Wrestler Titus O’Neil tells Jalen Rose about his shocking origins

By | July 29, 2021

This man could have a million excuses for not turning into a functioning member of society. He indulged not one of them. He never became a victim of his own history. Instead he became a superstar WWE wrestler, philanthropist, author and a nominee for ESPN’s Muhammad Ali Sports Humanitarian Award. His government name is Thaddeus Bullard, but he’s better known as Titus O’Neil. And boy did we have a heart-wrenching, heavy but ultimately inspiring conversation on this episode of “Renaissance Man.”

“I’m the product of a sexual assault,” he told me. “So born of a young mother, my mom was 12 years old when she had me. And, you know, I was labeled a kid that would be a bad kid. And so it was never expected for me to graduate from high school, graduate from college or go to college to play sports.”

The Florida native struggled with behavior and was teased for his bad eyesight. But his story changed when he went to the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch, a program that works with disadvantaged kids. He said his coaches, teachers and mentors all put time into developing his drive, athleticism and desire to succeed.

“It not only gave me a safe place to go and a place to grow, but also gave me an opportunity to become the athlete I would eventually become,” he said of the ranch.

While this is Titus’ story, his mother is a hero in this tale because she sacrificed so much just to give him life. And what she endured will take your breath away.

“I hated my mom for a majority of my young adult life … And, you know, I was 17 years old when I found out how I was conceived. All those years, you know, I just thought me and my mom didn’t get along just because my mom was a horrible mom … I was doing really well in school, really well in academics. I was like all-state player, you know, on the football field and basketball, etc.,” he said. “And my mom never came up to the boys’ [ranch]. And that was by design because while they were working on me, they were working on her back home. And, you know, it was a meeting that came about. She came up, she thought it was the appropriate time since everything was going so well to tell me how, you know, I was conceived. It was very tough for her.

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“So when my mom told me how I was conceived, all that hate that I had toward my mom instantly turned to love, because I realized that she was a kid trying to raise a kid,” he said. “And she was driven from St. Augustine, Florida, at 11 years old, down to Boynton Beach, Florida, to have an abortion. She jumped out of a car and said she wasn’t going to do it. And two months later, you know, I was born.”

I’m a real mama’s boy, and I always appreciated that my mother protected me from the harsh realities of adulthood. If she was having trouble paying the electric bill, she didn’t leave the past due notice on the table for me to see. She handled it. That’s why Titus’ story resonated with me. His mother protected him from the horror of his origin. She didn’t unload her burden onto him, until he was old enough to process the information with a more fully developed brain.

He said he’s helped move through his trauma with therapy. But his early life gave him the empathy that would later mold him into a humanitarian. Through his Bullard Family Foundation, he does anything and everything for the community. He takes a tangible, sustainable approach, not just dishing out backpacks or Christmas gifts. He gets kids’ eyes checked, helps them get into trades and makes sure he is helping disadvantaged youth get ahead in meaningful ways. In the process, he’s basically turned himself into the prince of Tampa.

Titus played football at the University of Florida for legendary coach Steve Spurrier and then played arena football. Wrestling was not something he initially set out to do. But he is living proof of blooming where you are planted.

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His friend Dave Bautista convinced him to give it a shot and it took off.

But he did grow up loving Junkyard Dog, whom he idolized after seeing him on television wrestling in Green Bay, Wisconsin. The wrestler won the match, but a bunch of white wrestlers stormed the ring and started beating JYD down.

Titus O'Neil arrives at the 2018 EBONY Power 100 Gala at the Beverly Hilton on Friday, Nov. 30, 2018, in Beverly Hills, Calif.
O’Neil credits the Florida Sheriffs Youth Ranch for helping him develop his drive and athleticism.
Willy Sanjuan/Invision/AP

“And the entire stadium in Green Bay, Wisconsin, was booing the hell out
of these white superstars who were beating down Junkyard Dog. I said, man, this guy is a hero because if you can get people angry like lily white, Green Bay, Wisconsin, and make them love you like that. I want to be like that,” he told me.

I was more of a Rowdy Roddy Piper fan myself, but I respect JYD. If I was wrestling, I would call myself the “Motown Clown,” so I had to know how he came up with his stage name. It’s a nod to his youngest son, who is named Titus and he chose O’Neil for Shaquille O’Neal because he wanted to emulate Shaq’s dominance of nearly every genre from basketball to entertainment to business. But they had to change the spelling.

“And now I’m black Irish,” he joked.

He is also a legend. In April, Titus hosted WrestleMania with Hulk Hogan. He was also given the WWE Hall of Fame Warrior Award, which he said is his proudest professional accomplishment.

We talked about the Name, Image and Likeness change in college sports and his fraternity roots. Just like Shaq and Michael Jordan, he’s Omega Psi Phi, which is also known as Q Dogs. That’s where he gets his move where he throws up his arms in the hooks and barks, which is the frat’s signature. But he was most animated when talking about being a father, a demonstrative one at that.

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“My oldest son just turned 17 … He just committed to go to University of Central Florida to play football next year on a full scholarship … I have a big young 14-year-old, about to be 15, who will be in the same position two years from now, heavily recruited,” Titus told me. “But the most important thing is these kids are like great, great human beings. And I get phone calls and text messages all the time, ‘He was so polite. I met your son today and he helped my son out with X, Y, Z.’”

“For me, having a great relationship with my children has helped me have a greater relationship with everybody else because I’m at peace every single
day that I come home,” he said. “You know, we talk about our day and before they go to bed, they’ll come and knock on my door and say, ‘Ah, good night, Dad, I love you.’”

How can you not love this guy?

After this interview, I felt inspired and grateful. I felt unstoppable. I can’t wait to have Titus speak to the students at the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy. I think everyone needs a little Titus magic motivation in their life.

Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.

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