TAMPA ― In more than a quarter-century of serving breakfasts and lunches to pubescents, Virginia Lowell has seen the highs and hardscrabble of Sligh Middle Magnet School.
On this mild mid-February afternoon, when coronavirus has yet to infiltrate the global vernacular, she gazes from the parking lot at a small valley that’s now a proverbial peak: A synthetic-turf football field, the kind commonly seen at private academies or public schools in swank neighborhoods, occupies what appears to have once been a retention area.
She knows who is responsible for transforming that crevice into a crown jewel: same strapping dude who raised funds and donations for the renovated landscaping, art studio, sprawling weight room and pressure-washed walls.
Thad Bullard, better known these days as World Wrestling Entertainment “superstar” Titus O’Neil, is the best friend Sligh has ever had, Lowell insists.
“I have seen this school go from nothing to something,” she says. “He is doing so much. I mean, we’re blessed.”
When not on the road four to five days a week performing as his brawny, brash alter ego, Bullard, a 42-year-old dad of two, often can be found at his adoptive school, nestled in a low-income area in the city’s solar plexus.
His dream, borne from his own inner-city rearing during a mostly impoverished childhood, is to create a school that serves the whole community, not just its kids; a scholastic and social hub that educates and enriches.
Sligh Middle Magnet, a Title I school at which more than 96 percent of the student body qualifies for free or reduced-price meals, is that school.
“I want this to be, like, a haven for this neighborhood,” Bullard said.
“I feel like gentrification is coming down this way, if you look at Seminole Heights and Tampa Heights. These families over here, a lot of them have been here for years, and I want to develop a culture of health and wellness and pride.
“So you see all the transformation going on, where’s the best place to start any transformation? Education.”
No ‘bad’ kids in Bullard’s world
The Bullard back story has been chronicled by many, including Bullard himself.
On Page 3 of his autobiography, There’s No Such Thing as a Bad Kid (co-written with Tampa Bay Times staff reporter Paul Guzzo), he reveals how his mother, Daria Bullard, was raped at age 11 by someone she knew in her St. Augustine home in the summer of 1976.
Bullard, conceived as a result of that rape, spent his childhood in the bleakness of both foster care and single-parent rearing in Delray Beach and Boynton Beach housing projects. His mother had three more sons by a boyfriend with whom he never got along, compounding his misery.
Bullied at school for wearing tattered hand-me-downs and glasses, he channeled his insecurities into disruption and disrespect of authority. Adults warned him he was headed for prison or an early death.
His life was transformed about a month before his 14th birthday, when he moved to the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch in Live Oak. Though initially still prone to disruption and outbursts, he came to embrace the structure, stability, discipline and love provided at the facility.
“The average stay at the Boys Ranch is 18 months,” Bullard said in his book. “I was there for five years. I was doing so well that neither the ranch administrators nor my mother thought it was a good idea for me to return to south Florida.”
Ultimately, he evolved into an All-American defensive end at Live Oak’s Suwannee High and a four-year letter winner at the University of Florida, where he was elected student body vice-president and graduated in 2000.
Following a brief arena football career, Bullard was coaching at Chamberlain High when close friend and WWE legend Dave Bautista urged him to give professional wrestling a crack. He initially resisted, but while getting a pair of shoes repaired in south Tampa, he popped his head into the headquarters of Florida Championship Wrestling, a developmental territory for the WWE.
“And two weeks after I poked my head in the back, I was learning how to become a WWE superstar,” Bullard said.
His efforts at Sligh, part of his sprawling philanthropic portfolio, represent an indefatigable pay-it-forward homage to the nurturing he received at the Boys Ranch.
“He is a tremendous brand ambassador,” WWE chief brand officer Stephanie McMahon said. “I think he’s just a tremendous human-being ambassador, and he really does exemplify the best in all of us when you consider his story and where he came from. … He truly dedicates all of his time to giving back, so much so that some people don’t believe it’s real. But it is.”
Far from a 6-foot-6, 270-pound figurehead, Bullard typically could be found at Sligh most Wednesdays and Thursdays before the pandemic forced a hiatus from conventional schooling. Practically every staffer and student he encountered got a hug, handshake or fist bump. Upward gazes of awe vanished long ago; the kids now seem to regard him as a super-sized pal or mentor.
“He comes by every week,” Sligh physical education teacher Brent Holowka said. “And there’s some weeks it’s like he’s here one day after another.”
He never seems to depart without leaving another profound fingerprint on the place.
Moving the earth
Bullard, who started his own 501c3 nonprofit foundation in 2018, had to be reined in when initially embarking on his transformational efforts. Overlooked in his zeal to create his dream school was the fact every shelf and shingle needed approval from the Hillsborough County school district.
Fortunately for him, the district was a willing partner.
“He knows that now,” said Chris Farkas, a deputy superintendent whose responsibilities include transportation, maintenance and new school construction. “Thad is very much like a cat with a ball, he just keeps it going. He’s been the biggest asset we have here, just a wonderful man. But there definitely was some training about (procedure) like, ‘I know what you want to do, but we’ve got to make sure we get the groundwork going first.’”
Through the efforts of the Bullard Family Foundation, school district, and a constellation of corporate partners, amenities such as the turf-field facility and a sprawling weight room — open to any school district employee — already are a reality.
So is pristine landscaping across campus. Former Armwood High and UCF football offensive lineman Aaron Evans has lent his artistic chops to a series of murals near the school’s main entrance.
So far, Bullard’s foundation has poured roughly $75,000 in cash into Sligh, foundation executive director Phuong Nguyen said. Bullard himself has donated about $60,00 to cover items such as art supplies and additional weight room equipment, and to cover funeral expenses for a teacher’s aid at nearby Foster Elementary who was murdered last year.
“If you walk this whole campus, land-wise, you’re not gonna find too much more beautiful architecture and space in the district, I feel,” Bullard said. “This has more space than most high schools in the area.”
The non-aesthetic makeovers include a competition-based “House” system, with 110 “residents” (students and staff) assigned to each unit. Points are awarded on attendance, classroom interaction, etc. A new champion is crowned every week in a celebration inside the school gym.
“The adults are held accountable too,” Bullard said. “They’ve got to sign in as well in the front office, and when they miss school, their house suffers too.”
During the current crisis, his foundation has supported restaurant partners by ordering catered lunches each day for the Sligh staffers and volunteers (about 35 in all) serving free meals to children 18 and under.
The results have been glaring, Sligh principal Anthony Jones indicated.
A D-school in 2018, Sligh improved to a C in 2019, showing a 67-point increase from the previous year. Jones said the school has experienced a “huge increase” in teacher retention, while student referrals are down and attendance is up.
“It’s a school. Not every day is a mountaintop experience,” he said. “But there is definite positive momentum that we’re getting."
Bullard longs to see a seismic shift in the entire community, where only 26.3 percent of residents in the school’s zip code are high school graduates, and the zip code’s median family income ($36,638) is well below the county average ($62,977), according to U.S. Census Bureau figures.
He envisions his prosperity center including a culinary arts program, a clothing closet and laundry, hunger assistance, income tax-return assistance, after-school care, a mentorship program, legal assistance, even tennis instruction (Nick Bollettieri’s IMG Academy is onboard as a partner).
“Our long-term vision is for this to truly be a rally point for people from all over Hillsborough County to see the impact this school is having in the local community,” Jones said.
Lowell, who wasn’t certain she’d ever see it in her lifetime, now sees it up close daily.
“I sit here in my car every day watching it go, go, go,” she said. “He’s a wonderful man.”
7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, streamed on WWE Network*
*The event originally was slated to be held in Tampa, but the current coronavirus pandemic prompted the move to a closed set without fans in Orlando.