Former Florida Gators defensive end Thaddeus Bullard, a reserve member of the football team from 1997-2000, played in 44 games over the course of his career and was a true student-athlete on campus at the University of Florida.
Bullard won consecutive Goodwill Gator awards in 1998 and 1999, was the primary backup at defensive end in 1999 and 2000 and registered totals of 56 tackles, six sacks and three forced fumbles in his four years. He also served as UF Student Body Vice President beginning in the spring of 2000 through the summer terms.
He then played for four separate Arena Football League teams from 2003-07 before deciding to retire from the game and focus on his family. Two years later, he took up professional wrestling and soon established himself as Titus O’Neil.
O’Neil quickly rose through the ranks of the WWE and is now a featured superstar on the company’s roster and one half of the popular Prime Time Players tag team. Partnered with Darren Young, he hopes to one day become a champion and earn millions of dollars while holding a belt.
Bullard has visited Gainesville, FL twice over the past year, most recently stopping by during the first week of February. He met with the football coaching staff during National Signing Day, hung out with the basketball team and even attended Florida’s big 83-58 win over Mississippi State on Feb. 9.
Bullard sat down with OGGOA for a half hour last month to discuss his most recent stay in Gainesville, his love for the Gators and what fans can expect to see from him in the near future as he continues rise in the WWE.
ADAM SILVERSTEIN: What does it feel like for you when you come back to Gainesville now that you have a family to bring with you?
THADDEUS BULLARD / TITUS O’NEIL: “I’ve been back there before with them – to football games and stuff – but now at this point in my career with the WWE, being able to come back is special. I come back as a different person to many that see me, and it’s a great feeling. It’s fun for my kids, too, since they were involved in the process of me coming back as Titus O’Neil on the big stage. They obviously see their dad every week and they have to share me with the world. It’s a different life for us now going out to eat and going different places. Everyone knows dad as ‘Titus O’Neil’ whereas four years ago, daddy was just ‘daddy.’”
Read the rest of OGGOA’s exclusive interview with Thaddeus Bullard…
AS: What was it like being with head football coach Will Muschamp while the Gators were reeling in National Letters of Intent on National Signing Day?
TB: “It was awesome to see because those guys are working hard throughout the recruiting process. At the time I was there that day, Florida was ranked No. 1 and you could see the excitement on everybody’s faces. Those coaches worked hard and are enjoying something very special at the University of Florida. Jeremy Foley was there in the office as well, and it was good to see that everybody is still like a family, working together to put the best student-athletes on the field. The Gators recruit guys with the best character as well as great talent on the field. Just to see it from a different side was awesome. You can read about it and see stuff on SportsCenter about certain guys but to actually be in there and see how the coaches feel about certain players and how excited they got about every one of the recruits that committed to Florida that day was awesome.”
AS: Did you have an opportunity to speak to the basketball team or were you just horsing around with head coach Billy Donovan before the game?
TB: “I got a chance to speak to a couple of the players, but I did not speak to the team as a whole. Coach Donovan, he’s just an awesome guy. He’s more than a coach to me. He’s a guy that I’ve developed a great friendship with. I can understand why players go out and play so hard for him and things like that. He’s just a really, really good man. Talking to some of the players, a lot of them have great personalities. I know Patric Young, I talked about Young being able to come into the WWE with his personality. With basketball, hopefully he gets a chance to play at the next level, of course. You can just see why those guys are successful. Coach Donovan has worked hard for everything he has attained as a coach, as a father, and you can see that he instills that work ethic in all his players.”
AS: How did it feel to be put on the big screen in the Stephen C. O’Connell Center and how were you received by the crowd?
TB: “It was awesome. And it just confirmed to me why I’m so proud to be a part of the Gator Nation. We take great pride in people going out and doing well even after completing their time at the University of Florida. It’s kind of funny to me because it’s an honor to be able to come back and get that type of ovation without being there for over 10 years. The ironic thing was [Feb. 11], while we were in Nashville for Monday Night Raw, at my hotel I saw Heather Mitts and Abby Wambach at the same time. I hadn’t seen either of them in a while. It just reaffirmed that the Gator Nation really is everywhere. We kind of made a joke saying you just never know when a Gator is going to pop up. The funny thing is I was in full Gator garb. I was wearing a blue Gator warm-up while walking through downtown Nashville coming from the gym and Heather kind of spotted me right away. It was cool, very cool.”
AS: How did your transition to the WWE occur? When and why did it become an option for you and when did you really start pursuing it?
TB: “I never really thought about it as an option. One of my really good friends [Dave Batista], who was one of the top guys at the time and is still a big guy in the history of the business, had been talking to me about it for a while. He said once I got done playing Arena Football I should give it a try. I said that I was not really into it. I watched it a lot as a fan growing up but always said that stuff is fake and not something I would do. He stopped me right away and said, first of all, it’s not fake though it is predetermined. He then did a few moves on me and I found out pretty early on that it’s very real.
“It was one of those chance things where I was driving one day, I live in Tampa, and there is a WWE developmental facility for Florida Championship Wrestling there. I drove out one day, walked in the back door and said, ‘Hey, I want to be a wrestler.’ The next day, they brought me in for a tryout. They saw something in me right out of the gate. The process of actually getting signed with WWE is actually a very long process, but I got hired within two weeks, which was unheard of. At that point then, I was kind of very glad that I actually went on faith, walked in and basically ended up walking out with a contract after they signed me two weeks later.”
AS: Many of the young talents you started your career with at FCW are now on the big stage with you in WWE. What has that transition been like from being a rookie to suddenly becoming an internationally known wrestler on competing in major matches on television and pay-per-views?
TB: “It’s actually mind-boggling because a lot of the people that were here when I got here aren’t here anymore and a lot of the people that signed at the same time that I signed are either still not on television, still working and trying to find their way or are gone. In a lot ways it just shows that hard work does pay off. I still have a very long way to go, but if you see the growth and progress that I’ve had in a very short period of time in relation to this business, the future is definitely very bright.
“I mean, me and Damien Sandow were Tag Team Champions in FCW and just one year ago we were defending those titles against two guys that are now well-known as members of The Shield. It’s very humbling to know that I’ve gone against guys like Kane, who has been around for years. I’ve beaten Rey Mysterio. I’ve beaten Kofi Kingston. I’ve gone against some very, very tough guys like Daniel Bryan, Randy Orton. I’ve been in the ring with some great, great guys, some of the top guys in this business. It just goes to show what hard work can do and where hard work can get you.”
AS: A famous former Miami football player (The Rock) and a famous Florida State football player (Ron Simmons) have both won heavyweight championships. How much motivation is that for you to reach the top rung of the company one day?
TB: “I’ve talked to both of them about it, yep. I’m going to win a title. There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it. I’ve said it from day one: If I’m going to do this, I’m going to do this full-throttle. Of course there is the opportunity to make millions of dollars, but I want to leave my mark as being a champion in this business. In most sports and anything else in life, your career is not based on how much money you make. It’s based on world championships. I’ve let it be known to both The Rock and Ron that when I do become champion in any way – whether it be tag team or as an individual – I’m definitely going to let it be known that the Gators have made their mark in the WWE.”
AS: When you first got on television with NXT, you were throwing up a lot of Gator Chomps but those have subsided as of late. Can fans expect to see that return to your character on television in the near future?
TB: “Actually, that’s funny, because going back to Gainesville that Saturday, that kind of recharged me. I realized I’m on a huge stage on television every single week – over 120 countries and 50 different languages – and if the fans can say ‘millions of dollars’ in several different languages, they need to be saying ‘Gator Nation’ in several different languages and doing the Gator Chomp, too.
“It’s funny because [on Feb. 11] before Raw, we taped our series of weekly matches for Superstars. So on Superstars [that aired on Feb. 15], I came out and did a promo before my match. We were in Nashville, TN, so I let everyone know that the state of Tennessee has been ran through by the Gators. I then said instead of giving me the old traditional hand clap after I win the match, because I’m going to win this match because that’s what Gators do, I turned my hands over and said I want you guys to make me feel real welcome at home in the state of Tennessee and give me the Gator Chomp. [Video – match only] I’m definitely going to do the Gator Chomp a lot more often because this is just the beginning of me, a Gator, in this business.”
AS: What is next for you and the Prime Time Players? When is the first title coming?
TB: “What’s next is we’re getting closer and closer to the opportunity of winning a title. We’ve obviously been the No. 1 contender a couple of times and fell short a little bit. The next time, which hopefully is at WrestleMania, we take those titles and have a very long reign with them. We’re the most entertaining and dominant tag team in this company right now. We feel that in our hearts and we show that each and every week. I love what Kane and Daniel Bryan do, but they were just thrown together whereas me and Darren we were in NXT together, we kind of grew together, we travel together, we do everything together.
“Although we’re bad guys, people are actually cheering for us, but I’m sure they won’t be cheering for us once we win those titles because we’ll be taking their money and showing off everything we decide to buy. That’s the benefit of having #millionsofdollars. We just want to make it fun. Whether people boo us or cheer us, we plan on taking the Tag Team Championship and making it fun to watch, making the product even more fun to watch, making ourselves as characters even more fun to watch.”
From Titus O’Neil’s visit along with a WWE film crew in August 2012: