The arena lights were shining bright on the Silver Anniversary celebration.
A five-year veteran of the Arena Football League, the 6-foot-4, 270-pound former Florida Gator prepared for his first opportunity to win a championship.
He’d spent years training and perfecting his craft – all of it leading to this mid-August moment.
But the “Prime Time Player” wasn’t in New Orleans lining up for the Arizona Rattlers or Philadelphia Soul at ArenaBowl XXV.
Titus O’Neil was in Los Angeles, challenging for the World Wrestling Entertainment Tag Team titles at the 25th Anniversary of WWE SummerSlam.
“It was an amazing experience,” O’Neil said. “I really can’t put it all into words. It’s the 25th Anniversary of SummerSlam and I’m competing at the same event as John Cena, CM Punk, Triple H, Brock Lesnar – guys who’ve done really well in this business – and I’m going against Kofi Kingston and R-Truth – it was an honor.”
But before O’Neil began mastering headlocks and body slams, he was terrorizing AFL quarterbacks as a defensive lineman for the Carolina Cobras, Las Vegas Gladiators, Tampa Bay Storm and Utah Blaze.
“I find it very interesting that I’m back in a lot of the same arenas that I used to play Arena Football in,” O’Neil said. “Being at the Staples Center [for SummerSlam] was crazy because I used to go there twice, sometimes three times a year, to play against the L.A. Avengers. It was surreal, like being in a big football game, playing for a championship. It was a huge rush.”
O’Neil is no stranger to that “big game” feeling. Coming out of Suwannee High School in 1995, the All-American defensive line prospect – then known as Thaddeus Bullard – was recruited by the likes of Florida State, Ohio State and Tennessee before deciding to become a Florida Gator. O’Neil got his first taste of college football as a redshirt freshman in 1997. His first career sack even came on national television. The unlucky victim? Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Peyton Manning.
The four-year letterman’s play caught the attention of current Tampa Bay Storm Head Coach Dave Ewart, who was then a defensive coordinator in the AFL.
“I met Thaddeus probably about 15 years ago,” Ewart said. “He was a very smart, articulate guy and, I believe, student body president at the time.”
Impressed by O’Neil’s resume, Ewart began spreading the word across the AFL. Coming from Steve Spurrier’s “Fun n’ Gun” system at Florida, O’Neil was already accustomed to fast-paced, high-scoring offenses and quick turnarounds on defense. A marriage with Arena Football made perfect sense.
When a knee injury in Jacksonville Jaguars camp derailed his NFL hopes, O’Neil seized an opportunity to continue his professional football career in the AFL. He saw action in four games with the Carolina Cobras in 2003, but began to flourish the following season under the tutelage of Ron James, then-defensive line coach for the Las Vegas Gladiators.
“Coach Ewart was in close with the guy who used to own the team in Las Vegas,” O’Neil said. “That’s how I got in with Coach Ron James.”
In three seasons with James – who was named the NET10 Head Coach of the Year with the Utah Blaze in 2012 – O’Neil collected 35 tackles and 4.5 sacks. In 2005, the big man batted down a career-high four passes and registered his first career touchdown reception in a February 26 game against the Nashville Kats.
“He was a high energy player and a very intelligent player,” James said. “He was just one of those guys who would do whatever it took to be successful. It’s no secret as to why he’s rising through the ranks as a WWE Superstar – he just outworks people.”
Close friend and former AFL teammate, Rodney Filer, agrees.
“He would have been very successful in the AFL if he’d have kept playing but he decided to go a different route,” Filer said.
After playing the 2007 AFL season with James and the Utah Blaze, O’Neil – who had grown up admiring the likes of Hulk Hogan and The Junkyard Dog – was looking to shift gears.
“He was always drawn to the entertainment side of sports,” James remembered.
As fate would have it, O’Neil would have to look no further than right next door for advice on a potential career change.
“My neighbor was Dave Batista,” O’Neil said. “He was one of the top guys [in WWE] at the time and a real good friend of mine. He had always been talking to me about it and said I’d be good at it.”
In 2009, O’Neil took the six-time world champion up on his offer and officially traded his helmet and shoulder pads for boots and baby oil, signing a developmental deal with WWE to begin training at the company’s developmental territory, Florida Championship Wrestling.
“It was not an easy transition to make,” O’Neil admitted. “A lot of people believe it’s fake – it’s not fake, it’s predetermined. It’s very taxing on the body and it’s a lot more than just going out there, beating people up and body slamming them. It’s a very complicated sport to learn.”
Having never wrestled a day in his life, O’Neil relied on his football experience to carry him through.
“As a defensive lineman, there’s a lot of short burst, explosive stuff,” O’Neil explained. “With the WWE ring being 20-by-20, there’s not a whole lot of space for you to run around and try to catch people or anything like that, so the footwork was definitely an easier transition.”
The transition that was slightly more difficult to make was adjusting to the physicality of a career in sports entertainment. O’Neil conditions using the same training regimen he did as a player in order to stay in elite shape and cope with the bumps and bruises, but the rigorous mental and physical demands of being a WWE superstar can still take their toll.
“In football, you play one game a week,” O’Neil said. “In WWE, we entertain five, six, sometimes even seven nights a week, so it’s a tough schedule. There is no offseason and we’re on the road between 280 and 300-plus days a year. That kind of transition isn’t for everyone.”
When O’Neil arrived in WWE in 2009, another entertainer was going through the same transition.
“Ricky Ortiz had been a fullback and linebacker for the Colorado Crush,” O’Neil said.
Ortiz, then known as Rich Young, played seven seasons in the AFL for the Milwaukee Mustangs, Indiana Firebirds, and Colorado Crush. He was even named to the All-Ironman squad and selected Second-Team All-Arena during Colorado’s ArenaBowl XIX championship run in 2005.
But while Ortiz and O’Neil are just the latest to make the leap, there have been more than a few men to leave the gridiron for the squared circle over the years, including Florida State’s Ron Simmons – the first African-American World Heavyweight Champion in professional wrestling history – and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, who has come to embody his self-proclaimed moniker of “The Most Electrifying Man in Sports Entertainment” as both a WWE Superstar and a Hollywood leading man since graduating from the University of Miami.
“One of the things Coach [Will] Muschamp said to me was that Florida State has a former World Champion and Miami has one, so I need to bring one home to Gator Nation,” O’Neil said. “That’s definitely one of my goals.”
In April 2012, O’Neil took a big step toward achieving that goal. After spending two years on WWE’s hybrid reality television program, WWE NXT, O’Neil debuted on WWE Friday Night Smackdown! alongside Darren Young as one-half of a villainous tag team called the “Prime Time Players”. The pair now makes weekly appearances on both WWE Monday Night Raw on the USA Network and WWE Friday Night Smackdown! on SyFy.
But as the Prime Time Players continue to climb the ranks in the WWE’s tag team division, O’Neil continues to draw parallels between his new life between the ropes and his old one between the walls.
“The AFL is very similar to WWE,” O’Neil said. “It’s a very passionate crowd and having the ability to control whether someone boos you or cheers you is kind of a rush for me. As a bad guy, I get to do some things that I normally wouldn’t do. As a good guy, I feel like I can fire people up pretty well. As long as you get a reaction, that’s the key to this whole thing.”
It’s been a longstanding theory in the world of sports entertainment that the best characters are often those who essentially portray themselves with the “volume turned up”. If that’s the case, O’Neil may be on to something.
“I think this is perfect for him because he’s already a character,” Filer said. “That’s just him. He’s doing the stuff that he was doing in the locker room. He’s a personality and I think he’ll be able to shine in WWE.”
And if his larger than life persona and chiseled-out-of-stone physique aren’t enough to make O’Neil stand out, his choice of in-ring apparel should get the job done.
“I like to be loud and obnoxious at times, so I like my ring gear to be an extension of that,” O’Neil said of the highlighter pink trunks he and Young have begun wearing during matches.
But while the “Prime Time Player” and AFL player ensembles bear some stark contrasts in styles, what hasn’t changed for O’Neil is his passion for the game. O’Neil still follows Arena Football and stays in touch with his former teammates, like Filer. He also tries to catch the action live as much as possible.
“I try to get to one or two Storm games every year,” O’Neil said. “My kids love going.”
As far as his dream of becoming a WWE champion goes, O’Neil’s next title shot may come as soon as this Sunday, when WWE hosts Night of Champions live on pay-per-view.
“Just because we lost at SummerSlam doesn’t mean we won’t get another opportunity to take those titles at Night of Champions,” O’Neil said. “If I have a match, I’m definitely going for gold.”
Titus O’Neil never got the chance to contend for an ArenaBowl trophy in the AFL, but with his Arena Football experience, exceptional athleticism, and charisma to burn, it may not be long before the Prime Time Player is a WWE champion.