Port Arthur, Texas. Have you ever heard of it? If you’re a fan of Notre Dame Football, you might have, as it is the home of one Christie Flanagan. Flanagan earned his spot in Fighting Irish lore by becoming Knute Rockne’s star halfback after the Four Horsemen departed. Here’s how the iconic Grantland Rice described him: “There was only one lone Horseman riding against the skyline of Fame when Notre Dame met the Army in their annual classic at Yankee Stadium this afternoon, but this time one Horseman was enough.” “His name was Flanagan – Chris Flanagan – a big, gangling, hard-running halfback with the speed of the wind that sweeps the prairies of the West.” ~Grantland Rice, Nov. 13, 1926.
This past Saturday, I met with another former football player who hails from Port Arthur, Texas. You may not have heard of him, but this is a story you don’t want to miss. Trust me on this one.
Damon West was born in Port Arthur, Texas; on the gulf coast where Texas and Louisiana meet. His father, Bob West, was a groundbreaking sports writer. In fact, he was the first sports writer to put an African-American athlete (former Oklahoma Sooner football player, Joe Washington) on the front page of the sports section in Port Arthur. And his mother, Genie, was a nurse, and raised Damon and his older brother Brandon and younger brother, Grayson. In the 1970’s and 80’s, when Port Arthur’s schools were becoming integrated and white people were leaving in droves, the West family decided to stay. There were many situations during those days growing up in Port Arthur in which Damon was the only white kid. Little did he know that these situations would one day help him, when once again he would be in similar situations, but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The West family was a traditional Catholic family, with a cross and a prayer plaque hanging on the wall in each room of the house. In 1985, this strong faith was greatly tested. Damon came to his parents to tell them his babysitter was molesting him. They sent Damon to counseling and reached out to their family priest, but Damon went into a very dark place. That was his activating event. “By the age of 10, I was sneaking beers from my Dad’s fridge, sneaking liquor at friends’ houses, and smoking cigarettes. By age 12, I was smoking pot, and my belief system was in a bad place. I thought, I wasn’t hurting anyone, I was just smoking a little pot and drinking beer. I was a really good athlete growing up, and I would go onto become a three-year starter for the football team at my high school. I was recruited by many Division I schools, that is until they found out I was only 5’10.” In 1994, there were few successful short quarterbacks, so no one was eager to take a chance on me. I did, however, receive a scholarship to the University of North Texas, and that’s where I went.”
“Once I got out of Port Arthur and into Denton, I lost sight of a lot of important things in my life. I stopped going to church, and I turned my focus towards playing football, having a good time, and partying. Every person’s life is made up of a bunch of ‘fork in the road’ type moments, and September 21st, 1996 was one of mine. North Texas was playing Texas A&M on that day, and I was the starting quarterback for North Texas. On the third play of the game, I would go down with a separated shoulder, and that would be the last football game I would ever play in.” (The following summer, Damon would sever his Achilles tendon in a home accident, which would end his football career.)
Damon had drank and smoked pot quite a bit up to that point, but after realizing his football career was over, he began to shift towards harder drugs to help take away the pain. “I hit the harder stuff, ecstasy, cocaine, pills … I had no inhibitions. My grades suffered terribly, but somehow, by the grace of God, I graduated. After college, I worked in Washington, D.C., for a congressman from Houston, and following that job I worked for Missouri congressman Dick Gephardt while he was running for President in 2004. Then I worked for UBS bank and trained to become a stock broker. One day at work, one of my co-workers commented that I looked sluggish and told me to follow him to the parking garage. That’s when I was introduced to meth. Up to that point I was a pretty normal, functioning coke addict. Yes, my value system was so warped that I thought what I was doing was normal. But meth, that was a different story. That first time I used meth, I was up for four days straight, and I loved how it made me feel.”
Damon’s life went from functioning to spiraling out-of-control. “I lost my job, my home, my car, my savings account, my connection with God, my family, and my sanity. I was homeless, living on the streets of Dallas. I found a place to stay at a dope house, where all we would do was sit around, get high, and talk about getting high. We were a bunch of unemployable addicts, doing anything we had to do to get more drugs. The thing about addicts, we are selfish people and we are thieves. Addicts steal lots of things, but one thing that is stolen from an addict is time, and time is the most precious resource that once lost, cannot be regained. I started breaking into cars, storage units, and eventually into homes in the uptown neighborhood of Dallas where I used to live.”
DON’T MOVE, DON’T MOVE, DON’T MOVE!
“The burglary ring we were running would go on to be known as the ‘Uptown Burglaries,’ and I left a trail of victims in my wake. I hurt a lot of people. I took from them a sense of security that they may never get back. Their thoughts of a person coming into their home, unannounced, unwelcomed, stealing their sense of peace; that’s something they’ll always have to live with. By July 30, 2008, I had been running these burglaries for two years. On that particular day, I was sitting on a couch in a run-down apartment, with a dealer sitting next to me, and we were handing the pipe back and forth. I told the dealer that I thought the end was near; I thought the cops were coming to get me. My partner had been picked up 10 days prior to that day, and I felt my days were numbered. Just as I’m handing the pipe back to him, a window breaks and a cannister comes sailing through the window. I get up from the couch, look down at the cannister, and in a flash it explodes right in my face. The explosion blew me back onto the couch and I couldn’t see or hear anything. When I regained my senses, a cop was standing over me in full riot gear, and his gun was pressed into my eyeball. I look up at the cop and he says, ‘DON’T MOVE, DON’T MOVE!’ And then I hear them say, ‘we got him! The uptown burglar!’”
“When all was said and done, we had broken into dozens of homes in that uptown neighborhood of Dallas, desperately trying to feed that insatiable addiction. We were white, black, male, female.” Addiction knows no boundaries, it sinks its teeth into anyone who will let it.
“They took me to the Dallas County Jail, where they threw me into a holding cell for 24-hours. I only had one thought during that 24-hours. It wasn’t about the victims, my family, or about me. The one thought in my head was, ‘how in the world am I going to get high in here; how am I going to get my dope.’ After that first 24-hours, they moved me into general population, which was a terrifying experience. Never had I been somewhere, where I knew I wasn’t able to leave. In my first 24-hours in general population, I was in my first real fight over a breakfast tray. I called home from this blue jail phone that they had hanging on the wall, and I heard my dad crying. He was screaming at me, ‘how did we go so wrong?? How did we mess up so badly?? What could we have done differently??’ Then my mom gets on the phone, and I hear her say, ‘baby, listen. Your dad can’t talk to you right now. You’ve hurt us, but we love you unconditionally. That’s the deal we made with God when he loaned you to us. You know that, right?’ And I replied, ‘yes.’ She said, ‘now we have to give you to God. You’re now a captive audience to God, and you had better start listening to him. Do you remember the prayer plaque that was on the wall above your bed?’ That plaque had been on the wall in my room for 18 years in our house on Roanoke Street, and I for the life of me couldn’t remember what it said.”
“My mom replied, ‘it was footprints in the sand. Do you remember the story?’ When I could not remember the story, she ever so patiently and lovingly told me the story of footprints in the sand. How every time something good happened, the young man saw two sets of footprints, but every time something bad happened, he only saw one set of footprints. I asked her, ‘why is there only one set of footprints when things are bad in life?’ And she replied, ‘that’s because in those moments, God is carrying you.’”
“That night I started praying to God, something I had not done since I was injured in college in 1996. Reopening a conversation with God like this doesn’t just happen overnight. My first prayer, during those 10 months in the county jail awaiting my trial, was pretty simple; ‘Dear God, get me out of this jam. If you get me out of this jam, look what I’ll do for you: I’ll get a job, be a normal guy, and only smoke meth on weekends.’” Not exactly ‘Footprints in the Sand,’ but it was a start.
“I was in the Dallas County jail for 10 months awaiting my trial, but my hope, my thought, was that I’d get out on probation, and resume using the drugs that I missed so much. When my trial began, I sat there for six days, with my family right there with me. I listened to the testimony of victim after victim, accomplice after accomplice, and recordings of the phone calls I’d made from jail over the last 10 months. I was not remorseful, I was not sorry, and the jury only deliberated for 10 minutes before they came back with a guilty verdict. The next thing I heard was the judge saying, ‘you are hereby sentenced to 65 years in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice … life sentence.”
“After that, all I could hear was my mother gasping. It was my first felony conviction, but I received a life sentence. I would later learn, once I got to prison, that I was there with people who had committed murder and only gotten 8 years … and I got a life sentence. The jury was mad at me. There I was, this selfish guy who had hurt so many people. It definitely struck a chord with the jurors. They were sitting there looking at this smug guy who could have done anything to earn a living, and had chosen to do this instead. I was not remorseful. They had listened to calls I had made from prison trying to get someone, anyone, to move stolen property to bail me out. I didn’t care about anyone but myself. All of those jailhouse phone calls, ultimately, that’s what sealed my fate.”
“Once the verdict was read, they quickly handcuffed me and shoved me out of the courtroom. They put me inside of a holding area, with me on one side of the bullet proof glass, and my parents on the other side, and we get one last visit. I turned to my mother and said, ‘I’m sorry mom.’ My dad sits there, stunned with disbelief, and has no words. My mom says, ‘debts of life demand to be repaid, and you just got hit with a huge bill by the state of Texas, and you must repay it. You owe your dad and me as well. We gave you a life, and here is the debt you owe us. You are going to go to prison, and you’re going to get on God’s back, and you are not going to join one of these white hate gangs, you’re not going to get any tattoos, and you’re going to repay your debt. Do you understand me?’ And I replied, ‘yes.’”
“The guards took me back to the pod in the county jail, before I got transferred to where I’ll serve my life sentence, and I start asking every single guy in there, ‘how am I going to survive this?’ And this is what I’m hearing. I’m going to a building which is going to be my sole existence. There will be a chapel, chow hall, and law library. That’s it. They keep telling me I’m going to have to join a gang in order to make my life easier. Everyone but one man, Mr. Jackson. I was very receptive to Mr. Jackson. He was an older black man, and he pulled me aside to give me a different set of advice. He said, ‘I’ve been watching you, and you keep telling everyone that you can’t join a gang, in order to honor your mom. And that’s okay. You don’t have to join a gang. But there are a few things you need to know.’”
You don’t have to win all of your fights in prison, but you do have to fight them.
“Mr. Jackson continued, ‘The first thing you need to know is that everything in prison is about race. In the television room, the first row is for the blacks, the second row is for the Hispanics, and if there is a third bench, that one is for the whites. Otherwise you sit on the floor. Second, the white gangs will feel they have an ownership over you. You will fight them first if you don’t want to join them. If you survive what they are going to do with you, you will move onto the next phase which is fighting with the black gangs. The gangs all work together. If you survive all of that, you will be able to walk alone, and only the strongest guys in prison walk alone. Third, you don’t have to win all of your fights in prison, but you do have to fight them. (This is not only the most important rule in prison, but it’s the most important rule in life.) You have to respond quickly, and you have to get back up again. You have to fight.’”
“The next thing he told me, has stuck with me every day of my life. He told me, “West, imagine prison as a pot of boiling water. It’s hot, and the pressure is high. Now imagine putting three things in this pot of boiling water; a carrot, an egg, and a coffee bean. What happens to the carrot when you put it in boiling water? It gets soft. The carrot went into prison hard, and got soft. What happens to the egg when you put it in the boiling water? It gets hard. The egg went into prison hard, and it became hard on the inside, too. Now the egg is incapable of giving or receiving love, and never needs to come out of prison. What happens to the coffee bean when you put it into boiling water? It changes the water into coffee. The smallest of the three things changed the whole pot of water into coffee. That’s what you need to do when you go into prison, change everything. You have to go into this high pressure, negative environment, and change it forever. You get out of anything, exactly what you put into it. The other coffee beans will find you because your energy will shine. Where do you find them? Go to the chapel.’”
“The last thing he told me before I left the county jail is this, ‘when you walk into your pod for the first time, put your back against the wall and wait for it to happen. The first guy to come to you will not come to hurt you, he’ll come for info. The second guy, put your fist in his mouth because he’s coming to hurt you.’”
Please come back tomorrow for the rest of Damon West’s story!