TAMPA — An 11-year-old boy got on a Greyhound bus alone in Washington D.C., bound for Charleston, S.C. He spoke to almost no one and only stared out the window, trying to escape the briar patch of homelessness he had been trapped in.
Javon Kinlaw and his mom had lived in basements with no electricity. The only water came from a neighbor’s garden hose and had to be boiled for drinking or bathing. He wore the same clothes and was teased about it.
He was headed to live with his father, still searching for shelter from the endless storm that was his childhood.
“I mean, I’m pretty sure people know the story now," Kinlaw said. "Just being homeless. Those types 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."
But that bus ride? " I thought it was cool, though. Just riding. Just seeing different things.”
On Thursday, Kinlaw’s journey likely will take him to the NFL as a first-round draft pick. Only Auburn’s Derrick Brown is a better interior defensive lineman in this class.
As Kinlaw tells it, playing football wasn’t even the reason he went to Jones County Junior College in Ellisville, Miss., after dropping out of high school halfway through his senior year. But it led him to South Carolina, where he became one of the nation’s best defensive tackles and an All-American under coach Will Muschamp.
“The turning point? Just getting to college," Kinlaw said. “Just having somewhere that I knew I wasn’t going to get put out of. 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 to eat. That’s really why I went. I didn’t go with the expectation that, ‘Man, I’m going to the SEC. I’m going to go to the league.’ I went because I had somewhere to sleep."
Kinlaw didn’t play football until he was 15. By then, he had grown to be 6 feet 5 and 260 pounds. His dad mentioned his son’s size at the Department of Motor Vehicles to an assistant high school coach, and a career was born.
“When I first got to South Carolina, I was hired in December (2015), and we lacked line-of-scrimmage players, big bodies,” Muschamp said. “And so I scoured the Southeast and heard we had a guy in Charleston who was right down the road that we’re not recruiting for whatever reason. I just started kind of researching him. You see a big body. You see a big athlete.
“Then I got his transcript, and it wasn’t good. And quite frankly, his school hadn’t done a good job with him. So I went down to Charleston and Goose Creek High School and met him, and I saw that this guy was intelligent. Bright. Just needed an opportunity. So I told him, ‘The best thing for you to do right now, your school has done you no favors as far as your college eligibility. You need to take your GED and go to junior college, and I can get you back to Columbia in May.’
“Why he trusted me, I don’t know. But he did, and it’s worked out quite well. He’s a great example of a guy that did not let his circumstances define who he was.”
Kinlaw may not be the best player in the draft, but he has perhaps the best story. He also could be a pretty good fallback option for the Bucs if the four elite offensive tackles — Alabama’s Jedrick Wills Jr., Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs, Louisville’s Mekhi Becton and Georgia’s Andrew Thomas — are gone by the time they make the No. 14 overall selection Thursday night.
The Bucs used a franchise tag on linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who led the NFL with 191/2 sacks last season. They re-signed defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh to a one-year, $8 million deal and are also bringing back linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul.
But Suh is 33 and has signed a series of one-year deals the past three seasons. The Bucs eventually have to find another dominant defensive tackle to play alongside Vita Vea.
As a player, Kinlaw is big, powerful and athletic but extremely raw. He bull rushed his way to 101/2 sacks and 93 tackles over the past three seasons.
“He moves really well for a guy that obviously is going to be an interior presence,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper said. “He’s got tremendous athleticism, and I think that’s what people want more so than at any other time in football… the interior pressure and a guy who has that versatility.
“Kinlaw is a guy who obviously produced against the highest level of competition. His tape is really good. I think he’ll benefit, obviously, if he keeps improving with NFL coaching.”
Kinlaw improved as a player and student at community college. But when he arrived at South Carolina, the free meals had pushed his weight to about 350 pounds on his then 6-foot-6 frame. By the start of the 2018 season, working with a nutritionist, he was down to 320 in 2019 and about 300 last season.
“I couldn’t play at 350," he said. “I’d be out there and probably done killed myself. I had to get that thing out of me. It felt like I had another person over here."
Kinlaw’s technique has lots of room to improve. But he was dominant during practice at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., before tendinitis in his knee prevented him from playing in the game. He also did not work out at the NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis in February. South Carolina was forced to cancel its pro day due to the spread of COVID-19.
Kinlaw says his focus is on his daughter, 1-year-old Eden Amara.
“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. “She’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen. She’s so happy. It makes me happy."
During a media session at the combine, Kinlaw surveyed his surroundings and smiled.
“God is good," he said. “There is a God, man, for sure. With the position I was put in, I shouldn’t even be here right now. I take it seriously. 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.”
Kinlaw was asked what he would tell that 11-year-old boy on the Greyhound bus today.
“Keep your head up, man," Kinlaw said. “Stop being so shy. Just talk to people. 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 greater is heading to you."