From homeless to top NFL draft prospect: Javon Kinlaw's journey

Kinlaw opens up about journey from hardship to NFL draft prospect (1:43)

NFL draft prospect Javon Kinlaw details the hardships he and his family faced growing up and how they helped shape him into the man he is today. (1:43)

PHOENIX -- Javon Kinlaw has childhood memories -- gunshots, dead bodies, needles, addicts -- he doesn't want to think about. He doesn't block them out. He just doesn't want to talk about them. They give Kinlaw bad dreams. They wake him up in a cold sweat. It's what he calls his trauma. And he doesn't want to go down that road.

"I'm not comfortable talking about a lot of stuff like that," Kinlaw said.

Kinlaw, a defensive tackle out of South Carolina projected by ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay to go in the first 20 picks of the NFL draft next month, is a long way from spending part of his childhood homeless in Washington, D.C. He's sitting in front of a basket of medium-hot wings -- his second -- and a basket of fries. He's plowing through both like he did offensive lines during his senior season with the Gamecocks. His 6-foot-5, 324-pound frame can hardly fit in the booth, but he doesn't want to make his life easier by moving to a table. It's no surprise; his life has never been easy.

It's mid-February and he's living in Arizona, preparing for the draft and looking for a place to fish. He trains in the morning and does things like go to the dentist in the afternoon. He was spending all his time preparing for his pro day on March 19, which was canceled as the coronavirus pandemic spread. Kinlaw, a first-team All-American as a senior, didn't work out at the NFL scouting combine back in February because of knee tendinitis, so his pro day was supposed to answer any final questions on a field.

More than likely he'll still be a first-round pick and sign a contract that will change his life, his daughter's life, his future grandchildren's lives and a couple more generations down the road.

"I know I'm gonna get some type of money," Kinlaw said. "The way I'm wired, I've been down, like down bad, down bad. Bad like where no one should be. Lived in basements. No matter what the money is, I'm going to be grateful. I can get me somewhere to live. Regardless of where I'm gonna be, I'm going [to] find me somewhere to live. So, I don't care what amount it is."

Growing up homeless

Kinlaw wasn't always homeless. He lived in an apartment in the Washington, D.C., area with his mother and one of his older brothers, Shaquille, until he was 7 or 8 years old. When their landlord sold the building, they ended up at a house Kinlaw's grandfather sold to his mother's friend before moving back to Trinidad.

But the house soon started falling apart. The roof caved in.

They had to move again. He was 9 or 10.

He'd go without electricity or running water. He used his neighbor's hose to fill up totes of water to bring back to the house he was living in.

"We had gas, a gas stove," Kinlaw said. "We would light the stove with a little match or something, get a tall pot, boil the water, mix it with some cold water, put it in a bucket, take it upstairs, take a shower like that."

He got new clothes only at the start of the school year, and they'd have to last him. He'd rotate between one pair of jeans, a couple pairs of shorts, a hoodie and some shirts. But he always had a lot of socks.

Kinlaw lived in basements and with friends. He didn't complain to his mother, who moved to the United States from Trinidad in 1995, that he didn't have new shoes or wished his life was better. He didn't ask for more food or a jacket, because he knew the answer.

"I really don't think it was still that bad even though we went through a lot," Kinlaw said. "Because, to me, that's what it was. I didn't care about that stuff. I still don't. I mean, we were so used to living like that. I mean, if I was living like that now, it still wouldn't really bother me because I already know what it feels like. Even though it was like that, we had a lot of good days. It wasn't really ... I mean, it was bad.

"For the next person, you can probably say it was probably horrible. But for me I don't think it was that bad."

But he began to develop some bad habits and got into trouble. He'd ride the Metro with his brother around D.C. to skip school, hopping over the turnstile if he didn't have enough money for a ticket. Sometimes they rode it just to stay warm. If he went to school and wasn't being the "class clown," he'd go the bathroom for a half hour at a time to avoid being in class.

Something needed to change.

Finding football

In the middle of ninth grade, Kinlaw moved to South Carolina to live with his dad, George. It was supposed to be a way to escape the streets of Northeast Washington, D.C. Instead, Kinlaw found himself in another dire situation. His coaches at Goose Creek High School in South Carolina said they remember hearing Kinlaw's father was an alcoholic and got physical with him at times, that his live-in girlfriend didn't want Javon around.

He ended up living with a teammate during his senior year.

At school, Kinlaw was bullied by older kids because of his size (280 pounds), his clothes and his shoes. Teachers doubted him.

"So many people used to tell me, like, 'You ain't gonna do nothing. You might be in jail. You probably gonna be dead, you're not going to graduate college,'" Kinlaw said.

Kinlaw wanted to play Pop Warner as a kid but his mom couldn't afford it. His football career began as a sophomore at Goose Creek because it was something to do, a way for him to eat up time without getting in trouble.

Chuck Reedy, the head coach at Goose Creek during Kinlaw's sophomore and junior seasons, didn't sugarcoat Kinlaw's ability when he joined the team: He wasn't good.

But Kinlaw's size attracted college attention, including from former South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. When Spurrier's son, Steve Spurrier, Jr., offered a scholarship, Kinlaw wasn't even sure what he meant.

"I was like, 'What do you want to offer me?'" Kinlaw remembered. "Because I didn't know what he was talking about. I'm thinking like he's talking about ... I don't know what he was talking about offering me, but I didn't know it was gonna be like a football scholarship."

Still, Kinlaw was struggling away from the field, according to Chris Candor, the Goose Creek head coach during Kinlaw's senior season. Candor said teachers, assistant coaches and an equipment manager came to him asking for Kinlaw to be kicked off the team because of grades, effort or run-ins. Candor refused. Football was the only thing Kinlaw had, he'd explain.

"Coming where I come from, you can't trust nobody," Kinlaw said. "You end up trusting the wrong person, you end up dead. Of course, I just was always being defensive all the time. That's just what I come from. That was natural for me always being defensive."

That, and moving around as much as he did, made it hard for him to make friends. He tried to count all the schools he went to: four elementary schools, two middle schools and three high school. It reached the point that he stopped trying to make friends.

With offers from Alabama, USC, Louisville, Maryland, Clemson, Ole Miss, South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida, Kinlaw dropped out of Goose Creek halfway through his senior year.

Straightening out

Kinlaw didn't start trusting people -- especially coaches -- until he went to Jones College, a junior college in Mississippi.

Improvement happened, but it wasn't always easy.

After becoming a U.S. Army All-American, Kinlaw, with Candor and new South Carolina coach Will Muschamp, devised a plan to leave Goose Creek after the first semester of his senior year and enroll at Jones, where he took the GED and spent the next year getting his associate's degree. The plan came together in a matter of days.

Going to Jones was the beginning of his maturation, Kinlaw said. He began to straighten up. He was warned early during his time at Jones that if he continued being the same person he was at Goose Creek, he'd be sent home. That threat hit him hard; he didn't have anywhere else to go.

Jones didn't just get Kinlaw ready for football. It got him ready for life.

"If there was ever someone who needed structure," Jones coach Steve Buckley said, "it was him."

Kinlaw went to Mississippi without an ID or a birth certificate -- which he still doesn't have. There, he learned how to drive.

He left Jones a new man. He was following directions. Trusting people. Giving better effort on the field.

He was also heavier.

After scrambling for food most of his life, Kinlaw could eat all he wanted at Jones, though he didn't know it at first. Kinlaw didn't eat the first two days at Jones because he thought he had to pay for the food. He called Muschamp, who ordered him a pizza and then explained the way a college cafeteria worked.

"All this food was free? I started going crazy," Kinlaw said.

All the pizza he could stomach, fried chicken on Wednesdays, catfish on Fridays. He kept eating. Kinlaw showed up to Jones in the spring of 2016 weighing 280 pounds and then played football that fall at 305.

The next year, Kinlaw arrived at the University of South Carolina weighing 347 pounds. And on top of being out of shape he began to revert to some of his old bad habits. He tried to coast through team meetings. He was on his phone. He'd lean his head on the wall and try to sleep.

His wake-up call at South Carolina came during his first fall camp. He was getting tossed around by offensive linemen for the first time in his life.

"I'm like, 'Damn,'" he said. "Being like that made me realize that this is not no joke."

He changed his mindset, and from there everything started falling into place. He paid attention in meetings. He started losing weight. He hit the weight room harder. He started studying. He watched film closer.

And he also started to learn how to play football at a higher level. He was figuring out how to shed blocks and beat linemen.

"That's when I started falling in love with football, really," Kinlaw said.

A chance for a new life

As Kinlaw finishes his wings and fries, he leans back as far as his body will allow him. His right leg is stretched into the aisle.

He likes who he is now, at a place in his life he didn't see coming "in a million years." He plans on building a homeless shelter with the money he makes in the NFL as well as taking care of his own family.

On March 25, 2019, Kinlaw became a father to Eden Amara. Now he wants to be the dad he never had.

"That's why I go so hard, why I put my soul into this," he said. "Because something like that can really affect you.

"I just want her to have a fun childhood, not have to worry about things she shouldn't have to be worrying about as a kid."

Kinlaw can now provide that. He had 35 tackles and six sacks during his senior season. South Carolina defensive line coach John Scott, a defensive assistant for the New York Jets in 2015 and 2016, has told Kinlaw he could be better than Leonard Williams, who was a first-round pick in 2015.

"He's a great example of not letting your circumstances define who you are," Muschamp said. "Unbelievable example for that. The guy persevered, worked, was a model citizen when he was here, did everything we asked him to do."

It's a long way from boiling the neighbor's hose water to take a shower.

"Each year, something about who I am changes," Kinlaw said. "Like every year. See how I'm talking to you like this? If this was three, four years ago, I would not be talking to you. I'd probably think like you were trying to set me up or something.

"My life is already changing. I don't really know how much more it's going to change, but it's already changing."