NFL draft: Javon Kinlaw’s journey from homelessness to success

Javon Kinlaw (3) warms up before South Carolina plays Appalachian State at Williams-Brice Stadium on Nov. 9, 2019, in Columbia, S.C.
(Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)
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The Times examines the top prospects ahead of the NFL draft, to be held April 23-25.

Javon Kinlaw didn’t attend junior college so that he could become one of the most feared defensive linemen in the Southeastern Conference or go on to the NFL.

He just wanted a place to stay and enough to eat.

“Just having three meals,” Kinlaw said of his motivation at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.


Such basic necessities were never a given growing up. Kinlaw was homeless for most of his childhood in Washington, D.C., sometimes staying in a cramped basement with his brother and mother. There was no electricity or water, so the family would have to boil water from a neighbor’s garden hose to take a shower.

Kinlaw wore the same clothes every day and was often picked on, becoming leery of others. That remained the case when he moved to South Carolina as a teenager so that he could live with his father in a more stable environment.

Already 6 feet 5 and 260 pounds by age 15, he was discovered as a football prospect when his father mentioned his son’s size to an assistant football coach at the DMV.

“The guy hadn’t played any football. He was very raw,” Goose Creek High head coach Chuck Reedy told the Charleston, S.C., Post & Courier in 2018. “But we just took him under our wing because he didn’t have a lot of support.”

Kinlaw wanted to play college football near his new home but didn’t have the grades, so he enrolled at Jones County (Miss.) Junior College. He improved his academic standing enough in one year to earn a scholarship to South Carolina, becoming one of the most feared defensive linemen in the Southeastern Conference.

Now he’s projected as a top-20 pick in the NFL draft and the second-best defensive tackle, behind Auburn’s Derrick Brown, after logging 35 tackles and six sacks last season on the way to being selected a first-team All-American by the Associated Press.


Ready for a different kind of NFL mock draft? Football experts join Times NFL writer Sam Farmer to predict the first round of the 2020 draft.

April 15, 2020

It took considerable slimming down to get there, Kinlaw going from 350 pounds to 315 and then to his current 324 after resisting the temptation to eat entire boxes of pizza.

“I’m kind of picky a lot more now,” Kinlaw said before last season. “I eat a lot more greens.”

He found new motivation with the birth of his daughter, Eden Amara, now a year old. He’s more focused on football these days, saying he wants to become the best defensive tackle ever to play the game, but his thoughts never stray from what it will mean to provide for the daughter who has become the primary joy in his life.

“I never want her,” Kinlaw said, “to grow up how I grew up.”