Javon Kinlaw looked around at the NFL Scouting Combine in February and reflected.
“With the position I was put in, I shouldn’t even be here right now,” Kinlaw said. “I take it serious. I never take it for granted being here. I’m soaking it all in. Looking around. I can’t believe I’m really here because I’ve been through so much just to get to this point. I love it. “
The South Carolina defensive lineman is a few weeks away from being a very rich man. He is expected to be selected in the top 20 picks of the draft on April 23. It will be the next step in a story that reads like a Hollywood script.
Kinlaw grew up in Washington, D.C., but spent time bouncing from home to home and at times was homeless. He recently told ESPN that at one stop they would have to boil water from their neighbor’s hose to take a shower.
“I mean, I’m pretty sure people know the story now,” Kinlaw said at the combine. “Just being homeless. Those type of situations. Being put in a lot of tough situations. Things kids shouldn’t see. Doing a lot of things kids shouldn’t have to do. I’ll give you an example. My first time traveling by myself, 11 or 12 years old. I rode the Greyhound from Washington, D.C., to South Carolina by myself. But I thought it was cool, though. Just riding. Just seeing different things.’’
Kinlaw moved to South Carolina when he was in ninth grade to live with his father. He attended Goose Creek High School, where he discovered football. Kinlaw kept getting in trouble though, and dropped out of school halfway through his senior year despite drawing interest from some of the top football programs in the country.
Kinlaw got his life on track at Jones College, a junior college in Mississippi.
“Just having somewhere that I knew I wasn’t going to get put out of,” Kinlaw said. “Just having three meals. I always tell people I didn’t go to junior college for football, really. I just went because I had somewhere to sleep. I had free food. That’s really why I went. I didn’t go with the expectation that, ‘Man, I’m going to go to the SEC, I’m going to go to the league.’ I went because I had somewhere to sleep.”
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp had seen Kinlaw at Goose Creek and stayed in contact with him. Muschamp then brought him to South Carolina, and Kinlaw became an All-American for the Gamecocks. He had 35 tackles, six sacks, four quarterback pressures, two fumble recoveries and a blocked kick in 2019.
Now, the 6-foot-5, 324-pounder is considered the second best defensive lineman in the draft and will hear his name called in two weeks by Roger Goodell.
“He moves really well for a guy that obviously is going to be an interior presence,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said recently. “He’s got tremendous athleticism. I think that’s what people want more so than any other time in football as we know, it is the interior pressure and a guy who has the versatility.”
Kinlaw, who said he only really started loving football at South Carolina, feels he has a lot of room for growth in the NFL.
“For sure, because I haven’t even scratched the surface to my pass rush,” Kinlaw said. “A lot of the times, I just be out there bull-rushing, just walking guys back. So once I get that right coaching, the sky is the limit.’’
The motivation for Kinlaw now is his 1-year-old daughter, Eden Amara, and making sure she has a better childhood than he did.
“I’ve got a baby girl that I’ve got to provide for and I never want her to grow up how I grew up and those kind of situations,” Kinlaw said.
Kinlaw was asked at the combine what he would tell his younger self, the one who was going from home to home and unable to buy new clothes.
“Keep your head up, man. Stop being so shy. Just talk to people,” Kinlaw said. “Don’t be afraid to talk to people. Don’t be afraid. People probably pick on you because you ain’t got much clothes. You’re wearing the same clothes, but man so much so greater is heading to you, man. Just keep growing. Keep being yourself. Keep being who you are.’’