In 1990 the Los Angeles Rams drafted him in the 11th round. Goldberg believes he should have been a first-round pick. He thinks scouts placed too much emphasis on the Japan Bowl, a now defunct senior all-star game in which Goldberg, suffering from the aftereffects of mononucleosis, played at 245 pounds, about 20 pounds under his normal playing weight. Although he won't say much about it, Goldberg was probably hurt more by a positive test for marijuana in his junior year that forced him out of Georgia's game against Michigan State in the Gator Bowl.
"Bill was very disappointed," recalls Vince Dooley, Goldberg's coach for all but his last season at Georgia. "But I'm not sure he would've been picked higher because of one game. He didn't have the great speed of a defensive player. He made up for it with sheer determination—he was as driven as any player I had. But I don't think anyone thought he'd be a star in the NFL."
Goldberg attended two training camps with the Rams but failed to catch on. After an impressive showing with the Sacramento Surge of the World League in the spring of '92, he tried out with the Falcons. He made the team and stuck around until '94—three injury-plagued seasons that, he says, could provide footage for a video called The NFL: View from a Bench.
In a 1994 preseason game against Philadelphia, Goldberg was nailed from behind and—thwack!—a sharp jolt shot through his pelvis. "It felt like it ripped me in half," he says. "Pure pain. I knew something was wrong, but they'd shoot me up with Toradol before games and send me out. I couldn't do a sit-up for seven months. I had to roll out of bed."
Goldberg believes the Falcons ruined his career. "They sent me for tests, but never for an MRI," he says. "They milked me for everything I had. That's when it became obvious how the league treats people. The NFL can go to hell."
Following the season, Goldberg underwent an exam at Duke University Medical Center, where doctors explained to him that he had torn an abductor muscle, which connects the leg to the pelvis. His career, for all practical purposes, was over.
Naturally Goldberg's injury is a touchy subject for the Falcons, who officially wish him the best of luck. Andrew Bishop, who has been a Falcons team physician since 1994, says Goldberg was just one of the hundreds of NFL players who experience pain. "If you ask any lineman if something hurts, 90 percent will say yes," says Bishop. "We had Bill see dozens of doctors and specialists, and everyone said they didn't see much there. I'm sure he had pain, but that's not the only reason he's not in football. If that's what he wants to tell people, that's fine. He got three years out of the league, and that's probably what his ability merited. We, as a team, did nothing to hurt him."
Says Goldberg, "That's the typical answer from a doctor who works for the organization. If a guy is hurt, you take care of him. The Falcons didn't do that."
Regardless, Goldberg got something out of his Atlanta days that, whether he admits it or not (and he does not), made his wrestling career possible. During Deion Sanders's seasons with the Falcons, players occasionally settled disputes by going at it—no holds barred—inside a makeshift ring in the locker room. Sanders, as every NFL fan knows, doesn't like to tackle. He also doesn't like to fight. But he didn't mind having Goldberg fill in for him. "Goldberg was Deion's ace in the hole," says Chuck Smith, a Falcons defensive end. "So anyone who wanted to deal with Deion would have to go through Mr. Goldberg. He'd walk into the ring, and nobody would mess with him."
Down, out and over the hill at age 29, Goldberg eventually returned to his home in Dawsonville, Ga., 50 miles north of Smyrna, where WCW is based. Over the years Goldberg had befriended several wrestlers. In January '97 he enrolled in the Power Plant, the WCW training program.