God!” He and Wanda want to expand their family with a sibling for Gage, but in the meantime their latest addition is a St. Bernard Wanda adopted after their beloved Rottweiler Bullet died.
Professionally, Goldberg, now 40, plans to continue on the path he’s on, combining acting, hosting, and personal appearance gigs. He’s ready for another season of Bullrun if it’s a success. “I don’t want to jinx it but I did sign a five-year deal,” he points out. “It’s about luck and timing and what’s in vogue this year,” he acknowledges, taking nothing for granted.
Celebrity, he insists, has not changed him. “I’m still the same person I was before I came into this fame,” he says, yet he’s appreciative of what it has afforded him. “I’ve done so many things that I’m not going to do anything but continue to persevere and be as focused as I have been in the past,” he reflects. “I know everything will work out and will fall into place.”
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