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Top NFL Draft pick Javon Kinlaw was once homeless but will soon have a multimillion-dollar payday

Javon Kinlaw of the South Carolina Gamecocks before their game against the Appalachian State Mountaineers at Williams-Brice Stadium on November 09, 2019.
Jacob Kupferman | Getty Images

Javon Kinlaw is part of an incredibly exclusive club, as one of just a handful of college football players who became early first-round selections when the 2020 NFL Draft kicked off on Thursday night.

But Kinlaw's story becomes even more unique than his fellow soon-to-be NFL draft picks when you consider just how far he's come on his path to becoming a millionaire professional athlete. Long before using his 6-foot-5-inch, nearly 325-pound frame to become a punishing defensive lineman for the University of South Carolina's football team, Kinlaw was a kid growing up in poverty in Washington, D.C. without a permanent place to live.

Kinlaw, now 22, spent parts of his childhood homeless, bouncing between friends' homes and basements after his mother lost her job and the apartment where she was raising two of her sons when Kinlaw was about 10 years old, he told ESPN in March.

Now Kinlaw is on his way to San Francisco, after the NFL's 49ers made him the 14th overall selection of the NFL Draft's first round on Thursday. ESPN's rankings had pegged Kinlaw as the ninth-best prospect overall. Based on projected rookie contracts for incoming NFL players this year, Kinlaw is expected to sign a rookie deal with the 49ers that would pay him more than $15 million overall (including a likely signing bonus of around $8.8 million), according to Spotrac.

Despite the financial struggles of his childhood, though, Kinlaw now says he's more or less ambivalent about the exact size of the NFL contract he's close to landing.

"I know I'm gonna get some type of money," Kinlaw told ESPN before the draft. "The way I'm wired, I've been down, like down bad, down bad. Bad like where no one should be. [I] lived in basements. No matter what the money is, I'm going to be grateful. I can get me somewhere to live. Regardless of where I'm gonna be, I'm going [to] find me somewhere to live. So, I don't care what amount it is."

Kinlaw's mother, Leesa James, moved to the United States from Trinidad and Tobago in 1995 and she often struggled to land steady or lucrative work in construction, where she sometimes found jobs painting or finishing drywall. In 2008, she moved her sons to a D.C. suburb, Hyattsville, Maryland, chasing a business opportunity with a construction colleague that fell through after a few months, James told The Greeneville News in 2018.

Without money coming in, James was forced to reach out for help and ended up staying in a neighbor's basement for a few months. Even when the family returned to D.C. after a few months James struggled to make ends meet.

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The family would live with friends in the city, or sometimes find temporary housing even if it meant staying somewhere without electricity or running water. Kinlaw says he sometimes had to haul water home from a friend's house for his own family.

"We had a gas stove," Kinlaw said. "We would light the stove with a little match or something, get a tall pot, boil the water, mix it with some cold water, put it in a bucket, take it upstairs, take a shower like that."

Kinlaw and his brother would hop the turnstiles to ride Washington, D.C.'s metro, he told reporters, sometimes going to school but sometimes not. Some days he would ride the trains all day to stay warm.

"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 told NFL.com in February.

When he was partway through the ninth grade, Kinlaw's mother decided to send him to live with his father in South Carolina, hoping he would have more opportunities and less exposure to the crime-ridden neighborhoods they were inhabiting in Washington, D.C.

In rural Goose Creek, South Carolina, Kinlaw attended high school and joined the football team, as he was already well over 6-feet tall and nearly 270 pounds as a teenager.

Despite finding a home on the football field, Kinlaw struggled living with his father, who had issues with drinking, he told NFL.com 

During his senior year of high school, Javon Kinlaw lived with the family of a football teammate.

Meanwhile, Kinlaw's massive size and athletic ability attracted college recruiters, who began talking to him about college football scholarships to schools like Alabama, Clemson and South Carolina.

"They said they were offering me a scholarship. I was like, 'What are you offering me?' I didn't really know what it was," Kinlaw told The Greeneville News in 2018. "I was like, 'Wow, I can really try to do something with this. I'm going to try to stick it out.' I was just playing football to pick up a hobby and stay off the streets at first."

However, Kinlaw still struggled with his schoolwork, and he still often skipped classes. As his grades fell, the interest from major colleges waned. South Carolina's coaches convinced him to enroll in a GED program at Jones County Junior College in Mississippi in the spring of 2016, promising him that a commitment to improving his grades would land him a spot at the university the following year.

"[They] really didn't have to talk me into it. I was homeless at the time," Kinlaw said in 2018. "When Coach said 'Mississippi,' I really didn't know what I was doing or where I was going. But free food? Free bed? Why not?"

Kinlaw got his GED and even started some coursework at the junior college. In the fall of 2017, Kinlaw finally landed at South Carolina and he's been a mainstay on the school's football team ever since. In December, the Associated Press named Kinlaw a first-team starter on the publication's 2019 All-American squad, cementing his status as one of the best players at his position in college football.

Now Kinlaw has yet another accomplishment in the books: becoming a first-round selection in the NFL Draft. Whether he succeeds or not at the professional level, as a high draft pick Kinlaw will soon have enough money from his rookie signing bonus to ensure he and his family never again have to endure the same hardships he did as a child.

Kinlaw especially wants to use that money to give his one-year-old daughter, named Eden Amara, more than he had as a child. "I just want her to have a fun childhood, [and] not have to worry about things she shouldn't have to be worrying about as a kid," Kinlaw told ESPN.

He also wants to give back to homeless communities, telling NFL.com he has "big plans" to build homeless shelters because of the connection he still feels to those suffering through poverty.

"Homeless people come up to me all the time, and I don't know why they pick me," Kinlaw said in the interview. "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."

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