Goldberg rules the ring!

B Y - A L E X - C R E V A R

Football star Bill Goldberg has made it so big in wrestling that his first name is superfluous

As if unleashed from chains, Goldberg explodes into the arena amidst showers of giant sparklers and bursts of fire from floor bazookas, sending a capacity crowd at Atlanta's Philips Arena into ecstasy. Wearing a "Georgia Football" T-shirt, the former Bulldog star plods down the runway toward the ring and his arch-enemy, Tank Abbott, to the sound of crazed fans and apocalyptic music.

The WCW's reigning star has returned to the ring after months of rehabilitation from an injury that occurred, Goldberg admits, because he got carried away and stuck a fist through the real glass window of another wrestler's limo—nearly severing arteries and nerves. But the two-time All-SEC noseguard from Tulsa, Oklahoma, is at full strength again, and he excites his fans by climbing a turnbuckle and flexing his biceps. His arms, bigger than most men's legs, are road maps of veins.

"It's widely known that wrestling is only entertainment . . . My saying anything else insults the fans' intelligence."

Monday Night Nitro aired Goldberg's triumphant return to the ring following an injury. The former All-SEC noseguard easily disposed of long-time foe Tank Abbott.

"Who have you all come here to see?" the ring announcer of Monday Night Nitro screams.

"GOLDBERG!" the show-goers holler with maniacal fervor as flames shoot from the corner posts.

The scene on the arena floor is like a carnie convention—a twist of the senses—as towering men with multi-colored goatees and bleached-blond hair accompany women with skin-tight dresses, chiseled abs, and suspiciously large chests. And that's just the fans. The performers look like members of a human genome experiment gone awry—artificially browned, bulbous muscles squeezed into lycra.

"Once and for all, we will see who's the better man!" says the announcer.

"GOLDBERG!" is the crowd's answer.

After several of his signature moves—including driving "spear" tackles and the "jackhammer," where he lifts his opponent upside-down and slams him to the mat on the flat of his back—Goldberg has devastated Tank Abbott to the point where a counter-attack from Tank's "Heel" (the bad guy) is warranted. Goldberg is, of course, one of World Championship Wrestling's "Babyfaces" (the good guys).

The attack comes from outside the ring—a blind shot—with a folding chair. Goldberg explains the scenario:

"It's widely known that wrestling is only entertainment after the things said by Vince McMahon [the controversial president of the World Wrestling Federation, WCW's chief competitor]. My saying anything else insults the fans' intelligence," says Goldberg ( M '89), who still holds the school record for season and career tackles by a UGA down lineman. "But I do know that I try to push the reasonable doubt because you can't fake the tackles I do during matches. Those hits are real and hard. I take my job very seriously, just like I would with any other I job I might have had. And the props are real—you just don't swing something like a chair as hard as you can."

Goldberg was scouted in 1984 to play for the Bulldogs by then-running backs coach Ray Goff. "The day I went to see him play in high school he didn't feel well," Goff recalls. "After the game he apologized to me for throwing up, but I thought he played well and I liked what I saw."

As did most of the major colleges that year, including Goldberg's home-state Oklahoma Sooners, who were one of college football's dominant programs back then.

"It was quite a coup to get him," says Vince Dooley, UGA athletic director and Goldberg's head coach for four of his five years at Georgia. "His great-uncle, Louis Wolfson—a successful businessman, philanthropist, and owner of the 1978 triple-crown winner, Affirmed—had a lot to do with Bill coming here. Mr. Wolfson was a 1931 letterman, and he donated $500,000 to help us build the Butts-Mehre athletic complex. The bottom floor of Butts-Mehre is named for Mr. Wolfson."

"It was easy to see that Bill had it even when he was here at Georgia."—Athletic Director Vince Dooley

"I've got a bulldog tattooed on my brain," says Goldberg, who had hair in college publicity photos. He still holds the school record for season and career tackles by a down lineman, and he's back in Athens supporting the Dogs whenever his wrestling schedule permits.

Stumbling to his feet following the chair thrashing from one of Tank Abbott's goons, the 6'3", 285-pound Goldberg has sustained a genuine cut on his bald pate. Real blood drips down his tremendous trapezius muscles onto his massive back. Spitting and snarling, it's hard to tell which Goldberg has risen from the mat: the one who loved to compete hurt, even at football practices in Athens heat, or the one who makes millions playing the star in an elaborately choreographed soap opera.

"He was great—he was always ready for practice and ready to play," says UGA's director of football operations Steve Greer, who served as defensive line coach during Goldberg's years at Georgia, 1985-1989. "He'd get to slobberin' and spittin' and you knew he showed up to play. He'd have to rank up there with the best who ever played at Georgia. I believe he was successful, and continues to be, because he lives hard and enjoys everything he does to the fullest."

Standing in the middle of the Philips Arena ring, the one-time pro football player—Los Angeles Rams (1990-91) and Atlanta Falcons (1992-94)—raises both arms and screams to the heavens. Exalting in their hero's resurrection, fans of every age and socio-economic condition roar in Romanesque delight. They are calling for the head of Goldberg's opponent. Fiery explosions answer the mob and Goldberg bellows in unison.

Wrestling's unprecedented growth among television viewers and live audiences is rivaled only by that of NASCAR in today's entertainment market. Cable ratings have gone through the ceiling. According to one week-ending Bloomberg News report, seven of the 10 most-watched time periods on cable TV were devoted to wrestling. A decade ago, the average American may have been aware of Hulk Hogan; today, a cadre of wrestlers are household names, and their personas —including Goldberg's—are responsible for nearly a billion dollars in merchandising alone.

"It was easy to see that Bill had it even when he was here at Georgia," says Dooley, who Goldberg calls his surrogate father. "He has that combination of confidence, skills, and soft-spoken nature that draw people to him. And for all his free-spiritedness, he never crosses the line of over-confidence and arrogance. He was a leader on this team and other players rallied around him."

Goldberg's antics off the field while at Georgia were as famous as the crushing blows he delivered on the field. Whether racing sailboats or flying gliders with his brothers, there is precious little Goldberg won't do.

"I respect Bill because he lives life to the fullest," says Goff, who was head football coach during Goldberg's senior year. "He has climbed a lot of mountains in his young life and he loves a challenge. I always admired the fact that he spoke his mind. As a head coach, you may not want to give the other team motivation or bulletin board material, but I respected his honesty."

Goldberg's honesty and his straight-forward personality are evident, even in the soap opera world of professional wrestling.

"I kept my own name because it is me," says Goldberg, when asked why he didn't take some gruesome wrestling moniker. "I was trying to create a real character—one that stays with who I am. I won't ever do anything that makes me look like a fool. It is unfortunate how people in this business, or any other, compromise themselves. I use my psychology major from Georgia every day to figure out what people are going to do next.

"I try to give a positive image. The violent messages for the kids is something that concerns me every day. I take note of what I do in and out of the ring. I try to remain soft-spoken—I am the Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde of wrestling. There's nobody better at turning it off and on."

"I love Goldberg because he rocks!" says Robbye Brooks, an eight-year-old fan at Monday Night Nitro. "I even cut my hair so I could be like him." Robbye rubs his bald head and points at the picture of Goldberg on his shirt. Robbye's father, Tom, who also wears a Goldberg T-shirt, blows smoke from his cigarette and nods in agreement.

The message pro wrestling conveys differs dramatically, according to who you ask. For some, it's good old, rock 'em-sock 'em fun. For others, it's unsavory.

"I have worked events for a long time," says a Philips Arena usher. "The crowd really gets into wrestling because of the sex and violence. It sends a message to kids that they are both alright."

Goldberg has stated publicly that the direction wrestling is moving is discouraging.

"We are farther away from the kids and closer to pornography," he says. "It bothers me. We have a show that has a girl in a bikini in every single segment. I'm not in favor of that. We can't shut our eyes on the kids who watch."

"And I try to give a positive image. The violent messages for the kids is something that concerns me every day."

"Kids probably see me as a superhero. People like to see the wrongs of society righted—everyone wants to strangle their boss."

Concern about his image and a genuine love for children is why Goldberg never turns down an autograph request from a youngster—and why he waited for hours at Athens' Georgia Square Mall during a December "Toys For Tots" drive to greet a line of people that stretched around the mall. He also has a soft spot for animals. He is an advocate for the Humane Society, and he and his girlfriend of eight years care for 28 dogs, goats, miniature horses, and cats at his three-acre home in Dawsonville—where Goldberg says there is only one Awesome Bill from Dawsonville: "I ride Mr. Elliott's coattails."

"Billy has always wanted to give back," says his father, Dr. Jed Goldberg, of the youngest of his three sons. The only child in the family not to play major-college football was Bill's sister Barbara. His oldest brother, Mike, 52, once roomed with long-time wrestling star Ric Flair back when Flair was trying to make the University of Minnesota football squad. Steve Goldberg, 49, has been collaborating on a book about brother Bill's life inside and outside the ring. The book is due out this fall.

"Billy was always an average kid, but he was a leader and not a lover . . . as far as I know," Dr. Goldberg says laughing. "He was stubborn. But I knew what Bill did, he'd do it well. So much of yourself is reflected in your kids. All of them turned out great. Billy has worked with terminally ill kids, and he gave $100,000 to UGA's athletic department for scholarships."

From 1994-97, following his departure from the National Football League because of a torn abdominal muscle, Goldberg searched for his next career move. He decided to give wrestling a shot after two friends and workout partners, Lex Luger and Sting—both professional wrestling superstars—convinced him he would be great.

Goldberg called his father for advice before entering a one-year wrestling school and training facility, which Goldberg abbreviated to four months. "When Bill called me to ask what I thought, I told him,'Bill, I just don't know,'" says Dr. Goldberg. "But I did know that whatever he decided, he would take seriously and do well."

Goldberg turns, squinty-eyed and snarling, to meet his victim. The crowd, 20,000-strong, chants Goldberg's name. Tank Abbott's cronies scurry to leave him alone for another barrage of spear tackles and jackhammers. Pseudo security guards wait to rush the ring in case Goldberg's fury gets out-of-hand. It will.

"We don't discuss what is going to happen with each other before the match, we just go with the plan for the night," says Goldberg of the script. "I think we provide a way for people to vent; kids probably see me as a superhero. People like to see the wrongs of society righted —everyone wants to strangle their boss."

Each evening's story-line is decided upon by a writer, WCW president Eric Bischoff, and the wrestler. They decide whether the wrestler will be a Babyface or a Heel.

"The WCW strives to keep its devoted fans happy, while at the same time reaching out to potential audiences," says WCW publicist Jason Glast. "It can be a difficult balance because what the traditional fan likes to watch may be radically different than what would pull in a new fan. The WCW produces cable television programs that consistently rank in the top 10 nationwide. We try to put out the most visually stunning and captivating product possible without regard to the World Wrestling Federation or any other competitor. As a publicist, it's exciting—and sometimes scary. Sometimes I'll watch on the edge of my seat, saying,'Please tell me he didn't say that,' knowing that I will field 50 calls about it the next day."

"Although I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to still be playing and an All-Pro, I am extremely lucky to be where I am. When I look at myself in the mirror, I still see the same person I was at UGA."
"Going to Georgia was the best five years of my life," says Goldberg, who further endeared himself to Athens residents when he signed autographs for hours at a "Toys for Tots" drive at Georgia Square Mall.

Goldberg's face has the contorted look of a man who should be in a straight-jacket. His real-life identity as the privileged son of a Harvard-trained doctor and a concert violist has no bearing in the space between him and Tank Abbott. After Tank is slammed to the mat several times, the WCW security guards enter the ring. Goldberg disposes with each, burying the huge men into the microphoned mat. Within minutes, the guards lose their collective nerve and flee from the ring. Again, Goldberg roars.

"Going to Georgia was the best five years of my life. I had a great time with my buddies. That is what I miss about Athens," says Goldberg. "And I loved football there. Playing for Coach Dooley taught me how to be a man. He helped me attain my dream of playing in the NFL. Although I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to still be playing and an All-Pro, I am extremely lucky to be where I am. When I look at myself in the mirror, I still see the same person I was at UGA."

Goldberg devotees can expect to see him in the ring at least until 2003, when his WCW contract expires. He will then decide his next career direction. With two action-movie roles under his belt ("Ready to Rumble" and "Universal Soldier"), Goldberg believes Hollywood is one option but contends that "until that time, I am a pro wrestler."

Bischoff, who also acts as WCW's head thug, walks down the runway leading to the ring and yells into a microphone that any more wild antics from Goldberg will get him suspended. The crowd shouts expletives at Bischoff, then waits for their hero's response.

Men are scattered about Goldberg's feet, writhing in pain from his handy-work.

"You suspend me," Goldberg says to Bischoff, in a voice that sounds as if he is chewing metal, "and you're next."

Back to Top . Up Front . Features . Alumni Profiles . Class Notes . Back to Current Issue