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Former Florida Gator, Tampa Bay Storm player Thaddeus Bullard is now WWE wrestler Titus O'Neil

TAMPA — The eyes of about 30 youths open wide as the giant man towers before them.

With a booming, deep voice, 6-foot-4, 275-pound Thaddeus Bullard tells the kids assembled at the Rey Park Recreation Center a bit about himself — how he was a high school All-America football player, how he played at the University of Florida.

Then he drops the bomb — telling them he's now a WWE wrestler, which makes the kids jump out of their chairs in unison.

Bullard wrestles under the name Titus O'Neil and is part of the WWE's online show for rookies, NXT Redemption. The Tampa resident played for the Tampa Bay Storm of the Arena Football League and has been a high school assistant coach at Jesuit and Chamberlain.

Since his football career, he has become an international figure through the WWE.

Bullard has traveled to Europe and Mexico and has 34,000 followers on Twitter. But only now does his profile allow him an opportunity to give back.

On this day, he's giving away WWE T-shirts and toys to the kids in this West Tampa neighborhood. Over the next few days, Bullard participated in a holi­day toy giveaway with his church, Revealing Truth Ministries, giving away toys — including Xbox 360s and bicycles — to about 450 neighborhood kids.

He also will participate in the Tampa Gator Club's "Elves for the Elderly" program, in which he visits area nursing homes and gives away basic home items such as T-shirts, socks, books and magazines.

"I feel like I was placed on this earth to do great things," Bullard said. "A lot of people are placed on this earth to do great things. Whether they choose to do it as a serious calling or not, it's all up to them. I know I've been blessed by a lot of things, so it's my obligation to give back as best as I can."

Bullard didn't come into the world under the best of circumstances. His mother was raped at age 12. That's how Bullard was conceived.

"My pride and joy," Daria Bullard, 47, describes her oldest of four sons.

"He didn't come into this world under the best of circumstances, but he turned out to be a blessing."

Raised by a single mother in Boynton Beach, Bullard grew up with little. He often got into trouble at school, so much so his mother sent him more than six hours away to the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch in Live Oak.

"I was supposed to be there six months," Bullard said. "I stayed there five years. It was the best thing to happen to me."

While playing at Suwannee High, Bullard emerged as one of the top defensive line recruits in the nation. He chose Florida over Florida State, Ohio State and Tennessee.

At Florida, Bullard played 44 games and was student body president in 2000. He went on to play in the Arena League for four seasons, including one with the Storm in 2006.

He enjoyed coaching high school and youth football — especially the impact he believed he could have on young players. But with two sons, T.J. and Titus, now 7 and 5, respectively, he needed a career change.

In 2009, he landed on the doorstep of the South Tampa gym of Steve Keirn, a former wrestler, longtime wrestling instructor and head of Florida Championship Wrestling, the WWE's developmental organization.

Bullard, 34, believed adjusting to wrestling would be easy. Both he and Keirn agreed it wasn't.

While some attributes he learned on the gridiron — taking a physical pounding and playing through pain — helped, it was a marked difference from football.

"You get a lot of guys who think they can come in and become a wrestler," Keirn said. "With Thaddeus, you could tell he was athletic right away. The first thing I remember was just the size of his hands. He had the athleticism, but there was no connection to wrestling. His body was the only tool he brought to the ring."

But what Bullard did bring, Keirn said, was a unique competitive fire. Bullard said Keirn has been like a father figure, someone who has been able to bring out the best in him physically.

"He was humble about it," said Keirn, who grew up in Tampa and attended Robinson High. "A lot of people misunderstand the industry. They think you have to come in here with arrogance. If you do that, you can get chewed up and spit out real fast. I think a lot of it is where he came from. He treats everyone with respect, which is important in this business."

Keirn can't guarantee how successful Bullard's wrestling career will be, but he said Bullard has the attributes to go far.

For now, he wrestles in front of arenas packed with tens of thousands of fans.

"I think all the other stuff I've been through in life has prepared me to deal with this better," Bullard said. "That's really my approach to life. I have a mentality where I won't quit. There are no excuses."

Former Florida Gator, Tampa Bay Storm player Thaddeus Bullard is now WWE wrestler Titus O'Neil 01/06/12 [Last modified: Friday, January 6, 2012 10:47pm]

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