There Shouldn't Be 'Humble Beginnings' Like This Once-Homeless NFL Prospect

Dan Mennella
March 28, 2020 - 9:40 am

We don't yet know what kind of world will emerge after the coronavirus pandemic.

But it will be best led by people like Javon Kinlaw.

"I'm pretty sure people know the story now," Kinlaw said at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis in February.

Indeed they do know the story -- if not Kinlaw's specifically, then one all too similar to it.

Kinlaw, a hulking 6-foot-6, 315-pound defensive tackle from the University of South Carolina, was referring to his tragic and inspiring journey from homelessness to the cusp of being a top-10 NFL Draft pick.

But his story and ones like it have been told with disturbing frequency recently.

In just the last couple years alone, several formerly homeless players have tried out or joined the NFL ranks. Sean Chandler of the Giants, Josh Jacobs of the Raiders, and Calvin Ridley of the Falcons are currently on NFL rosters, while recent prospects Floyd Allen, Damon Sheehy-Guiseppi and Jerimiah Spicer saw action in the XFL before its cancellation due to the coronavirus.

These are the children of the great recession, which stripped black Americans of their wealth, already paltry compared to whites, at disproportionate rates. As always, when the going got tough, it was America's most vulnerable who suffered the most.

The same will assuredly be true of the coronavirus crisis. Staying at home isn't an option when you don't have one.

Understandably, Kinlaw and other formerly homeless prospects are given high character marks for their "perseverance" and determination, and for overcoming inestimable odds. The implication is that poverty is a moral failure, and those who managed to escape it possess qualities otherwise lacking among the rest.

This framing is quickly picked up in the media and packaged as "uplifting" content with little to no critical discussion about the underlying conditions, a trope appropriately known as perseverance porn.

Of course, it's true that Kinlaw and the others deserve our utmost respect.

But it is also necessary to call out an attitude that sees poverty and homelessness as minor inconveniences to be overcome on the way to an "uplifting" story, rather than as scourges, with real victims, that warrant urgent attention.

"I got a baby girl that I got to provide for," Kinlaw said. "So I just never want her to grow up how I grew up."

How did Kinlaw grow up?

Some of the horrors include seeing the corpses of fellow homeless people as a child, and showering outdoors with a neighbor's garden hose. Kinlaw said he suffers nightmares and might have PTSD.

"Put in a lot of tough situations, seeing a lot of things kids shouldn't have to see, doing a lot of things that kids shouldn't have to do.

"The first time traveling by myself, I was like 11, 12 years old. I rode the Greyhound from Washington, DC to South Carolina."

Football, then, wasn't an extracurricular activity for Kinlaw, but instead, like so many poor children, a necessity upon which he relied for his basic needs.

"I didn't go to junior college for football, really. I just went because I had somewhere to sleep, like I had some free food to eat. That's really why I went. So, I didn't really go with the expectation like, 'I'm going to go to the SEC, I'm going to the league.' I just went because I had somewhere to sleep."

A football scholarship shouldn't be the difference between sleeping outside and having a roof over your head.

Kinlaw understands the paradox that his story, tragically, is the exception among homeless people.

"A lot of the situations I was put in, I shouldn't even be here."

LeBron James recently wondered about stories like Kinlaw's -- ones "that are supposed to be the stories of determination that capture the American dream" -- and asked, "what if there were no more humble beginnings?"

Are we listening?