From Ottawa to the NFL

Christo Bilukidi was selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. (QMI...

Christo Bilukidi was selected in the sixth round of the NFL Draft by the Oakland Raiders. (QMI AGENCY)

TIM BAINES, QMI AGENCY

, Last Updated: 10:12 PM ET

Christo Bilukidi has always counted on friends, family and faith.

And when the path to his NFL dream nearly became derailed late in 2011, when he began to question himself, he knew his mom, Juliana Kapinga, would have the answers.

Everything the 6-foot-5, 290-pounder, who never played a down of high school football while at St. Patrick in Ottawa, had worked so hard at was coming unglued.

His team, the Georgia State Panthers, was struggling, plodding along to a 3-8 record. And Bilukidi was distraught. Even the Muhammad Ali poster that hung on the wall, the photo that provided so much inspiration over the years, couldn't put him at ease.

And, his mind in turmoil, the boy who had become a man in four years away from his Ottawa home, turned to Juliana.

“We were having a pretty bad season, it was like the seventh game, I broke down and thought, 'This is hard, I don't want to do this anymore. I'm away from my family, away from my friends,” says Bilukidi.

“My mom told me to stick with it, that I'd come so far and things would pay off in the end. She told me she loved me. That meant a lot to me. I love my mom to death.”

“I wanted to support him 100%,” says Juliana. “I told him, 'This is what you do. I know we're far away and this hurts right now, but keep going.' ”

Reassured and refocused, Bilukidi persevered. He wound up his two years at Georgia State with 10 sacks, getting the attention of several NFL teams. One, the Oakland Raiders, thought enough of Bilukidi to make him its sixth-round selection Saturday during the NFL draft.

“I was at home, watching a movie, 50/50, I wasn't watching the draft,” says Bilukidi. “The phone rang. It was a call from the Oakland Raiders head coach (Dennis Allen). He said, 'We like out you in Oakland, son, do you want to be a Raider?' ”

Bilukidi thought of his mom and how proud she would be. There was his extended family, who provided so much support. There was his stepfather, Jean-Claude, father of Prince. He thought of friends and how excited they would be. There was Jerard Pierre-Charles, his best buddy for life. And Ricardo Raymond, who has moved to London, England. And he thought of his 23-year-old sister Tresor, a former all-star basketball player at Franco-Cite and his 10-year-old brother, Prince, a rising football star who he hopes to take with him to live in Oakland.

When the call from the Raiders came, Juliana was at a baby shower. Christo drove over to give her the news and the two embraced for what seemed like forever.

“I was so excited, I wanted to jump up and down,” says Juliana. “It was very emotional. He's my saviour.”

Bilukidi interjects with: “She's actually my saviour.”

Family is everything to Bilukidi. He hasn't seen father Teddy, who works for the Angolan government, in four years. He has his mom's name tattooed below his heart.

“She raised me. As a single mother, she did everything for me,” says Bilukidi, as he wraps his arm around her. “We've been through a lot together. My mom is my best friend. She was only 22 when I was born. I can say anything I want to her. She doesn't judge me.”

“As a single parent, I sacrificed a lot,” says Juliana. “Things could have turned out differently. God answered all of my prayers.”

It meant a lot for Bilukidi to look up in the stands at the Players All-Star Classic Feb. 4 in Arkansas and know his mom, who had been such a huge influence, was sitting there, tears in her eyes, so proud of her “little boy,” proud of the man he had become.

The names of his brother and sister are inked onto his left arm. Bilukidi has “eight or nine” tattoos.

“Once you get one, you can't stop,” he says.

While at St. Patrick, he played three years of basketball as a power forward, but no football.

“Christo was a phenomenal athlete,” says Tina St. Amour, who coached him at St. Patrick. “He could shoot a basketball from half court. He could wear sandals and play sports, he was that good.

“He played for us in Grades 9, 10 and 11. Then, we had to cut him in Grade 12, the year we won the provincial championship.

“I said to him, 'you're 6-foot-4 and 300 lbs., and you don't like to run. You should try football.' I had a really good relationship with him.”

At a younger age, he was one of the finest soccer goalies in the province while playing for the Ottawa Internationals, a team that rarely lost. His passion for soccer remains ... he's a big Man City fan.

“I had no interest in football until Djems Kwame (a former football player at St. Patrick and current Toronto Argonaut) and asked if I wanted to play (OVFL) with the Cumberland Panthers. I later went to a camp in Toronto and won MVP. When you get good at something, you begin to like it.”

He got an offer to Louisville, but left Ottawa to play at a junior college, Eastern Arizona, then got an offer of a scholarship to Georgia State, a program in its infancy.

In college life, there were temptations, but Bilukidi stayed true to his faith ... and his mom.

“It's college. Things go on. But I never put myself in a bad situation,” he says. “Atlanta is such a big city, with a lot to do. There were people doing things that weren't going to benefit me in any way. I made sure I stayed away from that. Two people I did not want to disappoint: My mom and my head coach, Bill Curry.”

Bilukidi is ranked sixth leading into Thursday's CFL draft. Because he was drafted by the Raiders, he will likely slip, maybe into the second round. Regardless, he plans to make good on his NFL opportunity.

“I got drafted. I'm not thinking about another option right now,” says Bilukidi, who has been putting in plenty of time with his personal trainer, Andrew Griffith-Jones. “I'll do anything in my power to make it. I'm going to go there to work hard. When you're a rookie, you don't sleep. You're there to secure a job.

“Almost all the CFL teams talked to me. Everyone except for Montreal.”

Success seems to fuel Bilukidi, not spoil him. He's grounded, just a regular guy you might see at the GoodLife on Walkley Road. Or just kicking back and laughing along with his buddies.

“I'll always be humble. I'm not going to change my ways now ... because of the NFL,” says Bilukidi. “Sometimes when people get into a professional life, it goes to their head. I never was that guy and I don't want to be that guy.”

Because of his stature, he's often asked if he plays football. His answer is no.

“I don't want to be stereotyped,” he says. “I'm just a normal guy. I don't want people to think I'm different.”

St. Amour says she ran into Bilukidi four years ago at Hurdman Station.

“He lifted me up,” she says. “I told him he looked like a tank. He wasn't that chubby kid anymore.”

If things work out as Bilukidi hopes, if he makes an impact with the Raiders, it'll be tough to disguise who and what he is.

And even when that time comes, the kid who grew up without football, the giant who put friends and family and faith at the top of his priority list, will remember what got him there.

tim.baines@sunmedia.ca


Videos

Photos