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Far from the homeless streets of his youth, Javon Kinlaw hasn't forgotten where he came from, thanks to the kindness of those he met on his path to stardom

By Chase Goodbread | Feb. 11, 2020

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Javon Kinlaw slowed his black Chevy SUV and brought it to a gentle stop under the lonely darkness of Huger Street.

About a mile away, the South Carolina football team had been asleep for hours after game-week curfew had compelled them to rest. It was 2 a.m., and two nights before the most important football game of his life, the team's best player rumbled through the streets just west of campus with family, not sleep, on his mind. He had just picked up his mother and half-brother at the Columbia, S.C., Amtrak station. It was their only means to attend the Gamecocks' home game against No. 2-ranked Alabama on Sept. 14, and the only train servicing their route from Washington, D.C., was a 2 a.m. arrival on Amtrak's Silver Star.

Kinlaw rolled down his window and shouted.

"Y'all OK?"

Two women, one standing, one sitting, one weeping, one muttering, pondered what homeless people ponder on dark street corners at 2 a.m. -- their next meal, their next shower, their next bed, their next move.

Kinlaw froze when he spotted them. He'd been there, making those same decisions.

He'd made them for years in a town as big as the nation's capital, and towns as small as Goose Creek in the coastal region South Carolinians refer to as The Lowcountry. He knew what it was like to have to use the bathroom outdoors and wash with water borrowed from a neighbor's outdoor hose. The daily drill was to boil part of the water on a gas-lit stove and mix it with the unboiled portion for a warm shower. Some days, he'd take eight-hour train rides on Washington D.C.'s metro subways only because they were warmer than whatever he was calling home at the time. He can recall walking past corpses among D.C.'s homeless as a child, so it's to be expected that he never quite got used to the plush surroundings afforded a South Carolina football player.

At times, he still awakes at night in a cold sweat; he thinks he might have a touch of PTSD from it all. "I still dream about those problems and a lot of those situations," he said. "Nightmares, really."

In April, the NFL draft will bestow new circumstances on Kinlaw, the likes of which he couldn't have imagined when he used to have to steal convenience-store junk food and call it lunch. Or when living with his father in Goose Creek was problematic enough that he'd roam for shelter elsewhere.

He's one of the top defensive tackles in the 2020 NFL Draft, and is commanding extremely close attention from scouts after consistently wrecking some of the best offensive lines in the SEC in 2019. After the draft, his agent will negotiate a jackpot that will vault him from poverty to a one-percenter's wealth with the stroke of a pen.

But a big piece of him -- the piece that hit the brakes on Huger Street -- will always be homeless.

Leesa James-Exum came to the United States in 1995 from Trinidad, an island on the southern end of the Caribbean and just off the northeast shore of Venezuela. She took after her father, who worked in the construction business, and learned labor skills in painting and drywall finishing. Contract jobs became too few and far between, however, and she found herself unable to provide a stable home -- at times, a home of any kind -- for her sons, Shaquille and Javon. When they did have shelter, they didn't always have the basics amenities homeowners take for granted.

"Not having electricity, not having heat, it all developed me into what I've become: a hard-nosed kid," Kinlaw said.

They survived circulating through various corners of the D.C. area, all of them crime-ridden, and none of them what Leesa wanted for her children.

Like Javon, she is bluntly honest about their struggles.

"The shootings, the violence and drugs, all that gang stuff," James-Exum said. "Gangs were the biggest fear for me as a parent. This one is fighting that one, then another one comes into the area and fights. I prayed all the time for something better for these boys. I wanted to get them out of here."

For a brief stint, she was able to do it.

When Javon was 10, she partnered with another construction contractor for a job in Hyattsville, Maryland, that promised some stability for her boys. That promise quickly broke, however, as the job fell through within weeks and Leesa had to ask a neighbor, Jillian Behram, for temporary shelter while she looked for another job. Behram was receptive but could only accommodate them with an unfinished basement. Kinlaw and his brother shared a futon to sleep on at night. He appreciated the help and became close with Behram and her late husband, Jason, but called that stay a low point in his struggles. After a couple months in the basement, the family was back in D.C., staying with another of James' friends and in no better position than when they left.

Kinlaw was regularly truant from a string of schools that changed frequently as his mother scrambled for better living conditions, making him even more at-risk for gang recruitment. He once skipped school for a full month. He and his brother were taking the subway system to school from a young age -- by fifth grade, as Javon recalls -- but didn't always have the money needed to ride.

As he got older, Javon would think nothing of sleeping through his stop. Sometimes, he'd ride the train the entire school day.

"I'd stop at CVS, steal me a couple snacks, put them in my duffle bag, and just keep riding," he said. "The train was warm, and if there was no electricity in the house and my toes were frozen, I'd just stay on the train. Seven or eight in the morning until 3:15 (p.m.)."

Kinlaw won't get anywhere near alcohol. George Kinlaw is the reason why.

In an interview on the South Carolina campus in Columbia last fall, Javon acknowledged his father's drinking problem was a wedge in their fractured relationship but declined to discuss the worst details of what he witnessed alcohol do to his dad. The subject marked one of several times Kinlaw covered his face with his massive hands, with the tips of his index fingers resting on his temples. He spoke about his struggles openly, but with an obvious wish to forget certain pieces of his childhood.

"I don't want to throw my father under the bus like that, but I've seen so much of what (alcoholism) can do to you, and the people around you," he said. "A lot of (bad) stuff. It's not what I want in my system, simple as that. It's not who I am."

NFL scouts delving into the defensive tackle's behavioral background will find all sorts of conduct issues in his school records -- he readily admits to excessive troublemaking in the hallways of Goose Creek High -- but what they won't find, Kinlaw says, is any indication of drinking or narcotics.

Multiple sources said George Kinlaw's drinking problem was paired with anger management issues that could manifest in the form of physical or mental abuse. According to Leesa, it's primarily why the two split when Javon was only 5. Efforts to reach George Kinlaw were unsuccessful, but an online background search revealed seven different addresses for him in the Charleston area, and multiple arrests.

Kinlaw moved back and forth between his mother and father as he grew up, and the last of those moves uprooted him in the middle of ninth grade in D.C. to stay with his father in North Charleston, not far from Goose Creek. It was an unstable environment for Javon -- at one point, they resided in a motel -- but George Kinlaw was not homeless in the strict sense of the term. Javon, however, felt at times that his father's residence wasn't necessarily his, and arguments between the two were such that he would often seek shelter elsewhere.

_Should I stay a night with a friend, or access an unoccupied building?

Where am I welcome? Where is my welcome worn out?_

These were the business decisions Kinlaw had to ask himself as a 15-year-old.

His defensive line coach at Goose Creek, Joe Bowers, used to give him rides after football practice to various locations Kinlaw was calling home at the time. Unsure whether Kinlaw was getting enough food, he would casually swing into a fast-food restaurant, whether he was hungry or not, and subtly ask if Kinlaw wanted anything. Bowers got a sense that when Kinlaw exited the car, he was beginning the toughest part of his day.

"We never asked exactly what was happening with his father because we knew it was a touchy situation," said Calvin Davis, whose family eventually welcomed Kinlaw into their home fulltime. "We knew he'd bounced around a little bit, and right before we took him in for good, he would call a few times at midnight or 1 in the morning asking if he could come finish the night with us. He felt safe with us."

Almost as soon as Kinlaw arrived at Goose Creek as a sophomore, he befriended the Davis' son, Timothy, who now runs track at Charleston Southern. As the two got closer, Kinlaw in turn became close with Calvin and his wife, Monica, a pastor. She would attend parent-teacher meetings on Javon's behalf -- Kinlaw said she treated him as her own son -- and tried to help him cope with his understandable frustration.

Alcohol issues didn't pass from father to son, but a quick temper did.

"His dad wanted the best for him but had a difficult situation himself that didn't lend for the best environment," Monica Davis said. "We were there to pick up the pieces for him. … We wanted to try to help him channel his anger. There were times where he'd even get upset in our household. We had some head-to-heads, but we worked with him on how to de-escalate."

Coaches and faculty at Goose Creek recall Kinlaw as thoughtful and fun-loving but also easily frustrated with little self-control once angered. Bowers occasionally saw Kinlaw's frustration boil over on the field. Some players take well to hard-nosed coaching, some don't, the coach said, and finding the sweet spot for motivating Kinlaw was always a delicate balance.

"Unfortunately, (Kinlaw's anger) did manifest itself at times. With Javon, you didn't have to be worried that he was fragile, but you had to know there were certain ways you couldn't talk to him as a coach," Bowers said. "You had to be hard and firm with him, but without making him feel like he was backed into a corner or threatened. That's when it would manifest, big-time. Depending on recent events that happened (in his life), or on that particular day or night, you just had to be on eggshells."

By the time Kinlaw finished his senior season at Goose Creek in the winter of 2015, his future was in crisis. His grades were poor enough that qualifying for a four-year football scholarship was out of the question, and even his prospects for a high school diploma looked uncertain. His behavioral problems had worn thin with the less-patient faculty at Goose Creek, and with some of the more tolerant as well. Even the football equipment manager once tried to convince head coach Chuck Reedy to dismiss him from the team.

Faculty changes left him even more at odds with teachers and administration. Reedy retired to the restaurant business, and key mentors left the school for new jobs. What remained in the void was an awkward sense that the school had washed its hands of Kinlaw, and he of it.

Former Goose Creek coach Chris Candor, who replaced Reedy, was among those who hadn't given up on him. Candor's voice cracked a bit as he sat in a meeting room at Ashley Ridge High and recounted the circumstances that led to Kinlaw withdrawing from high school in the middle of his senior year.

"Most of the administration, most of the teachers, even most of the coaches didn't want him to be part of the program anymore," Candor said. "But school and football couldn't be more important to him than survival. Here's a kid who had to wonder, 'Where am I going to get food, where am I going to sleep tonight?' It's no wonder he wasn't just rocking it out in English III. But I can also see the teacher side of it, because sometimes they try and try and get nowhere. It can get old for them."

Even Will Muschamp, who had just begun recruiting after taking the South Carolina head coaching job, was warned.

"There weren't a lot of positive comments about him," the coach admitted.

Kinlaw lays the blame at his own feet.

He acknowledges being immature, wholly unmotivated in the classroom, and regularly in trouble with teachers. His short temper, paired with his massive size, could be intimidating not only to students, but faculty as well, and Kinlaw knew it. He would ignore school rules regarding cellphone use, and when teachers tried to confiscate his, he would hold it out of their reach and laugh.

"The Davis' did what they could, but I was wild," Kinlaw said. "I would talk back to teachers, I would be rude ... When it was time for me to get my grades right, nobody wanted to lend a hand because I'd dug myself in the hole so deep."

At the end of his senior season, things were at a breaking point.

Candor wondered if Kinlaw would make it through five more months to graduation without failing out, quitting, or being expelled.

The solution came from Muschamp.

The South Carolina coach had become aware of a GED program at Jones County (Miss.) Junior College through which a player could complete high school graduation requirements before beginning work on an associate degree. The plan would require three semesters and one football season at Jones, a fall term sandwiched by two spring terms, and nobody involved, least of all Kinlaw, saw any reason to wait.

"I told Javon, 'We're going JUCO and we're going now,' " Candor said. "We talked on a Monday or a Tuesday, and by Saturday, he was gone. I was relieved. Because if he doesn't graduate, what are we going to do? Is he going to have to roam the streets of Goose Creek and North Charleston the rest of his life, causing havoc on society? A lot of the school was ready to see him leave, and he needed to get out. It was the best thing all around."

Kinlaw withdrew from Goose Creek in January of his senior year and enrolled for the 2016 spring term at JCJC. Coach Steve Buckley remembers seeing Kinlaw's father and uncle pull into the Ellisville, Mississippi, campus in a hatchback so small that Javon, at 6-foot-5 and nearly 300 pounds, had to ride in the rear cargo space.

For Muschamp, the school's GED program would allow the Gamecocks to re-sign Kinlaw for the 2017 class with three years of SEC eligibility. For Kinlaw, it was simply about better living conditions. He didn't eat his first two days on campus because he hadn't located the cafeteria, and was pleasantly shocked to learn his scholarship included meals.

"I wasn't thinking about making it to the SEC," Kinlaw said. "I was just happy to (be) there because I'd have somewhere to sleep. I'd have somewhere to eat free food."

The turnaround moment happened in Buckley's office barely two weeks after Kinlaw's arrival at JCJC.

His resistance to schoolwork had traveled with him to Ellisville. It was months before he was even to begin practicing football, so Buckley naturally questioned whether Javon would make it through a year and a half at the school. He told Kinlaw if he didn't begin taking academics seriously, his scholarship would be pulled and he would be sent home.

"What home?" Kinlaw thought. "My dad's living in a motel. I've got nowhere to go there."

The prospect of returning to the Goose Creek area, where there was nothing for him but struggle, put enough fear in him to change his attitude. He considers his junior college experience as the starting point for his maturing process, and first place he began to truly earn the position he's in now.

But he needed more than just academic maturity.

Kinlaw came to JCJC with freakish athletic skills and a powerful body, but his soul and spirit were damaged. Underneath a tough, intimidating exterior, he longed for nurturing off the field -- for someone in this tiny, strange new town to care more about his feelings than his football.

He found that in the Griffith family.

Kinlaw struck JCJC dean Jennifer Griffith as profoundly sad and withdrawn when he first walked into her office to discuss tutoring.

"I can't explain it, but I just wanted to hug him," she said.

Griffith told Kinlaw he had to present state-issued identification, such as a driver's license, when he took the high school equivalency test required for his GED. She'd come across plenty of students in the GED program who didn't have one, but Kinlaw was the first to tell her he didn't know how to drive and wanted to learn.

As a way of motivating him, she agreed to give him a driving lesson each time he completed a different GED requirement. When she arranged the first of those lessons and asked him via Facebook if he was ready to learn to drive, he responded, "Yes, ma'am," followed by a lengthy string of exclamation points.

"That's when I thought, 'I've got him,' " she said. "I've gotten through to him in some way."

Griffith's children were in the car during Kinlaw's first driving lesson, and when they asked to go fishing afterward, Griffith asked Kinlaw if he wanted to come along. Turns out, he'd never caught a fish, either. He hooked a bass that afternoon and landed it only after one of Jennifer's young sons waded into the marsh to untangle his prized catch.

By day's end, he'd been behind both a steering wheel and a cane pole for the first time in his life, and a relationship with the Griffith family -- one that continues today with daily text messages -- was born.

He began staying weekends and days off on the Griffith's 40-acre property, where he was exposed to wide-open country living. He went hunting for the first time with the Griffiths, learned to swim, and learned to love the quiet nature of rural life. The remote homestead doesn't receive cell service, but Kinlaw loved the feeling of being unplugged.

In time, he became part of the family.

Kinlaw even made sure Jennifer's three boys would stay on top of their chores, clearing the dinner table and cleaning up after themselves. He admits it didn't come naturally.

"I didn't ever want to set a bad example, so I'd do things like that to try to show them how to be better," Kinlaw said. "In actuality, I was making myself better at the same time. I was telling them to do right, but in setting an example, I was doing right for the first time myself."

He would have to leave the Griffiths at night to make curfew, but he spent every minute he could with them. When JCJC players left campus to find a good time at the now-closed Marlins Bar and Grill in Hattiesburg, Kinlaw was at the Griffiths, without a signal to receive his teammates' calls to join them.

It wasn't his scene, anyway.

"He'd be at my house, watching something like Monsters, Inc. with my kids," Griffith said.

When he left for South Carolina, the Griffiths gave him the black 2008 Jeep Wrangler he'd learned to drive with, and he returned in it plenty of times.

"Anytime we had two days off, he'd ask me if he could go to Mississippi," Muschamp said.

Kinlaw largely attributes his maturity to country-life experience with the Griffiths. It not only provided him a measure of personal peace, it helped shape him into a thoughtful and insightful young parent himself. His 10-month-old daughter, Eden Amara, has become a constant source of his on-field motivation.

"She's part of the reason why I play the way I play, knowing you've got no other way (to take care of her), or reason not to take care of her," Kinlaw said at last month's Senior Bowl. "I want to show people it's OK to be a good father. These young fathers, I just want to show them you don't have to be scared."

John Scott Jr. was working the desktop mouse in his office at South Carolina's Long Family Football Operations Center last fall when the defensive line coach went straight to clips of Kinlaw's money games, against Georgia and Alabama, to illustrate perhaps the closest thing to perfection he's seen from a college defensive tackle.

Crimson Tide center Chris Owens is instantly being driven 4 yards into the backfield as if he's holding off a grizzly bear. He regains his balance only after Kinlaw disengages him for the prize -- a sack of star quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

Then Scott goes onto the Georgia tape, 6:55 left in the first quarter.

"Their offensive line was massive. As big as any line I saw in the NFL, and he just goes right through them," said Scott, a former defensive assistant with the New York Jets who recently was hired by Penn State. "Just watch this one."

The clip shows Georgia center Trey Hill being knocked backward just like Owens. It's a shotgun snap to quarterback Jake Fromm, who hands off to another future pro, RB D'Andre Swift. Kinlaw drives the 330-pound Hill into Swift's lap before the handoff had even been completed, creating a loss in the backfield.

He frequently beats double-teams by getting the anchor immediately off balance. He does it with an upward strike that a veteran AFC scout described as a "forklift move" once employed by Hall of Fame end Doug Atkins.

"He'll attack the near man with it and get one of his feet off the ground, and it gives him leverage when the double man comes down," the scout said. "Reggie White had a similar move. You saw Chris Jones do it some at Mississippi State. He's strong as hell, and he's got great explosion."

Kinlaw uses a rawer description: "Jacking people up out of their shoes."

Scott spent 2015 and 2016 assisting Jets defensive line coach Pepper Johnson. It was there where he got a close look at three Pro Bowl players, all former first-round picks -- Sheldon Richardson, Muhammad Wilkerson and Leonard Williams -- and doesn't hesitate to put Kinlaw in their class.

"If you were putting together the ideal defensive tackle's body in the shop, Javon Kinlaw is what you would try to build. Long arms, athleticism, frame," Scott said. "When I compare him to those guys, he has all the athleticism they had. But I think he's got more pop than Leonard had in college. He comes out of his hips and strikes at the line of scrimmage like nobody else. Against Texas A&M, he got to the quarterback all night."

Everything finally came together for Kinlaw in 2019, and he's regarded as a high first-round prospect largely because of it. In 2018, a hip injury sapped him of much of the strength and explosiveness that now make him what an AFC scout last fall called "the most violent player in college football." And in 2017, prior to his first season at South Carolina, he had 40 pounds to shed. For six months before his arrival at South Carolina, while Kinlaw was completing his associate degree, he got to eat like he'd never been able to eat before at the Griffith home; day-and-night access to the fullest refrigerator he'd ever seen.

"Miss Jennifer had stuffed me like a turkey," Kinlaw said. "I wasn't working out my last semester, and I wasn't used to being able to eat consistently, every day, all the time. So, when she'd feed me, I took every meal I got."

He ballooned to nearly 350 pounds but shed it quickly, and now weighs a chiseled 315. When he gets to the NFL scouting combine in a couple of weeks, former Gamecocks strength coach Jeff Dillman expects him to pair a vertical jump of 30-plus inches with a broad jump of 10-plus feet, a combination no 300-pound player achieved at the 2019 combine.

Another factor driving his draft value is his versatility. His pass-rushing skills make him an every-down player, separating him from defensive tackles who sub out in obvious passing situations.

"He can play two-gap, one-gap, and he can pressure the quarterback inside," said Muschamp. "In regular downs he can (play 5-techique) and rush the edge, and he can play right over the center. He gives you a lot of position multiplicity. And his best football is ahead of him."

Kinlaw galvanized his lofty draft stock with two stellar practice performances at the Senior Bowl before a minor injury cut his week short. He was virtually unblockable, drawing across-the-board praise from multiple scouts who spoke off record. NFL Network analysts Daniel JeremiahBucky Brooks and Lance Zierlein all project Kinlaw as a first-round selection in their initial mock drafts. Jeremiah ranks Kinlaw as the seventh-best prospect in the entire draft.

"A lot of people told me my stock was at a place where I didn't really need to come (to the Senior Bowl), but I just wanted to show that I love to compete," Kinlaw said. "That's the one, true reason I came."

High temperatures in Columbia were blazing in the upper 90s the week of the Alabama game, and when Kinlaw made his way down Huger Street, even at 2 in the morning, it was still above 70. The women nevertheless were fully covered in dingy jeans and beige sweaters. They shouldered backpacks for their possessions, denoting to Kinlaw their transient nature.

_"Do you need some help?"

"Do you need some money?"_

At first, the women believed Kinlaw was teasing them and wouldn't approach his truck. Kinlaw opened his wallet and emptied it of $300, which he handed to his brother, Shaquille, with instructions to walk it over to them.

"They looked young," Shaquille said. "Late 20s, early 30s, but they obviously needed a blessing. I told her Javon played football at South Carolina, but they didn't know who he was. I shook her hand and told her Javon wanted them safe and off that corner."

Shaquille said both women began to cry in gratitude, with the one who took the cash thanking him repeatedly.

Javon had never given that much to a homeless person before, but he's made a habit of giving away whatever he has on him, not just a dollar or two. Weeks before, he'd given $100 to a homeless man on Lincoln Street, just blocks away from Huger and a short drive north of South Carolina's campus. College towns aren't reputed to have much of a homeless problem, but Kinlaw says Columbia isn't at all immune -- the Oliver Gospel Mission stands less than a mile from campus, while Transitions Homeless Center is within a mile and a half. On occasions when Kinlaw has crossed Columbia's homeless with empty pockets of his own, he's often detoured to the nearest ATM to make a withdrawal and return.

Kinlaw has what he describes as "big plans" to help the homeless with his forthcoming NFL riches, but he's secretive about the details. He reveals he wants to at least build a few shelters, as if that's only a fraction of his charitable vision. The connection he feels with them is unfailing, and for reasons that are a mystery to him, it goes both ways.

"Homeless people come up to me all the time, and I don't know why they pick me," Kinlaw said. "There can be 1,000 other people walking by who they could ask for help, and they always walk up on me. It's like, somehow, they know where I've been."


Editors: Andy Fenelon, Ali Bhanpuri | Illustration: David Lomeli
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