ATLANTA – In the late ’90s, when pro wrestling ruled the entertainment universe, a man called Goldberg was its biggest star.

Snarling, snorting and ripping his way through opponent after opponent for World Championship Wrestling, Bill Goldberg’s chiseled physique, bald head and “nice Jewish name” became cultural icons.

Still, he says, he never truly considered himself a wrestler.

“I’m a defensive lineman who unfortunately had to reinvent himself,” said Goldberg, a star at Georgia whose brief NFL stint was halted by a career-ending injury. “It just so happens that wrestling was where I made my hay.”

This week, the Tulsa, Okla., native takes a pair of big steps in his latest reinvention effort.

Goldberg, 38, appears as part of an ensemble of sports and wrestling stars in “The Longest Yard,” a remake of the 1974 Burt Reynolds classic that opened Friday. And today, the self-described “gearhead” premieres as the host of Automaniac, The History Channel’s 13-part look at famous and unique vehicles.

“I’d love to be Hollywood’s next superhero; I’d love to be Hollywood’s most violent villain ever,” he said, seated in a long sleeve black T-shirt, jeans and mirrored sunglasses on a balcony at Atlanta’s Four Seasons hotel.

It’s been an unlikely run so far for Goldberg, the son of a concert violinist and a doctor. He wasn’t even a wrestling fan growing up.

His football dreams ended when a torn abdominal muscle forced him to retire after brief runs with the Atlanta Falcons and Minnesota Vikings.

Soon after his football career ended, he found himself drifting in Atlanta when wrestlers from Ted Turner’s WCW encouraged him to sign up.

On Sept. 22, 1997, he made his first televised appearance, winning a match in Salt Lake City. His appeal was immediately clear and promoters pushed him on “The Streak,” an undefeated run of 173 victories that saw him claim the WCW’s heavyweight title.

Along the way, he achieved rock star status – appearing on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno,” having his image plastered on everything from T-shirts to coffee mugs and being named one of the sports industry’s 100 most powerful people by The Sporting News.

A frequent volunteer with youth charities, Goldberg relished his role as a hero to children and balked in 2000 when a wrestling story line required him to become a “heel.”

He says he spent the afternoon with a young cancer patient from the Make-A-Wish Foundation, a charity that helps terminally ill children meet celebrities.

With the girl backstage, he went into the ring and savagely attacked Jim Duggan, a beloved wrestler who had recently returned from his own bout with cancer.

“I went backstage and my little Make-A-Wish girl was in tears, and so was I because I didn’t know what to say,” Goldberg said. “I know it’s fiction; 99.9 percent of the people in the world knows it’s fiction. But not those little kids.”

He says “The Longest Yard” is his screen highlight, calling himself a huge fan of the 1974 original.

On the set, Goldberg met Wanda Ferraton, a stunt woman who knew nothing about his wrestling or football background. The two recently married, and are still trying to find time for a honeymoon.

Goldberg also has high hopes for Automaniac. He’s an avid collector, with 20 cars and seven motorcycles – including a 1966 Jaguar XKE convertible and a 1969 Dodge Charger.

“To get to host a 13-episode show about your passion and actually get paid for it, I’m in a wonderful position,” he said.

Whatever the fate of the projects, the athlete-wrestler-actor says he’ll keep playing the game by his own rules.

“You just try to be able to look in the mirror and be proud of who you are and what you do and what you stand for,” he said. “My aspirations are to be a successful human being, and that means a lot of different things.”

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