Kinlaw sees the light at the end of the NFL tunnel

Former Gamecocks tight end Javon Kinlaw discusses struggles growing up in Washington, D.C., at the Senior Bowl. (Video by D. Orlando Ledbetter/AJC)

Just a few baby steps from making it to the NFL, former South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw reflected on his upbringing at the Senior Bowl.

“My mother (moved here) from Trinidad and Tobago with my two older brothers, just growing up in Northeast Washington, D.C., pretty much homeless,” Kinlaw said.

That should not be a problem in the future for the potential first-day draft pick.

“Really, outside of Justin Herbert, Kinlaw is probably the top-rated guy coming into this game,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “Really explosive guy. He’s just scratching the surface. He dropped 25 pounds in the offseason.”

Kinlaw described living in the basements of other people’s houses.

“We went without electricity,” Kinlaw said. “No water and things like that. We had to use the neighbor’s hose to fill up totes of water. We would take them back in the house.

“We had gas. A gas stove. You would light the stove with a little match or something. We had a tall pot. Boil the water. Mix it with some cold water. Put it in a bucket, take it upstairs and take a shower like that.”

Kinlaw didn’t make much of his accommodations and the lack of basic amenities.

“But at a young age, we thought that was normal,” Kinlaw said. “That’s how we were living. We didn’t know how everybody else was living, but that was how we (were) living. We (were) cool with that.”

With time to reflect, maybe Kinlaw is not as cool with that old state of affairs.

“But now that I look back on it, that was tough,” Kinlaw said. “It made me a man at a young age. I grew up early definitely. Like I said, I didn’t think it was that bad. I was so used to it.”

But now, after the birth of a daughter last year, Kinlaw plans to use his rough upbringing as motivation to help provide for his family.

“I just want her to know that I’ll always be there for her,” Kinlaw said. “She’s a big important part of my life. She’s a part of the reason why I play the way I play, knowing that you’ve got no other way, or no other reason to not take care of her. I just want to show people that it’s OK to be a good father.

“You don’t have to be scared. Just do what you have to do, and people are going to respect that at the end of the day.”

Kinlaw, who’s 6-foot-6 and 309 pounds, can play all spots along the defensive line. He’s probably too big to drop into coverage as a 3-4 outside linebacker, though.

“He’s so versatile because he’s so big and athletic,” Nagy said. “You can move him all over the place.”

Kinlaw could have came out for the draft last season, but elected to return to South Carolina.

Nagy, a former NFL scout for 18 seasons, described Kinlaw as a player with a high ceiling.

“He really played his best against good people,” Nagy said. “I was at the (Alabama) game, he was great. The Georgia game, he was great. Those were his best games.”

Kinlaw plans to meet with all 32 teams at the Senior Bowl.

“I just want to show that I’m a competitor,” Kinlaw said. “I love to compete. That’s the reason I came here. A lot of people have told me that my stock was at a place where I didn’t really need to come. But I just wanted to show that I really love to compete.”

Kinlaw said he’s been working on his strength and flexibility. He was impressive at the first practice Tuesday.

“He had an heck of a day,” Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff said. “It was fun watching him, but that’s about all I can say right now. Of course, he’s going to do really well. It’s just going to be really interesting to see how he evolves. He’s obviously a player.”

Kinlaw had a plan.

“I was trying to work on staying low,” Kinlaw said. “Definitely on my ball get-off. Definitely striking people, displacing guys, getting them out of the way and things like that.”

Kinlaw had only six sacks last season.

“I personally think stats aren’t everything,” Kinlaw said. “You just go sit down and watch that tape. It will speak for me, you know what I’m saying. A lot of double teams and things like that. I definitely take pride in my film. I think I played pretty well.”

It was not a smooth path to South Carolina for Kinlaw, either.

After the family moved to Charleston, S.C., and his high school career was over, he went to Jones County (Miss.) Junior College.

“Fun fact, my first two days there I didn’t eat because I didn’t know where the café was at,” Kinlaw said. “Then I didn’t know the food was free. Then, when I found out it was free, I was going crazy.”

He had a drastic weight loss last season.

“I got up to this weight because … they were feeding me so good,” Kinlaw said. “I wasn’t used to eating so much, so I was eating and eating. I got up to 347 so easy.

“The beginning of fall camp, I was like 330 or so. Then from 330, I went to 309 by the end of fall camp. I was pretty dedicated to losing the weight.”

Now, Kinlaw can look back on the tough times in his life and find some inspiration.

“Don’t stray away from the path,” Kinlaw said. “There is a lot of temptation. A lot of stuff that can get you sidetracked. You have to stay on the straight and narrow. ... God is going to guide you. He’s going to lift you through any negative situation that may be around you. Stick with it, no matter what.

“You might see darkness, but it’s always a light at the end of that tunnel.”