TAMPA — Titus O’Neil, the former University of Florida football player turned WWE wrestling star, is sweating buckets.
He isn’t in the ring or lifting weights. He’s in the Sligh Middle School gym, playing a fierce game of pick-up basketball with students after giving a speech to about 200 of them.
Many of the kids recognize Titus from television or video games, but few know the story of Thaddeus Bullard, his real name. He tells it to them in unusually blunt terms.
"I come from a single-parent home,’’ Bullard says. "My mother was raped at a very young age."
She was just 12 when she gave birth to him — no older than most of them, he says. Growing up, everyone told him he would be dead or in jail before he was old enough to vote.
Bullard, 40, tells his story often, always making sure to remind kids that their teachers care about them, that they should say no to drugs, that they can go places in life even if those places don’t include college.
While the students eat cake and PDQ fried chicken, Bullard pulls out a rack of basketballs and plays full-court, five-on-five — he and Sligh staff against several excited students. He doesn’t spend much time chatting with individual kids on these visits, which he makes often, usually squeezed between wrestling matches and meetings with sponsors for his "Joy of Giving Tampa’’ toy drive, which happens this Saturday. His message is largely the same from school to school.
There’s a reason. The words that Bullard says now are the same ones he felt changed his life.
Daria Bullard, now 53, was born in St. Augustine in 1964. After she was raped at age 11, her mother brought her to Boynton Beach to have an abortion. She refused.
"She told me when I got home to pack my bags and leave," Daria Bullard recalls.
The parents of a friend took her in and bought her what she needed, and Barbara Wilfork of the Optimum Growth Project in nearby Delray Beach provided her with support and taught her how to raise Thaddeus as best she could.
But the boy kept acting up. By middle school, he was regularly getting suspended.
"I was getting into fights, I was cussing, I was damaging property," Bullard said. He blames it on getting bullied. Always tall but still skinny at that age, with cheap clothes and glasses that kept breaking, Bullard was an easy target. Still, he acknowledged he was a "fool."
"I was an under-performing student,’’ he said. "I never was dumb, but I was labeled dumb. I just never applied myself."
Daria Bullard couldn’t keep taking off from work when he got into trouble.
"I finally told the assistant principal, ‘This is the last time I’m coming out here. Whatever you want to do, you do.’ "
Live Oak, home of the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch, is 315 miles northwest of Boynton Beach. When Bullard was sent there at age 12, the town’s population was less than 6,500.
The ranch sits just off a few two-lane roads where Interstate 10 meets Interstate 75. About 80 boys between the ages of 8 and 18 live on the ranch, where they study and work together, tending to the horses and taking the boat out on the river when staff lets them.
It was an entirely new world for Bullard.
He was a child, away from his mother, brothers, friends and hometown. He felt cast off, and his mother knew he resented her for it.
"The first year was really rough," she said. "I think he almost hated me the first year. He said I sent him away because I didn’t love him."
All the pain he felt over being bullied and broke was compounded, he said.
"I felt like, even though I had agreed to come there, to the Boys’ Ranch, I felt so many emotions of, my mom doesn’t want me, or my mom’s not a good mom."
"You know, this is the place where all the kids that nobody wants comes."
Roger Bouchard, a resident director at the time, said when he first met Thaddeus he was angry, and big.
"So we knew this new kid was coming in, 12, 13 years old, whatever," said Bouchard, now 66. But when he saw Bullard, the kid was 5-foot-11 and could palm a basketball.
"I mean, he was a full-grown man when he first came, starting ninth grade," Bouchard said.
Bullard said he fought with the smaller kids and wouldn’t listen to cottage parents, the volunteers that lived on site and were always addressed as "Mom" and "Pop."
Bullard said when he arrived, he had no intention of listening to anyone.
"Me getting along with other people was not in my plans,’’ he said. "I was going to do my time, per se. And I was going to get the hell out of there."
The whiteness of the ranch pressed on him.
"How are these people going to teach me anything?" he remembered thinking. "They don’t know me. It’s only four other black kids on campus that look like me, and only one black faculty member. So I’m just going to do my time and get out of here. But that’s when love changed all that."
It came from Pat Monogue, the ranch’s former regional director.
Bullard said he was the first person, or at least the first person not his mother, "that told me, ‘I love you,’ and, ‘I believe in you.’ "
In Bullard’s eyes, he was the only person outside his family that cared.
Monogue, who had played college basketball, bonded with him over pickup games. He said Monogue was a Chicago Bulls fan, which was great for Bullard, who idolized Michael Jordan.
Bouchard said Monogue was Bullard’s fiercest advocate.
"Even when we had people at the boys’ ranch that were saying, ‘We’re not going to make it with this kid, he’s too tough for us, he won’t obey the rules,’ Pat was always the one that would say, ‘No, this kid really has no place else to go. If it’s not us, he’s probably going to end up in jail some place.’"
Finally, with help from Monogue, Bullard began to settle down. He committed himself to class and to football — which would eventually net him a scholarship to the University of Florida.
Vivian Starling, who worked in communications for the Boys Ranch and wrote about Bullard for the campus magazine, said she saw a real transformation in him at the time.
"I think it was him gaining confidence in himself when he was here, and learning that people cared for him — that we cared for him, and we wanted to see the best for him."
Twenty-one years after graduating from the ranch, Bullard lives in Lutz and has two sons of his own — Titus, 13, and Thaddeus Jr., 11. He regularly visits schools to speak with kids their age — the same age he was when he was sent to Live Oak.
At a special movie screening for "Ferdinand" that he hosted, he says, "You guys were chosen for a reason."
At Ruskin Elementary School, he implores, "You have teachers here who care about you."
Back at Sligh Middle, he insists, "They love y’all."
Not all of the kids pay attention. They squirm, they check their phones, they play with their hair. Bullard certainly didn’t listen to grown-ups at their age. But the message clicked for him, eventually.
He hopes it clicks for them, too.
Times photographer Octavio Jones contributed to this report. Contact Langston Taylor at 727-893-8659 or email@example.com. Follow @langstonitaylor.