Damon West is like a coffee bean.
He wants everyone else to be like a coffee bean too, as he travels the country speaking to teams, schools and organizations. West isn’t like most speakers. To travel out of his home state of Texas to his many engagements, West has to get approval from his parole officer.
The former University of North Texas quarterback was sentenced to 65 years in prison in 2009 for a long series of meth-influenced burglary, but was paroled after seven years.
“My life can be a warning —and hope — for those who need it,” West said.
In March, West will release his first book, “The Change Agent: How a Former College QB Sentenced to Life in Prison Transformed His World.”
West gives a lot of credit to Clemson football head coach Dabo Swinney, who took to the story immediately after hearing it and helped spread his name to other major programs.
“Damon has a powerful story of what can happen and how quickly things can escalate when a person succumbs to drugs,” Swinney said. “His message and delivery capture his audience. At the end of the day, life is about using our experiences to help others.
“Damon is passionate about telling his story and helping others make better decisions.”
After listening to West speak, Swinney texted his coaching peer, Nick Saban, about the speech. Three weeks later, West was in Tuscaloosa speaking to the Alabama football team.
Growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, West’s parents kept him in integrated schools in a time white flight was expected. And despite a happy family life, at nine years old, West had what he called an activating event which caused him to turn to chemicals, like alcohol and drugs.
“But, man, I could throw a football,” West said. “With that ability came a lot of breaks in life.”
He was recruited by a lot of schools — like Florida State, University of Miami (Fla.), and Georgia — as a three-year starter at a major Texas high school. But standing shorter than 6-feet tall, most were reluctant to offer the scholarship in the 1990s.
North Texas did.
West became the starter during his redshirt sophomore year, throwing a touchdown against No. 2 Arizona State. His second game, he separated his shoulder and never played again.
After graduating in 1999, West worked in politics and then as a stockbroker, which is where a co-worker introduced him to meth.
“I gave everything up for that drug,” he said, explaining he had to eventually feed the habit by burglarizing homes.
Eventually, the Dallas Police Department SWAT Team caught up to him. Following his sentencing, his parents told him he had a debt to pay beyond the prison sentence.
“We gave you all the love and support to be anything and you chose this,” his mother told him. “You’re not getting into white hate groups and you’re not getting tattoos.”
He agreed, but didn’t know what he had agreed to. As he got to the holding cell, he asked cell mates who’d been to prison what it was like. They all said to get into a gang and make things easy.
But an older African-American man West only knows as “Mr. Jackson” told him to keep the promise to his mother, but understand that prison is all about race. He’d have to fight the white gangs first, then the black gangs. If he did that successfully, he’d earn the right to walk alone.
“No one is that good to win all the fights in life,” West said. “You have to get back up and keep fighting. Don’t ever turn down a fight and don’t ever not get up.”
Mr. Jackson is where West learned about being a coffee bean. He told West to imagine prison as a boiling pot of water and three things that go in: carrot, egg and coffee bean.
A carrot turns soft. An egg turns hard on the inside. A coffee bean, it changes the name of water to coffee. The smallest item of the three has the power to change the atmosphere of the pot.
“No matter who you are, big or small, you can change the entire atmosphere around you,” West said. “I survived one of the hardest places to do time; not just survived, but thrived. Anyone can conquer any problem they have.”
In prison, West went through hell. He first fought the white gangs. Then he took on the black gangs, meeting them on the basketball court. After every game, they’d shoot for teams, and in one game, he jumped on the ball. He made his shot. The players didn’t like it and wouldn’t pass to him and gave him everything they could, essentially 9-on-1. But he kept coming back. Within six days, he had proven his toughness, his perseverance and his place on the court and his right to walk alone.
“You can’t just imagine how uncomfortable it was for me, but how uncomfortable it was for them,” West said. “But everyone made a change.”
Seven years and three months into his 65-year sentence, he earned parole and knew he had to give back and spread the life lessons he learned. He’s sober now and works at Provost Umphrey Law Firm in Beaumont, Texas.
He started speaking at Lamar University and has quickly spread across college football with Clemson, Alabama, Michigan State, Pitt, Texas A&M, Georgia, Miami, Oregon and many more.
“For some reason, I came out the other side (of prison); my purpose is to go out and find people to help,” West said. “People get different things from the story. I changed the atmosphere positively around me, and everyone has that power, but it’s a choice.
“We all have choices.”