Hero

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Ask any 13-year-old what they want to be when they grow up, and you’ll get a lot of different answers. A doctor or a firefighter. A movie star or a pop star. An astronaut or even the President. In my neighborhood, most of us wanted to be pro athletes, and some of us — myself included — accomplished that.

But that’s not all I wanted to be. When I was 13 years old, I decided that when I grew up, I wanted to be a father. A loving, involved, present father.

Growing up, my dad wasn’t around. I didn’t even know who he was. I have three brothers who have the same father, and he was around a little bit. Without my mother telling me, I knew their father wasn’t my dad. You just know, you know?

When I was 13, the fact that I didn’t have a father really hit me the hardest. When I was at my eighth grade graduation and looked around at all the other kids taking pictures and videos with their dads, I realized I didn’t have that. When we’d lose a football game and I had nobody to talk to about it, I talked to my mom, who wasn’t really into sports, and my grandmother, but I didn’t have a father figure to talk to about sports and teach me how to cope with losing.

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One event stands out that really put what it meant to be a father and to have a father into perspective. It wasn’t something I endured, but something I actually observed from the outside. Something a good friend of mine experienced. We’ll call him Ray.

Ray’s dad was one of the biggest drug dealers in all of South Florida; despite that, he was always there for his son. He and Ray’s mom weren’t together, but he always made time for Ray. He rewarded Ray for earning good grades and doing well in sports. Even if he partied all night with his drug-dealer friends and Ray had a football game at 9 a.m. the next morning, he was always the first dad there.

Ray didn’t have a favorite basketball player or football player. He had his dad. Drug dealer or not, that was his hero.

I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to be my kids’ hero.

I don’t believe there’s a bad person in this entire world, just people who make bad decisions, and they get labeled for them. Ray’s dad made numerous bad decisions — he was a drug dealer — yet he made the decision to be an active father. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Ray’s dad was a drug dealer and eventually would end up shot or in jail. That was the reality of the lifestyle he lived. Nevertheless, he was always there to be a father to Ray.

He was there until the day that the entire neighborhood predicted would come finally came: the day Ray’s dad was murdered.

I’m not sure how it occurred, but it didn’t matter. The fact was that Ray, who had the one thing I wanted more than anything in the world — a father — suddenly didn’t. I saw how it tore him up, and I knew why. I knew what he was about to experience. From that day on, he’d learn what I’d known my whole life. He’d learn what it was like to not have a father.

I decided then that when I grew up, I was going to have children and be involved in my kids’ lives. I didn’t want them to grow up idolizing somebody else because they didn’t have a father they could look to for guidance. My children would never feel the emptiness I felt when I was a kid — the emptiness Ray would feel for the rest of his life.

I was only 13 years old, but I knew that when I grew up, I wanted to be my kids’ hero.

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I grew up with almost nothing, really. My mom was a single parent raising four kids, so I somewhat bounced from home to home and relative to relative. I never had any kind of consistency. I’m the oldest of my mother’s four sons, so I was thrust into a leadership position that I wasn’t really prepared for, mostly because I didn’t understand what being a leader meant and didn’t have a father figure to teach me how to be a leader.

When I was young, I was one of those people who made bad decisions. I fought regularly. I had a horrible attitude and didn’t care very much for authority. It was so bad at times that people told me I’d never accomplish anything and would be dead or in jail by the time I was 17. As I got older, I realized all of my problems and anger didn’t stem from being a bad kid; they came from making bad decisions and being in a bad situation.

Regardless of race, economic background or gender, everyone needs a father figure.

However, I wasn’t the only one in my position. When I looked around, I saw kids who didn’t have fathers, and we all gravitated toward our coaches as father figures. It wasn’t until I saw the difference those coaches made in my and other fatherless kids’ lives that I realized the importance of the male role model. Regardless of race, economic background or gender, everyone needs a father figure. Even as an adult, I still have father figures in my life, such as my pastor, who gives me fatherly guidance.

My mother was a wonderful a woman and did everything she could for me, but the one thing she could never do was be a man. She could never teach me the things that men taught me growing up — the things a father would have taught me had mine been around. She could never understand things from a male perspective.

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You see, it happens all too often: A child grows up without his biological father. Then, when he grows up and starts doing well, his dad surfaces seemingly out of nowhere.

That never happened to me. Whether I was playing football at the University of Florida, pursuing an NFL career, playing in the Arena League or even today as a WWE superstar, my father has never contacted me. Even if he did, I don’t know how that conversation would go.

My mom was 12 years old when she gave birth to me. When she was 11, she was raped by my grandmother’s boyfriend. That’s my biological father. So you can understand why I grew up not knowing who he was. My mother didn’t want to tell me that story at a young age.

When I was 17 — doing well in school and football and really becoming a man — my mother felt I was mature enough to know the truth. Just as much as she thought I was ready, she wanted to tell me because it had weighed on her for so long. We all know what it’s like to keep a secret, but keeping a secret like that, under those circumstances, from someone you love? I can’t imagine the amount of strength that took.

It happens all too often: A child grows up without his biological father. Then, when he grows up and starts doing well, his dad surfaces seemingly out of nowhere. That never happened to me.

When she finally told me, I instantly held her, and we cried together for hours. Everything that had happened prior to that — all the anger, every argument, our whole situation — finally made sense. She apologized to me, and I apologized to her. My anger and attitude came from being poor, not having much and not being able to do what my other friends could. On the other hand, my mother was simply attempting to raise her kids, and her frustration came from trying to make something positive out of a decision that wasn’t really in her hands — the decision to have a child at 12 years old. But she owned it. She chose to have that child because that’s what God led her to do, and she did the very best she could. When she told me about my father, I thought briefly about the possibility of meeting him. I asked if she knew who he was and if she could find him if she wanted; she said she could. When she asked me if I wanted her to locate him, I thought, No… I’m good.

The way I saw it was that if I met my biological father, he wouldn’t have any explanation as to why I had to grow up the way I grew up. There was nothing he could say that would have made things right. My mom was 11 years old, and after what he did to her, I was fine with never meeting him. In fact, I think one of the best things that ever happened to me was not meeting him and him never reaching out to me.

I never even got upset about it — even today. There’s no point. I have my own home and family now, and I’m out here doing my best to contribute to the world as positively and powerfully as I can. My situation didn’t stop me from going where God has called me to go. Now, I’m just trying to inspire and empower as many people as I can along the way.

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I almost never existed at all.

Many of my mother’s family members tried to convince her to have an abortion rather than give birth to me. She obviously decided to have the child; when I was finally born, I almost died in my mother’s womb because the umbilical cord was wrapped around my neck. I had stopped breathing, and the doctors fought hard to keep me alive. So the way I see it, the devil tried to take my life before I even came into this world, but there was a light inside my mother that God wanted to shine into this world — through her circumstances, through her struggle — and I feel like I’m that light. So every step of the way, from elementary and high school to college and my professional life, God has shown me: I have great things for you. Even when I had nothing. Not even a father of my own.

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So many people tell me how crazy my story is; they ask about something as simple as my father, and the story is far more than they expected. And they’re right. It is a pretty incredible story. As much as I suffered at a young age and as many mistakes as I made, once I discovered that it didn’t make sense to hold on to anger or resentment, and that I could control my destiny by focusing on the positive things in my life, my whole world changed.

I tell this story because I see it as an opportunity to bring hope to somebody else who might be in a similar situation — others who have no one to talk to or who get treated the way I did. When I was growing up, I was fortunate enough to have people who took the initiative with me to give me advantages I otherwise wouldn’t have had, and I feel every day is an opportunity for me to repay those people for helping to give me those advantages when I grew up disadvantaged.

When I was 13 years old, I decided that when the time came that I had kids of my own, I wouldn’t just be present in their lives — I would be their hero.

Fatherhood is the greatest responsibility and honor a man can be given. I have two sons, Thaddeus Jr. and Titus. They’re 10 and eight years old, and they teach me something new every day about being a man. However, the greatest lesson my kids have taught me is how to love unconditionally.

That’s the greatest gift.

Thaddeus Bullard is a former college and Arena League football player who is currently a WWE superstar and tag team champion under the name Titus O’Neil. He was named Celebrity Dad of the Year at the 2015 MEGA Dads Awards and is a part of the Take Time to Be a Dad campaign with the Ad Council and fatherhood.gov.

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