TAMPA BAY - The Tampa Bay Lightning honored Thaddeus Bullard (commonly known by his WWE name, Titus O'Neil) as the 32nd Lightning Community Hero of the 2016-17 season during the first period of tonight's game versus the Minnesota Wild. Bullard, who received a $50,000 donation from the Lightning Foundation and the Lightning Community Heroes program, will donate the money to the United Way Suncoast, Wheel Chairs for Kids, Academy Prep and Unsigned Preps Inc.
Bullard entered the world as a statistic. Raised by a mother who gave birth at the age of 12, Bullard grew up in poverty, often hungry, sometimes living in homeless shelters, and other times sleeping in cars. When his family could afford an apartment, they couldn't pay the electricity. His family would be evicted for failing to pay the rent. Kids made fun of his too-small shoes, tattered pants, and taped-together glasses. Bullard was told boys like him wound up dead in or in jail by the time they were 16. However, during Bullard's teenage years, random teachers started to believe in him; the Sheriff's Boys Ranch took an interest in him; his community began investing in him. After becoming the number one high school football recruit in the nation, Bullard graduated from the University of Florida with two degrees, served as student body vice president, played in the NFL, and is now a WWE Superstar. After being born into bad circumstances, Bullard works to change the narrative of the less fortunate so that everyone around him sees the value in others, and they also see the value in themselves.
Through his work with various nonprofit groups, Bullard has inspired change, raised resources, and helped children and adults throughout the Tampa Bay region lead better lives and build brighter futures. He has helped more than 245 student athletes across the Tampa Bay area get into college the past six years; lead corporate volunteers in reading books to children in after-school programs; used his story to inspire employees from companies large and small to give, advocate, and volunteer; and taken part in the United Way's Walking School Bus program in at-risk neighborhoods by escorting children to school on foot to make sure they get to school on time and enjoy a healthy breakfast. Bullard hosts an annual Joy of Giving event, where he hands out toys to more than 1,000 children. He also visits kids with cancer in the hospital, including those who have lost their battle to the disease.
Bullard becomes the 261st Lightning Community Hero since Jeff and Penny Vinik introduced the Lightning Community Hero program in 2011-12 with a $10 million, five-season commitment to the Tampa Bay community. Through this evening's game, in total, the Lightning Foundation has granted $13.2 million to more than 300 different non-profits in the Greater Tampa Bay area. Last summer, the Vinik's announced that the community hero program will give away another $10-million over the next five seasons.