From Homeless to Hero - The Javon Kinlaw Story

Photo: © Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The definition of faith and perseverance, South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw is exactly that. His mother, Leesa James, took a massive risk by moving to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago in 1995. Her sole purpose was to start a new life in a new country. Living in Washington D.C. in 2008, she pursued a business venture, but it took a turn for the worse after the business left her high and dry following the promise of a job and a home. Left with neither, along with her sons, the family was forced out of their previous home.

Kinlaw, who was the youngest of his three brothers, and only 10 years old at the time, experienced periods of homelessness and while there were brief stints with family friends, the comfort of knowing where shelter may have come from was a week-to-week unknown. Basements, one bedroom homes, and many unfortunate circumstances, he and has family have been through it all.

To this day, the determination of his mother is something that he directly correlates his efforts on the field to. The family reluctantly found a reliable friend in Jillian Behram. For a few months, the family stayed in the confines of Behram's gloomy and unfinished basement. It was the first source of dependable shelter that they had experienced in weeks. This doesn't even tell half of the story that Kinlaw's family experienced as he moved from state-to-state in search of a place that he could call home.

Yet to have a place to really call home, Kinlaw was once again on the move. This time landing at Goose Creek High School. A school located on the outer east edges of the state, the first person that he met when enrolling in the program was Timothy Davis. In the same graduating class (2016), he and Kinlaw were instant friends. 

Growing up in the area, Davis helped get Kinlaw acclimated to the area as his father was also a widely known basketball coach in the area. Despite the extra help, the then 6-foot-6, 280 pound defensive tackle went to the extreme in order to make ends meet. The money that he received from the family, he bought essentials and did whatever he could, but keep them in as best shape as possible in order to reuse them. Anything to put extra money in his pocket, Kinlaw was willing to go the extra mile. 

Becoming so fixated on having extra means and football, he experienced lots of success on Friday nights. So much that nearly every school in the country came knocking on his door, but with the prosperity that he experienced on the gridiron, the more his grades suffered. 

Becoming lazy and just wanting to play football is what he mentioned as the driving force behind his purpose in life. Multiple days without attending school, just wanting to be the class clown, and feeling as if the world was against him were reasons why he felt that school just wasn't for him. Even though football made him happy, the compounding school work and missed assignments piled up on him. So much, that the bad grades and negative reputation about him spread like a virus throughout school faculty and staff members.

With his father staying in a motel, and his unwillingness to listen to the actual guidance from the people who attempted to have an impact on his life, Kinlaw was on a fast track to be the "greatest who never was" because of his naivety. 

With a sinking grade point average and a football career that was quickly dwindling, South Carolina head coach paid a special visit to Kinlaw on Goose Creek's campus. Having a one-on-one sit down conversation with the star defensive tackle, he expressed that the program wanted to offer him a scholarship, but it came with specific stipulations. Obviously a person of Kinlaw's background and inexperience had no idea the circumstances and benefits that came with an athletic scholarship.

Muschamp laid out a plan that required Kinlaw to enter what was called a General Education Development (GED) program, which outlined all of the courses and work necessary for him in order to fulfill the necessary requirements to experience the scholarship that the team was presenting him with.

The coursework outline required him to enroll in Jones County Junior College, which is one of the more popular stops in the country in Ellisville, Mississippi. The stipulations also allowed him to play one season at the institution in order to stay up to speed and further his development on the field.

Kinlaw passed the tests with flying colors. In his lone season in the JUCO ranks, he finished with 26 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks on his way to being named as a second-team All-American. His most impressive feat came off of the field, as he went from a high school student that finished near the bottom of his respective class in GPA standards, but he finished on the dean's list at Jones County. 

A complete 180 degree turn was apparent and maturity spread like a wildfire throughout him. He accomplished everything that Muschamp believed that he could and Kinlaw arrived in Columbia as a highly touted prospect. One problem existed though and it was that he arrived in town much heftier than he was during his final season of high school days. Tipping the scales at nearly 340 pounds, he dropped over 40 pounds during his debut season on campus. 

Recording 10 starts in 13 games played, he finished with 20 tackles, 2.0 tackles for loss and one forced fumble. Much of the same came during his sophomore season where he collected 12 starts and concluded the year with 38 tackles, 10.0 tackles for loss, and 4.5 sacks -- a team high.

Kinlaw faced his first hit of adversity during his time in Columbia as he had to undergo hip surgery that forced him to miss the teams appearance in the Belk Bowl against Virginia, which was an eventual 28-0 defeat.

With high expectations entering his final season in Columbia, Kinlaw has come storming out of the gates. Through six games, he has already recorded a career high 5.0 sacks, plus 18 tackles and 5.0 tackles for loss.

All of the trials and tribulations that he's faced on his path to South Carolina, few would have persevered through what he experienced. Through all that he's accomplished, there's still a lot of work to be done, but that doesn't take away from Javon Kinlaw staring up at the mountain and now working his way to the top to where now he's looking down upon it reminiscing about the success in his life with still plenty more to come.

What does he bring to the table as a player?

Where He Wins (+)

Kinlaw is a taller interior defensive line prospect, but he has plenty enough knee bend and flexibility that enables him to pack an urgent first step. He's powerful and has surprising strength. Blockers seem to often be surprised by his initial movements and strength when he's able to get into their frame. Momentum plus his power have caused many blockers to finish on the ground only seconds after being engaged in matchups.

He has massively long and filled out arms that he's able to use to his advantage. Has shown to be excellent with keeping the interior of his frame clear from danger due to his extended reach. Kinlaw is able to keep his shoulders parallel down the line and when rushers shoot through his gap, he’s able to reach out his arms to devour them when attempting to run through his assigned areas.

He dropped a significant amount of weight prior to the 2018 season, but his strength levels remained unchanged. Overbearing amount of power that jolts blockers back quickly after the snap. His traits show up in multiple areas especially as a run defender and interior pocket pusher. Kinlaw executes a repertoire of moves that mainly include a bull rush and swim move that have consistently been effective.

Known for how he rallies to the ball whenever he’s on the field. Impressive motor combined with having the feeling of effecting every snap helps him give all out effort on every down. Even when not on the play-side, he attempts to chase the ball carrier down from the backside in order to secure tackles for minimal gains.

Where He Must Improve (-)

When attempting to hold up against double teams, he will attempt to withstand the momentum from it by putting all of his weight on one leg in order to stand his ground. This results in his shoulders becoming turned and ending the rep on the ground. He can be completely washed outside of his assigned gap, which results in clear running lanes. Learning to keep his shoulders square consistently, sink his hips, and use a fair share of his lower half will need to be instilled in him.

His hand placement and locations are sporadic. Kinlaw doesn’t know when and where to place his hands depending on the direction of the play and exactly the situation he’s in. Strike zones, meaning target areas on the blockers bodies, are inconsistent and knowing which regions to place them in need improvement in order to become even better as a pass rusher and run defender.

Plenty of occurrences of where he is able to win at the first level of the line cleanly, generate pressure, but fails to make the tackle or the sack. Led the team in sacks (2018), but could’ve clearly distanced himself even more if he was able to finish the opportunities that were presented.

Written By:

Jordan Reid

Senior NFL Draft Analyst

Jordan Reid is a Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Gaining experience from various lenses of the game, he has previously served as a college quarterback, position coach, and recruiting coordinator at North Carolina Central University. He now serves as a Color Commentator for FloSports, covering both high school and college football games around the country while also being the host of The Reid Option Podcast.