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NFL draft: South Carolina's Javon Kinlaw battled homelessness on way to being a first-round prospect

Eric Edholm
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MOBILE, Ala. — South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw was asked at Monday’s Senior Bowl introductory media conference to describe his pass-rushing style

“I just wanna run through someone,” Kinlaw said. “Point A to Point B.”

Kinlaw has moved through tough circumstances since emigrating from Trinidad and Tobago, enduring homelessness and poverty along the way, and needing a stop at junior college before making it with the Gamecocks.

Now Kinlaw is on the path toward being a first-round pick in the 2020 NFL draft. Executive director Jim Nagy said Monday that Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert might be the only player rated higher than Kinlaw of the more than 100 prospects who were selected for the event this week.

The 6-foot-6, 310-pound Kinlaw was named first-team all-SEC with six sacks and two fumble recoveries in 12 games. His performance goes beyond stats.

“Just watch the tape,” he said. And he’s right.

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A first-round talent in the making

Against an Alabama team with five draftable offensive linemen, Kinlaw was nearly unblockable. In the massive upset of Georgia, Kinlaw played 80 of a possible 99 snaps, making a key sack to thwart a Bulldogs score before halftime. Florida, Missouri, Texas A&M, he slaughtered them all without a major box-score footprint.

Kinlaw credits his work on his strength, flexibility, stay lower and improving his get-off as key areas of improvement over the past year. And he was already highly thought of coming into last season. Kinlaw received a first-round grade by National Football Scouting after his 2018 season but returned for his senior season because he said he felt he “didn’t accomplish anything” and added, “I still don’t feel that way.”

South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw has emerged from homelessness to become a first-round draft prospect. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw has emerged from homelessness to become a first-round draft prospect. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Three teams Yahoo Sports spoke with say Kinlaw is a likely first-round pick. One team’s scouting director said Kinlaw could be a top-10-graded player “for some teams.” And despite some advising Kinlaw to skip the Senior Bowl, he wasn’t about to change his approach to football.

“A lot of people told me my stock was at a place where I didn’t need to come here,” he said. “But I wanted to show I can compete. That’s the one true reason I came.”

Given what Kinlaw went through growing up, a week at the Senior Bowl might feel like a trip to Shangri-La.

Javon Kinlaw’s amazing backstory

Leesa James, Kinlaw’s mother, brought her children to the Washington D.C. area after Kinlaw and his brothers grew up in Trinidad and Tobago. The family arrived with hope. But when some business opportunities failed to materialize, James, Kinlaw and his two older brothers were left without means to income or shelter.

“Just growing up in northeast Washington D.C., pretty much homeless, living in basements,” Kinlaw said of his youth. “We went without electricity, no water, things like that.

“We had to use the neighbors’ bowls to fill up totes of water, and we would take them back in the house. We had gas — a gas stove we’d light with a little match. Get a tall pot, boil the water, mix it with some cold water, put it in a bucket, take it upstairs and take showers like that.”

He certainly knew nothing of the life he’s about to enter as an expected top-20 draft choice.

“At a young age, we just thought that was normal,” Kinlaw said. “That’s how we were living. We didn’t know how everybody else was living. And we were cool with that. Especially me.”

Time — and success — allows for a different perspective.

“Now that I look back at it,” Kinlaw said, “it was tough, man. But it made me a man at a young age. I grew up early, definitely.”

Sprouting well past the 5-foot mark by age 10, Kinlaw eventually got into sports. He also earned mentors in neighbors Jillian Behram and Jason Farley, who helped the neighborhood children with homework and fed them big dinners. Farley especially became a father figure for Kinlaw when he wasn’t seeing his own as much at that time.

Farley died in a motorcycle accident in 2008. The young Kinlaw was crushed.

More bad news came shortly thereafter: The family once again would be forced out of their home. With both families reeling, Behram offered James and the kids a place to live. They merged families and bonded out of tragedy and despair.

A few years later, though, James sent Kinlaw to live with his father. Right about when football became a big part of his life.

Developing into a star

Kinlaw passed the 6-foot mark at age 13 and entered Goose Creek High School, just outside Charleston, South Carolina, as something of a budding legend. Even as his relationship with his father remained complicated, Kinlaw started developing as a prospect with major college football eyes gravitating his way. Especially when he passed the 6-foot-5 mark, and at around 270 pounds.

Kinlaw was slated to go to South Carolina, but his academics went south. He skipped school and when he did go, the homework wasn’t always done. Given a shot at junior college, Kinlaw was all in on the idea of going to Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Mississippi. By then, he was homeless again. Why not go to Mississippi?

Of course, even junior college felt like another universe to him when he arrived.

“My first two days of juco, I didn’t even eat. I didn’t know where the cafeteria was,” Kinlaw said. “And I didn’t know it was free. Once I found that it was free, I was going crazy.”

Eating became as much a part of his life as football. Kinlaw was prolific at each.

After being named NJCAA All-America in 2016, he was back on the major-football radar again. Kinlaw’s weight also ballooned, up to 347 pounds after showing up at 318.

The Gamecocks signed him and immediately went to work on Kinlaw’s weight. He ate better and trained smarter. The weight came off eventually, and Kinlaw has played in the 309- to 317-pound range the past two seasons.

Javon Kinlaw has kept his weight in check. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)
Javon Kinlaw has kept his weight in check. (Photo by Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

Kinlaw played well as a junior in 2018, with 4.5 sacks despite battling through a hip labrum tear. Even with the injury and the surgery that followed, he received a first-round grade from National Scouting, one of only eight players entering the 2019 college season to earn that distinction. He came back for one more season, with the injury risk nervously hanging in the back of his head.

And Kinlaw made it count. He has the chance to enter the top-10 discussion if he can turn in a dominant week at the Senior Bowl.

His decision to stay in school showed some patience. There was more on the line immediately than just his long-term draft projection. Kinlaw had a daughter last year. Eden Amara is turning 2 this spring, and his motivation for playing well here is his baby girl.

Soft-spoken and laid back off the field, Kinlaw looks wholly transformed when he’s smashing through SEC offensive lines with a mixture of freakish athleticism and shocking anger. But when he’s asked about his new family — and his new motivation — Kinlaw’s expression changes. That’s when his smile comes back out.

“I just want her to know that I will always be there for her,” he said. “She’s an important factor in my life. She’s probably the reason I play the way I play. …

“I just want to show people that it’s OK to be a good father. These young fathers, I want to show them it’s OK. You don’t gotta be scared. You just gotta do what you gotta do. People are going to respect that at the end of the day.”

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