She knew the neighborhood around 4th Street NE, where they lived most of the time, was no place for a child. She heard the gunshots, saw the fights. She worried that life wasn’t much better near Charleston, S.C., where Kinlaw’s father moved after their relationship ended years before, but at least the pace would be slower and maybe safer. So she trusted the Bible she read every day and prayed she was doing the right thing.
“It was a sacrifice for me to make, but I thought it was the best for him,” she said.
Much like he did in Washington, Kinlaw stumbled from place to place around Charleston, sometimes living in a motel with his father, sometimes staying at friends’ houses. But South Carolina had football, a sport he couldn’t afford to play before, and while there were many nights when he went hungry, he grew to be 6-foot-5 with strength and speed. Football brought him stability and eventually a scholarship to play on the defensive line for the University of South Carolina.
On Thursday night, a decade after leaving 4th Street, Kinlaw is likely to be picked in the NFL draft’s first round. Depending on when he is selected, he will get a contract worth somewhere between $11 million and $20 million over four years.
“You definitely can’t give up on yourself,” Kinlaw said. “Things definitely got rough. I didn’t really expect myself to be here. I didn’t expect myself to be a collegiate athlete, but I stuck with it.”
‘It made me a man’
As a child, Kinlaw wanted to box. He knew of several kids training to be fighters, and one day his mother struck up a conversation with a boxing coach at a laundromat. The man offered to show Kinlaw how to punch. But boxing lessons cost money, and like many other things, they were something he couldn’t have.
James-Exum worked hard at odd jobs that included hanging drywall, painting interiors and running a personal training business out of local recreation centers, but there was never enough money. The basement apartments they lived in were threadbare and miserable. Kinlaw remembers having to use a neighbor’s hose to fill tote bags of water that he and his brother and mother would pour into tall pots and heat on a gas stove so they could have warm water for a bath.
“We just thought that was normal,” he said. “That’s how we was living; we didn’t know how everybody else was living. And we was cool with that, especially me. Now looking back at it I see it was tough, man, but it made me a man at a young age — grew up early, definitely.”
Sometimes things felt hopeless. There were so many days when James-Exum wanted to cry in frustration. But she never broke down in front of her boys. “I had to show them that it’s going to be all right,” she said. So she woke them each day chirping “time to walk” and “time to exercise” in a sweet Caribbean singsong, and on Sundays she made sure they arrived extra early to Greater Mount Calvary Holy Church so they wouldn’t miss a word of the sermon.
“I couldn’t give up and accept certain things,” she said. “You can’t let it get you down. Some people can use times like this to bounce back. If you can come back from this, you can come back from everything.”
She believed this even when her sons wore the same clothes almost every day because they couldn’t afford new ones. She believed it when her boys stopped going to school most days, hopping Metro turnstiles and riding trains all afternoon. She believed it, too, when she placed Kinlaw on a Greyhound bus by himself and sent him to South Carolina.
“I always thought there was a way we can overcome things,” James-Exum said. “My children have seen a lot, but our attitude has always been that when someone has difficulty it can bring out the worst in people, but it can also bring out the best.”
Kinlaw does not talk much about his life around Charleston, providing few details other than to suggest he often didn’t want to stay wherever his father was living at the time. “The past is the past,” he says. But South Carolina was where he began his path to football stardom, playing at Goose Creek High in the northern suburbs of Charleston.
He wasn’t a spectacular player, but the college coaches who watched him play could see his size, athleticism and potential. The issue was that his grades were terrible, partly because of missed classes. His coaches tried to help, and sometimes teammates’ families let him stay with them, but mostly he bounced from place to place. A prominent college coach, a man who had recruited a lot of players in dire circumstances, told longtime LSU defensive assistant Pete Jenkins — who would later train Kinlaw before the NFL’s scouting combine — that Kinlaw “had it the worst I’ve ever seen."
After Kinlaw committed to South Carolina, Coach Will Muschamp urged him to leave Goose Creek in the middle of his senior year and enroll at Jones College, a junior college in southeastern Mississippi offering a three-semester GED program that would meet South Carolina’s admission requirements. With nothing to keep him at Goose Creek, Kinlaw went to Mississippi — but not because he imagined it was a path to college or the NFL.
“It was just important to have a stable place,” he said.
‘A dream come true’
During Jennifer Griffith’s years running Jones College’s adult education program, a lot of students had come through her office. But Kinlaw was different. The first time she met him, he spoke in a soft, polite voice, staring at the floor as he explained he didn’t have the driver’s license usually needed for her to begin his GED paperwork because he had never been taught how to drive.
“My heart went out to him,” she said.
She made Kinlaw an offer. Every time he passed a section of his GED work, her husband, Greg, would give him a driving lesson on their 40-acre property not far from the school — a place she calls “as country as you can get.” One lesson led to another, and soon Kinlaw was spending most of his afternoons and weekends with the Griffiths and their three young sons, who showed Kinlaw how to hunt and fish and explore the pine forests that surrounded their home.
Eventually, it seemed like he had become one of them.
“We had a little hole in our family,” Griffith remembers telling her husband one day. “He filled the hole.”
Occasionally, Kinlaw would give hints to his past, such as the first time he ate at their house and said it had been years since he felt that full, or the day in Hattiesburg when he pulled out $3, the only money he had, and gave it to a homeless man they saw on the street. But it would take months for the Griffiths to hear the stories of hungry nights in basement apartments and run-down motels, and by then Griffith had made up her mind to not ask Kinlaw about his earlier life.
Over time, Griffith came to know James-Exum, and the women grew to be friends, with Griffith admiring the way Kinlaw’s mother fought for the best for her sons and James-Exum appreciating the way “they looked after Javon.”
At school, Kinlaw’s grades soared and he earned his GED. It was obvious to Griffith that Kinlaw was smart, and while she believed Jones’s football coach, Steve Buckley, gave Kinlaw structure that he needed and she hoped that the time spent with her family provided stability, she became convinced that Kinlaw was the type of person who would find success no matter what.
“The one thing Javon Kinlaw has is a whole lot of grit,” she said. “I love him like I gave birth to him, but I have no doubt he would have been successful. Sometimes I tell him: ‘Is football what you really want to do? Because you can do anything you want.’ You give me someone with a ton of grit versus someone with a doctorate, and I’ll take the grit every time.
“People need a champion to pull for right now,” she continued. “I can’t think of a better champion. He’s a survivor. He learned to deal with things on his own.”
Kinlaw left Jones in 2017 for South Carolina, where he started at defensive tackle all three years. Last fall, he was named a team captain and was an Associated Press all-American selection with 35 tackles, six sacks and four quarterback hurries. He drew the attention of NFL teams as a potential first-round pick.
In December, Kinlaw graduated with a degree in interdisciplinary studies. James-Exum, who had come to most of his games, said she stared in wonder at her son as he stood there in his cap and gown.
“It’s a dream come true,” she told him.
‘Everything I’m doing is for her’
Late one night in the days before an NFL team will make him a millionaire many times over, Kinlaw talked about his daughter, a 1-year-old girl named Eden.
“My biggest responsibility is being a good father,” he said.
He is driving from the Griffiths’ home in Mississippi, where he had been staying for several days, running hills and country roads after the novel coronavirus pandemic shut down most workout facilities. But now he’s going back to Columbia to his girlfriend and the little girl he can’t wait to see. Through his senior year he doted on Eden, rushing home from morning classes to hold her and change her diapers as his girlfriend went to class, determined to be the father who never is far away.
“Everything I’m doing is for her,” he said.
“Nothing compares to being a parent,” he continued. “I want her to have everything I never had. I want her to have great clothes and great shoes and for her to have everything in the palm of her hand and her never having to worry about bills to pay off.”
“I’m not focused on getting money and getting cars and trying to get girls,” he said. “I just want my kids to be great. I want them to be like kings and queens. I’m focused on building my empire.”
Then Kinlaw breathed in deep and exhaled into his phone. He was almost home, to the city where he earned a college degree and has started a family. Several hours to the north, his mother has a quiet, happy life in suburban Virginia, where she lives with his brother. All these years later, Leesa James-Exum was right: If you believe things will change for the better, they eventually will.