Christo Bilukidi: Former NFLer Teaches Literacy To Youth In Ottawa’s Low-Income Housing
Christo Bilukidi’s dream of playing in the NFL came true when he became just the second person from Ottawa to be drafted to the NFL in 2012 by the Oakland Raiders.
But by 2016 the 6’5” defensive end had lost his love for the sport, and instead of playing for the paychecks, he made the difficult but admirable decision to walk away and find a different passion.
Bilukidi returned home to Ottawa where he found a way to have much more impact off the field. He became a champion for children in low-income housing, and an entrepreneur with a diverse real estate portfolio.
We caught up with Christo Bilukidi to speak about his time in the NFL, growing up in Ottawa, and what he learned from making tough decisions early on in his career.
You were born in Angola and lived in both France and Brazil before coming to Canada. What are some of your favourite memories of your time growing up in the Ottawa area?
When we came to Ottawa we settled in Russell Heights, Ottawa Community Housing. Growing up there was full of fun memories. There were a lot of kids from immigrant backgrounds, you’d see a lot of kids of refugees, too. All of the kids would be outside playing, and it made me realize at a young age that in these low-income housings, everybody’s outside socializing, especially during the summer time in comparison to some suburban neighbourhoods that I used to go to with some of my school friends. Some of my fondest memories were definitely growing up in that neighbourhood.
You didn’t start playing football until your senior year of high school. What finally made you give football a try?
I was always an athletic kid. My first competitive sport was soccer and I played it for over eight years. But I also did track and field and played basketball, too. At the end of my high school year a buddy of mine convinced me to play football just to stay in shape for basketball season, and I started really liking it and started getting really good at it and my whole career started.
In this issue, we are also going to be interviewing Jesse Palmer and Neville Gallimore. You, along with the two of them are the only players from Ottawa to ever be drafted to the NFL. What does it mean to you to be part of such an exclusive group of athletes from this area?
It’s a small alumni (laughs). I think we’re opening the floodgates for a lot of kids to realize that they can do it, even if they’re from a small city like Ottawa. And Ottawa is honestly becoming a bigger city now and there’s a lot of athletes that are coming from here which is great. It’s an honour just to be part of such a small alumni, but I think the most important thing is allowing kids to realize that they can do it as well.
What are your memories of being drafted into the NFL? What are some of the highlights when you look back?
Getting drafted was the main highlight, because obviously there’s not many of us that do get drafted. The entire city knew about it, and obviously I got a lot of congratulations from a lot of people that I know and grew up with, including my head coach from college. He really believed in me. He gave me a scholarship, so having him congratulate me was huge. He played in the NFL for 10 years and won the first ever Superbowl, too. So that was very memorable.
Another highlight was just getting to play on the field with some of the best guys that we see today and that have played in the past. Those are the memories I will never forget. Although you’re very competitive on the field, off the field you get to talk to some of these guys, and they’re real stand-up guys. That will always be very memorable.
You walked away from the game of football in 2016 at age 26. What changed for you? How did you know it was time?
Talking to a few people that I’ve met throughout the years in my football career…not only people that play football, but some of the professionals I had met too, they gave me the idea of getting into different businesses. There obviously was a lot of travelling and going from team to team that was definitely one of the factors too. I just asked myself, what position do I want to put myself in in the future? This is where I found real estate. Towards the end of my career I started investing in real estate, and understanding real estate as a whole, so that was what really helped me to realize that I really wanted to transition careers.
You’ve been in real estate ever since. How is it going for you?
It’s going great. I got my license in the summer of 2019, and obviously I’ve been servicing my client’s listings, doing a few listings here and there and meeting with buyers’ agents, but my main thing is being an investor in real estate properties. I have a few of my own currently right now, and I just want to keep building my portfolio. I want to continue being a real estate agent because that’s fun to me, I’m a really personable guy and people tend to like me so, it’s easy for me to sell, so that’s definitely the height of my career right now.
It’s a good career, I love it, and I just want to continue on moving forward with it.
After leaving football, you returned back home to Ottawa where you channeled your work ethic and abilities into business and charitable endeavours. Tell us about your latest initiative.
I’m working with Ottawa Community Housing very closely. I’m an ambassador for tenants with Stefan Keyes from CTV News. Obviously the COVID19 situation has had it on hold, but my next endeavour is to teach financial literacy to kids in these low-income communities. We’re watching everything that’s happening with the pandemic and when things slow down we’ll continue moving forward with it.
It’s been written that your community work makes your mom very proud. Tell us about your relationship with your mom, and how important a role she’s been in your life?
My mom’s been my number one support since day one. Unfortunately I didn’t grow up with my father. It’s really tough for a single mother to raise two kids; I have an older sister as well and my younger brother came after when my stepdad came into my life. The relationship between my mom and me has been great. I try to do everything to make sure that she’s supported. One of her proudest moments was obviously to see her kid do something very special like get drafted to the NFL. But she knows that I don’t stop, so although the NFL is not in my life anymore I still continue doing things that are meaningful and that are a good example for everyone who’s coming after me.
In June, Ottawa saw a peaceful protest in support of the BLM movement. What did that turnout mean to you, and what are your thoughts on the discussions taking place today around racism?
It’s unfortunate that it took a few black men’s lives for people to start a protest and for people to understand that there is a lot of inequality happening especially down south. I think it’s everywhere in North America, but I think it’s more prominent down south. And it’s great that people are uniting and people are banding together now from all races. Everyone, not just black people, are seeing that this issue needs to be addressed and needs to be dealt with. The way I do my part is teaching kids in low-income housing financial literacy. A lot of kids here in Ottawa and in Canada from low-income communities are kids of colour. So for guys and girls like myself to have that knowledge to pass it down to the next generation is a way that we can solve inequality. Because obviously those are some of the things that weren’t taught to us growing up, because obviously my mom didn’t have the resources to teach us financial literacy. So I’m going to do my part to help make sure we are equal financially, because I think that is one of the biggest separations between kids of colour and kids that are white.
Favourite Restaurants in Ottawa?
I love Preston Street; it’s my favourite area. My top three on Preston for some good drinks: I love to go to Pub Italia; they have that beer bible that you can choose all types of beers, and anytime I have a friend coming into town I bring him there. If I want to do fine dining I do Mati; it’s on Preston Street as well. Some really good food there. I know the owners there too; they also own EVOO Greek dining which is also really good. The last place – my business partner owns a food truck called Northern Bites. it’s a nice little poutine stand on Preston Street too.