While Titus O’Neil is known for being a WWE superstar, his success goes far beyond the ring.
O’Neil – real name Thaddeus Bullard – has made a much bigger impact in the various philanthropic efforts he is involved in. Those include the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the Special Olympics, and his Bullard Family Foundation which is helping transform public schools in Hillsborough County and the Tampa, Fla. area.
O’Neil is being honored for his good works as a finalist for the Muhammed Ali Sports Humanitarian Award, recognizing athletes who are using sports to make a difference in their communities.
This year, the Sports Humanitarian Awards will combine with The 2020 ESPYS. Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, soccer star Megan Rapinoe and three-time WNBA champion Sue Bird will host the two-hour broadcast airing June 21 on ESPN at 9 p.m. ET.
The other finalists for the humanitarian award include Minnesota Twins’ Nelson Cruz, Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Minnesota Lynx’s Maya Moore, and brothers Devin and Jason McCourty of the New England Patriots.
O’Neil was humbled by the honor.
“I grew up idolizing three individuals: Muhammad Ali being the first, Michael Jordan, and Dr. Martin Luther King,” said O’Neil. “So what it means to me is that by doing the right things for the right reasons, you’ll be blessed with tremendous opportunities and this is nothing short of that. I’m in the class of some very amazing athletes but also amazing humanitarians with the other finalists that are in this that have sacrificed themselves, have sacrificed their careers, and really did their best to put a positive light on some dark places.
“I’m very fortunate and blessed to not only have the opportunity to be a finalist but also have this platform within WWE to continue to do the work that I’ve been doing for years.”
All three of those men he grew up idolizing have special traits that O’Neil observed and embrace in his life to this day.
“For Dr. Martin Luther King, it’s his ability to bring people together from all walks of life, to move forward in a positive direction for equality,” explained O’Neil. “With Michael Jordan, it was, outside of his tremendous basketball talent, it was the way he spoke, the way he walked into arenas, the way he drove into arenas with the fancy cars and gorgeous suits. He could dress well. Very articulate. Just the way he carried himself all together was just very admirable to me. There’s so many people who wanted to be like Mike, including myself and he was a global figure.
“And then you take Muhammad Ali, who was a man of true convictions, that refused to go fight a war that he didn’t feel like he needs to be a part of but also stood up for social justice at a time in which social justice was an afterthought to many. He stood up for what’s right for all people, regardless of race, color, and creed. He put smiles on people’s faces from all walks of life. And he was a tremendous athlete and a tremendous entertainer.”
— WWE (@WWE) May 20, 2020
O’Neil admits he has come a long way in life and things could have easily turned out much differently. In his 2019 autobiography “There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Kid”, he detailed his rough upbringing that saw him grow up without a father and living in poverty while surrounded in a world of violence and drugs.
His life changed for the better at the age of 12 while at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch where he finally received the guidance he needed from strong male figures that were introduced into his life.
Also having figures like Ali, Jordan, and King to look up to during that impressionable time of his life helped make a difference.
“As a young, black kid, when you have men like that, that are consistently on television with these positive images of being it’s OK to have some bravado about yourself,” said O’Neil. “Some people may call it cockiness or arrogance, but it’s bravado and you know, there’s not a damn thing somebody could say. It’s OK to have respect for yourself. It’s fine to be able to tell people how you feel in an articulate way. It’s fine to be a fierce competitor and nobody says he’s got a hot button or whatever it may be.
“Both men, along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all to me at my childhood personified what it meant to be a black man that was unapologetic about who he was and what he can do and what he can do is limitless.”
O’Neil has seen his fair share of success as an athlete from playing college football at the University of Florida to winning multiple WWE championships as an 11-year veteran with the company.
Now, he is doing his best to be a successful father for his sons Thaddeus Jr. and Titus and helping prepare them for life.
“People may feel a certain way about me saying this but as a black man, life is a lot different when it comes to growing up in America and things are not easy,” explained the 43-year-old O’Neil. “You know, as a minority in general, things are a lot harder sometimes for us. So, I want my kids to learn at a very young age, you’re always going to be judged. Sometimes you’re going to be on your color, but I’d much rather be judged on your character and I’m going to teach your character. I’m gonna teach you how to lose. I’m gonna teach you how to compete. I’m going to teach you how to win with class and I’m going to teach you how to lose with class.
“My ultimate message is to compete in everything you do in life, but also know there’s going to be losses, there’s going to be wins, but, at the end of the day, you just got to keep your character. Keep who you are. Be proud of your first and last name. That’s what people remember you by and we don’t bring any shame to our family in any way, shape, or form.”
Part of being a strong father figure is to set a great example for his sons, something that O’Neil takes very seriously. That is why he says you will never see him get in any kind of trouble.
“My kids’ biggest fear is not getting a spanking from me,” said O’Neil. “It’s disappointing me. And my biggest fear as a father, as a man that didn’t grow up with a father, never had a positive role model in my household as a kid, is to disappoint my kids. So, the best thing that I can do for them is to teach them how to love people, how to compete, how to treat people with dignity, how to be treated with dignity, and how to be respected, and how to be respectful. If I can do those things, which I think I’ve done a pretty good job of doing so far, my sons will be a little lot better place than I ever was at their age.”
Just like O’Neil looked up to those strong role models growing up, he takes pride in being a role model himself, especially given the platform afforded him as a WWE superstar.
“There are some people that don’t have parents at home that are looking for celebrities, entertainers, athletes, etc. to draw some inspiration from and so, if I’m one of those people, I probably accept that and hopefully I’ll be able to meet some of those people that I have inspired along the way. I’ve had a chance to meet a lot of folks that say, man, I appreciate everything you do. I’ll never forget that.
“To be able to have this type of impact, you have to be willing to accept the responsibility of being a role model. I guess me being a parent of two sons helps me understand the role even more because I want to be a role model for my two sons. So subsequently, I’m going to be a role model for other people, too.”
Despite the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions and precautions that come with it, O’Neil has continued to help his community in the Tampa area.
“Through the pandemic, I’ve understood more so how important the work that I’ve been doing has been because we get so many calls and text messages, things like just saying thank you for everything you’ve done and being able to continue to partner with other organizations during this time,” said O’Neil.
“We’re all kind of leaning on one another with Metro Ministries or Feeding Tampa Bay. We’re feeding thousands and thousands of people. We went from having to produce 800 meals a day to 8500 meals a day over the last three months here in Tampa Bay.
“But at the same token, I understand that we’re very fortunate and blessed, more so than some other people and we need to make sure that we always keep a lookout for those people too.”
As proud of a moment as it is for O’Neil in being a finalist for the Muhammed Ali Sports Humanitarian Award, it is also a time of grieving for him and his fellow WWE superstars with the passing of former star Shad Gaspard who drown last week on a Southern California beach after being caught in a rip current.
O’Neil remembered teaming with Gaspard when he was starting out his wrestling career when the two were in Florida Championship Wrestling.
“I don’t want to get too emotional but my son sent me a video clip of me and him in a tag team while I was at FCW very early in my career. But ever since then, I’ve seen him on numerous occasions and he was just a guy that always had a smile on his face, this fun-loving guy, very respectful. He’s just one of those guys that when he walked in the room, he just made you smile.
“The encouraging part is that so many people from so many different places have shown support in a multitude of ways and I just feel like this is one of those moments where people will take a look back and look past the fact that he was a WWE superstar and an actor to see that he was a father. He was a husband. He was a friend. He was a coworker. He was a brother to a lot of people and his life will be celebrated as such. My deepest condolences and prayers and support go out to his family, his wife and his son and his mother and everyone else that is close to him.
“This is a time for all of us in the WWE family. We’ve had to deal with a lot of losses of lives over the last year or so and this is just another one that we kind of gotta push through and help others push through and help the families push through.”