TAMPA — Thaddeus Bullard never met his father. He never wanted to.
Bullard, known to World Wrestling Entertainment fans as Titus O’Neil, was conceived when his grandmother’s boyfriend raped his then 11-year-old mother. His mother, he said, was pushed to have an abortion but refused. A child herself, she raised Bullard.
“I love my mom,” Bullard said. “We’re close. She did a lot for me.”
Now Bullard is a father, with two boys ages 7 and 10. Tampa is the family’s home, but traveling keeps him away for long stretches.
So when the WWE Battleground hits the Forum on Sunday, for one of 12 WWE pay-per-view events each year, Bullard will get a rare chance to perform as both pro wrestler and father in the same weekend.
“It’s hard,” said Bullard, 37. “I miss out on a lot of things like getting to do their homework with them every night or planning their birthday parties or making all their games.”
It’s a sentiment shared by Leati Joseph Anoa’i of Brandon — or as WWE fans know him, Roman Reigns.
The 29-year-old Anoa’i is on track to become one of WWE’s next big stars. At “Battleground,” he will be competing for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. The outcome of the match will of course be predetermined, but a win would make him the face of the company and bring further fortune and fame.
Yet WWE champ would be second to the title of dad to his 6-year-old daughter.
“It’s the biggest part of my life,” Anoa’i said. “It is the biggest role that I have and the thing I am most proud of. My little girl motivates me to do everything I do.”
For Father’s Day last month, Anoa’i and Bullard teamed up with the Ad Council for public service announcements on the importance of being a father. In Anoa’i’s video, the 6-foot-3, 265-pound wrestler sings, “I’m a Little Teapot” with his daughter.
“She lights up a room,” Anoa’i said.
When Bullard is in Tampa, he tries to spend every free minute he can with his boys. They shoot hoops and play golf. He helps coach their sports teams. He’ll just sit on the couch with them and watch whatever they want.
And like many fathers, he playfully scoops them up for a pretend body slam onto the couch or bed. His, no doubt, are more believable.
On the road, not a day goes by that he doesn’t speak with them.
“Nothing is more important to me than being a father,” he said.
They’re starting out on a path in life far more promising than his did.
A Boynton Beach native, Bullard went on to play football for the University of Florida and win election as student body president. He played Arena Football for the Tampa Bay Storm before becoming a pro wrestler.
But he traveled a rocky path to reach that point.
As a boy, he was quick to fight if someone looked at him the wrong way. It took five years at the Florida Sheriffs Boys Ranch in Live Oak to set him straight.
“I think a lot of it was because I didn’t have that strong male role model in my life,” he said. “That’s important. So at an early age I knew if I had children that I would be in my kids’ life no matter what so they never had to deal with any of the issues I had to as a youth.”
Like Bullard, Anoa’i said the toughest part of working as entertainer is the constant travel. He has seen this from both sides.
His father is Leati Anoa’i, who wrestled under the name Sika as one-half of The Wild Samoans — a three-time WWE Tag Team Champion and member of the WWE Hall of Fame.
Success came at the price of time spent with his family.
“We didn’t have the greatest relationship when I was growing up,” Anoa’i said.
Portrayed as mad men, The Wild Samoans grunted rather than spoke and engaged in behavior such as eating raw fish during interviews.
But whenever his father returned home to Pensacola, Anoa’i said, he stepped right into the role of parent.
“If he was home it was family time.” Anoa’i said. “It was always nicer having him around.”
Technology has made life on the road easier than it was during his father’s era. Cell phones mean he is always accessible to his daughter. And video chats allow him to see her daily.
In lonely times, like when he’s longing to have a tea party with her, he tries to focus on why he chose his line of work.
“I am out there with the purpose of providing a future for her and to lock down financial security for my family. Fortunately I have a smart little girl who understands that.”
Bullard said his sons accept the lifestyle as well, although they don’t understand why their father isn’t WWE champion.
They know the outcomes are scripted, Bullard said, but they find them farfetched.
“My kids are funny,” said the 6-foot-6, 270-pound Bullard. “They’ll get mad because they think there is no way in a real fight a certain wrestler could beat me.”
Neither Bullard nor Anoa’i, supremely confident though they are in their work, would make any Joe Namath-like guarantee they’ll walk out of Sunday’s competition wearing Battleground championship gold. All they seemed to care about was walking out of the Forum and going back home to their kids.
“When I get to be a father, it’s the best part of my day,” Bullard said. “I like the challenges of figuring out different ways of being a disciplinarian, the excitement of planning something fun to do with them or just watching them interact with their friends.
“I like every aspect of being a father.”