- Associated Press - Friday, December 25, 2015

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - With his catchphrase, “Millions of dollars, millions of dollars, millions of dollars,” and a signature dance that goes with it, World Wrestling Entertainment grappler Titus O’Neil is known as brash, arrogant, selfish and shallow.

But as is the case with most pro wrestlers, it’s all an act - an in this case, an act that couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Thaddeus Michael Bullard Sr., O’Neil’s real name, was raised by a single mother who struggled to put food on the table. He’s better known in a community somewhat smaller than WWE for giving to the less fortunate throughout the year.

In August, on a whim, he fed over 20 homeless people at a sit-down restaurant in San Diego.

But Bullard really ups his philanthropic game each holiday season as an organizer and main donor for “The Joy of Giving,” a program of Revealing Truth Ministries in Tampa that provides very special presents to children in families facing financial struggles. This year’s event was held on Dec. 19.

“These aren’t just cheap dolls we give away,” Bullard said. “We give out bicycles, Xbox 360s, flat screens, gift cards. We have dolls, but nice ones.”

The Joy of Giving has raised more than $90,000 through the years and handed out more than 2,000 toys - including 400 bicycles, the church says.

The average cost of each gift ranges from $40 to $100.

An estimated 1,500 families have been fed through the annual program.

“A lot of people don’t realize what giving one toy - especially if it is one that a kid really wants - can do for a kid,” Bullard said.

He knows from experience.

A Boynton Beach native who spent time as a child in Live Oak, Bullard was conceived when his grandmother’s boyfriend raped her daughter, who was 11 at the time. She was pushed to have an abortion but refused. A child herself, she raised Bullard the best she could.

Money was always tight, Bullard said, and if not for charitable events at his local YMCA, Boys & Girls Club, and Police Athletic League he would have woken some Christmas mornings with nothing under the tree.

“Growing up and seeing other kids opening gifts and celebrating Christmas in a completely different way than I did, I sometimes felt isolated and empty,” he said.

He was 10 when he first received the kind of gift other kids wished for - a remote-controlled car.

He’ll never forget how good it made him feel.

“When you don’t have a lot and do get something you really want, it sticks with you for a long time,” said Bullard, a former University of Florida football star and senior class president. “I kept that remote-controlled car all the way up through college until I misplaced and lost it in a move.”

Since earning fame and fortune as a WWE star, Bullard has worked to use his success helping others.

That was the case in San Diego.

He met a homeless couple following a WWE performance in the Southern California city and offered to buy them a sit-down dinner at the Yard House, a sports-bar chain.

Bullard paid in advance and the manager promised to allow the couple to dine in. But when Bullard returned 15 minutes later to check on the couple, he found them eating takeout around the corner because the manager made them feel unwanted.

“I wanted them to experience eating like everyone else does,” Bullard said. “Homeless people are people - period - and that is how they should be treated.”

Bullard returned to the Yard House and lectured the manager.

“But I had to get out of there before I made too big a scene,” said Bullard, who stands an imposing 6-foot-4, 270 pounds.

An assistant manager chased Bullard down and apologized.

“I asked him if he was a man of faith and he said yes. So I said the next time you see unjust treatment, I expect that faith to be activated.”

Bullard planned on blasting the restaurant through social media but his mother suggested doing something positive.

The next day, he took over 20 homeless people to the Yard House.

“I was daring them to turn down that large a bill.”

The assistant manager from the night before was in charge. He ordered the wait staff to do their best.

The bill was over $1,000, Bullard estimated.

“I didn’t really even look at it for long.”

Yard House did not return a call for comment to its headquarters in Orlando. One of the Darden group of restaurants, Yard House says on its web page it has processed and donated more than 600,000 pounds of unserved, surplus food to help those in need since 2012.

Locally, Bullard also is a mentor with Academy Prep Center of Tampa, a tuition-free middle school in Ybor City for children who qualify for need-based scholarships, and Unsigned Preps, a Tampa-based non-for-profit that seeks to turn student athletes into future philanthropic leaders while helping them obtain college admission.

On occasion, Bullard said, children he mentors will thank him for a toy they received at a “Joy of Giving” event.

“I take my two sons to help me each year so I can teach them how lucky we are to have what we have and to be able to help others. My sons know now that helping someone else smile is the best present.”

___

Information from: The Tampa (Fla.) Tribune, https://www.tampatrib.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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