For Javon Kinlaw, one of the most diminutive people has made the biggest impact on his life.
Since April 2019, the 6-foot-5, 324-pound former South Carolina defensive star’s sole purpose in life has become giving his daughter, Eden Amara, the life he did not have.
Kinlaw, now a member of the 49ers, was selected as the No. 14 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. His story, however, has been anything but smooth sailing.
Growing up through streaks of homelessness in Washington D.C. and Maryland, Kinlaw often didn’t know where his next meal was coming from. Along with his mother and two brothers, Kinlaw regularly lived without hot water or electricity.
Kinlaw’s home life left him unable to focus in school, and sports were too expensive for him to participate in. In 2013 his mother sent him to South Carolina to live with his father in an attempt to give him a more stable environment.
It was there, at Goose Creek High School, that Kinlaw’s football life began, but stability was still a foreign concept for the towering teenager. Life with his father was not much different than what he had survived in D.C. and his grades were suffering.
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That’s when South Carolina’s Will Muschamp stepped in. The head football coach saw potential in the young prospect but knew that it was going to take a new environment and a stint at a junior college before the defensive tackle would be able to join the Gamecocks football program.
“Javon’s extremely intelligent,” Muschamp told NBC Sports Bay Area. “He just didn’t handle some things in high school the way he probably should have. He has grown tremendously through those years.”
A few days after Muschamp suggested Kinlaw attend Jones County Junior College to enroll in their GED program, Kinlaw made the trek with his father to Ellisville, Miss. The Dean of JCJC’s Workforce College, Jennifer Griffith, immediately saw Kinlaw’s need and openness to being mentored.
Kinlaw and the Griffith family bonded through their time together in Mississippi and still remain close to this day. They provided a constant in his life after nearly two decades of uncertainty. Still, Kinlaw’s future intentions to play football were not as focused as they became in 2019 after the birth of his daughter.
It was Sept. 14, 2019, when Reese’s Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy really took notice of the Gamecocks defensive tackle. Nagy was in Columbia to watch South Carolina face off with Alabama and recounted to NBC Sports Bay Area how he was struck by the complete transformation of Kinlaw from a 340-pound behemoth into a physical specimen.
“He came out for pregame and didn’t have his shoulder pads on,” Nagy said. “He just came out in pants and a cut off t-shirt and his body looked totally different than what I remembered it looking like the year before.”
Nagy believes it was mostly Eden Amara’s doing.
“Having a baby can usually make guys go one of two ways,” Nagy said. “It can set them into a tailspin a little bit, or it can really focus them. It really focused Javon. He really put a lot of work in, more than he ever had. He lost 20-25 pounds.”
Muschamp noticed the same turning point in Kinlaw. His staff was was tough on the defensive tackle but knew they could only provide a certain amount of motivation.
“When she was born, not that he didn’t work hard before, but I saw a guy that was on a mission,” Muschamp said. “[He] understood that there was a lot more out there for him right now in taking care of his daughter and taking care of his family.”
Kinlaw kept a laser focus through his senior season earning first-team Associated Press All-American and first-team All-SEC honors. Muschamp still believes that Kinlaw’s best football is ahead of him.
Nagy not only noticed Kinlaw’s physical transformation, but his determination. Kinlaw’s professional attitude at the 2020 Senior Bowl in January reminded him of another South Carolina product that is also with the 49ers, Deebo Samuel.
“When [Kinlaw] got to Mobile, you can just tell certain guys are here to enjoy it and take in the experience and there’s other guys that come in with a real business-like mindset,” Nagy said. “Deebo Samuel was that guy the year before.
“Deebo, you could just see it in his eyes like he was just really locked in to making it a business trip and helping himself in the draft. Javon was pretty similar, even at the press conference. He was pretty stoic, business-like and matter of fact. And you saw it out on the practice field.”
Kinlaw still has a huge task at his feet, living up to the expectations of being the 49ers' first-round draft pick. Now, at least, he can rest assured that he will never have to wonder if there will be a roof over his family’s heads.
Muschamp always utilized the philosophy; “Don’t let your circumstances define who you are,” with his players. Kinlaw, however, might now be an exception, being quite happy that Eden Amara has brought definition to his life.