Goldberg, who spent from 1990 to 1995 as an NFL defensive end with the Rams, Falcons and Panthers before an abdominal injury ended his career, already knew something about challenging stereotypes. And so, despite his parents' initial misgivings, in 1997 he launched one of the most successful pro wrestling careers in the history of the sport.
"I think I was able to do something for Jewish kids around the world, and other kids too," said Goldberg, who is one of seven athletes who will be inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame Museum in Commack today. "It's corny, but I like to be someone who makes a difference, and that's why being honored like this means so much to me."
Goldberg, who has since transitioned from wrestling into acting and currently is a contestant on NBC's "Celebrity Apprentice,'' is famous for having popularized the phrase "Who's next?" while rolling up 173 straight World Championship Wrestling wins. With his shaved head, goatee and 275 pounds of muscle, Goldberg was embraced by fans who hung "Happy Hanukkah" banners from the stands during his matches.
Goldberg said he wasn't looking to make a statement when he started wrestling. He was looking to make money.
"The truth of it is my lawyer called me and told me the money I made from football was going to run out," he said. "I had to find something else to do."
Many of his early competitions were in the South. One night, in the middle of a show, fans started chanting his name, and Goldberg realized that something special was going on.
"Here I am, this 300-pound guy named Goldberg, and they're chanting my name. They're chanting 'Goldberg, Goldberg' in the middle of lynching country," he said. "I knew then we had crossed some kind of boundary. There never was one time when I experienced anti-Semitism when I was wrestling."
What he did experience is an outpouring of letters from young Jewish fans who seemed thrilled to have a new kind of hero.
"I don't believe the most important thing I've done is be the best wrestler or be the best defensive lineman," Goldberg said. "What I do believe is that I've done my part to solidify more of an identity for the Jewish youth. I think I gave them and continue to give them someone to look up to in a positive light, both physically and business-wise."
Though he is honored to be mentioned in the same breath with Sandy Koufax and other influential Jewish athletes, he said his parents and two older brothers, who both played football, were his role models growing up.
Goldberg was raised in Tulsa, Okla. His mother, Ethel, was a classical violinist and his father, Jed, was an obstetrician. Though he wouldn't classify himself as devout, Goldberg said being Jewish has always been an important part of his identity.
"I think my family taught me how to be successful," he said.
Right now, that success means three different television ventures. In addition to appearing on "Celebrity Apprentice'' on Sunday nights, he calls the action on Speed Channel's "Bullrun" and has a garage-makeover show on DIY Network called "Garage Mahal.''