By John Benson
WWE Superstar Titus O’Neil is no stranger to Ohio.
Though he respects the Buckeye State and is excited about making his Youngstown debut Sunday with “WWE Live! Road to Wrestlemania” at the Covelli Centre, the former University of Florida and Jacksonville Jaguars football player said he’s not a big fan of the cold and bitter weather.
“That’s the only thing I’m not looking forward to in Youngstown,” said O’Neil, calling from Tampa, Fla. “I don’t do cold weather. That’s what stopped me from going to Ohio State University out of high school. Orlando Pace was my host. We had a really good time, and I almost committed there.
“But then I got snowed in and I had to leave a day later. That’s when I said, ‘I’m sorry man, but I can’t come here.’ I went to Florida instead.”
Nevertheless, O’Neil did well for himself, parlaying his college and professional experience and athletic talents into a successful WWE career. He was one of the most imposing NXT rookies on 2011’s “The Real Deal.”
A year later, General Manager John Laurinaitis formally placed O’Neil and Darren Young on the SmackDown roster. The two became the Prime Time Players, telling the WWE Universe they were worth “millions of dollars.” After a two-year run, including a Tag Team Turmoil win that earned O’Neil and Young the opportunity to challenge The Shield for the WWE Tag Team championship at Night of Champions 2013, the pair had a falling out.
However, late last month on “Raw,” O’Neil surprised audiences by coming to the rescue of Young, the first openly gay WWE superstar, during an attack at the hands of The Ascension. The Prime Time Players were back.
“Yeah, the band is back together,” O’Neil said. “The Prime Time Players are back together, and we’re focused on taking on what we started and building upon that. We’re the roughest, toughest and most entertaining tag team in the WWE, and we’re dead set on becoming the WWE tag-team champions.”
That’s not the only news O’Neil has made of late. The 37-year-old professional wrestler garnered attention recently out of the ring with a #UseYourVoice-themed Instagram message that unapologetically targeted race, gender and sexuality.
“It’s nothing that I haven’t been trying to convey years before I got into the WWE,” O’Neil said. “My story is very powerful in itself. I was the beneficiary of people from all races and all backgrounds investing in me at a young age. I came from a fatherless home. My mother was raped at a very young age, and so, obviously, I came from an impoverished background.”
As a young man, O’Neil was accepted at a Florida boys ranch where underprivileged children of all backgrounds and nationalities were provided opportunities.
“People invested in that place to give me a fair opportunity at winning at life. So for me, I’m fulfilling a purpose in which I’m repaying every single individual that invested in me when they didn’t have to. I look at this world in a completely different manner than most people do. I don’t see it in the eyes of skin color, gender or sexual orientation.”
He added that his #UseYourVoice message has garnered overwhelmingly positive reactions from politicians, entertainers and fellow athletes. Still, there are those who question a professional wrestler for taking a stance.
“The people who have an issue of what I said are the very people that are the ones that are the biggest perpetuators of the problem,” O’Neil said. “But I’m not pushing any agenda on anyone outside of being the best person you can be.”