And here is Part II of: From Football to Coffee Beans? Discovering the Secret of Life
“1585689 Inmate West. In prison, they count you multiple times a day, so it doesn’t take long to memorize your number.”
“The bus ride to prison was an awful ride. You’re handcuffed to another man, so if he needs to go to the bathroom, you go to the bathroom. You go everywhere together. It’s a 10 hour ride. It’s August, it’s hot and there is no air conditioning. It’s just like you see in the movies. Then, when you get there, you get off the bus and they strip you down. They do a cavity search, shave your head, and give you a sack lunch; a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a hardboiled egg, and prunes. They take a sample of your DNA, poke you, prod you, and look for identifying marks. You get boxer shorts and clothes, and they take you to your pod.”
“The prison they sent me to was in Beaumont, Texas, which happens to be right next to Port Arthur. I never thought I’d be coming home on a prison bus. It’s a mixed bag. Yes, I’m close enough to home that my friends and family can come visit me, but I’m going to prison. The Mark W. Stiles Unit, in the Texas Department of Correction. One of the toughest prisons in Texas.”
I’m riding with God.
“I remembered everything Mr. Jackson told me. I walked into my pod in section two, put my back against the wall, and 10 minutes later this little guy comes around. He asks me, ‘hey white boy, what family are you riding with?’ And I reply, ‘I’m riding with God.’ He laughs at me, and says, ‘we’re gonna come get you. God isn’t here. He left a long time ago.’ 10 minutes later this big corn fed white guy with swastika tattoos came up and once he got within range of me I hit him as hard as I could, and then he dropped me within 20 seconds.”
“I had three dozen fights while I was in prison, and I lost 75% of them; but in the end, I won by showing up. I learned so much more about myself from my losses than my wins. Let’s face it, no one analyzes a victory quite like they do a loss. Many times they would roll my cell door and another inmate would say, ‘West, I want to look at you in the shower,’ meant they wanted to fight, because in the showers, it’s easier to clean up the blood. After a few weeks, I’m done fighting the white gangs, and then the black gangs came. And they came four guys at a time.”
“At this point I’m starting to visit the chapel. There is a big Catholic presence there, and the Catholic representative is this woman named Dee Doucet. She carries a cane, and she is not one bit afraid to hit you with it. I go into her office and speak to hear about my situation. I tell her, I can’t do this; I think I need to kill myself. At which point she said, ‘you can’t do that, Damon. Follow your mom’s advice and get on God’s back.’ She gave me a bible and a rosary, and asked me to say a rosary with her. My mom had an extremely strong devotion to the blessed mother, and I knew my mom prayed the rosary quite often. My mom always had her rosary in her car, and she prayed it any time she had a few extra minutes. This gesture from Dee, giving me the bible and rosary, very much resonated with me. She enrolled me in all of her Catholic groups at the prison. She told me, ‘you need strength and you need help.’ That was a Saturday, and on Monday morning I got up and thought, I’m tired of these limits I’m putting on myself. I’m ready to surpass what I thought I could do.”
Man, white boy! Have you lost your mind?!
“That Monday, I decided I was going to start earning my respect … at the rec yard. The rec yard, like everything else at prison, is all about race. At the rec yard, far in the distance, is the sand volleyball court, and it’s for the whites and Hispanics only. To the left, you see big walls, and those are the handball courts. They are open to any race, but your partner has to be of the same race. At the weight stack, your spotter better look at you. And finally, there is the basketball court, and that is run by the blacks; no whites allowed. Growing up in Port Arthur, Texas, I was used to being the only white kid around, so I headed out to the basketball court. I know I’m better than some of the guys out there, I just need to get my hands on the ball. After each game, they ‘shoot for teams.’ Meaning, the first two guys who make shots get to pick the teams. So I go out there, and when the last ball of the game goes through the basket, I grab the ball, falling on it like a fumble ball in football. And the guys on the court are screaming, ‘man, white boy! Have you lost your mind?! We’re gonna hurt you!’ And what do I do? I scream back, ‘hurt me! I’m shooting for teams today.’ They are screaming at me and spitting on me, yelling, ‘we’re gonna kill you, white boy.’ The biggest Blood from Houston, he tells me, ‘get up there and shoot your shot.’ I get up to the free throw line and I’m thinking to myself, ‘Damon, what are you doing?’ I’ve now disrespected the whole race, but if I make this shot, I am one step closer towards getting their respect. I get up there, and I make my shot; and he gets up there, and makes his shot. I pick my four, and he picks his four, but the game isn’t 5-on-5, it’s 9-on-1. But I survive.”
“Tuesday, I go back out onto the court, and they are laughing at me again. ‘Man, we thought you had enough yesterday. What are you doing out here?’ And I look them straight in the eye and say, ‘man, I thought you were playing basketball.’ The Blood who I played against yesterday, he picked me to be on his team today, and they gave it to me even worse. I go out there Wednesday, Thursday, Friday; and they are all picking me to be on their team because they want to beat me up. On Saturday, this is when I see it happen. I’m out there playing in this game, and up until this point all I’ve been able to play is defense, when they finally pass the ball to me. I shoot, and I miss. They pass it to me again, and I make the shot, and then I hear; it ‘good shot, West.’ They weren’t calling me white boy any more. After that game was over, the guys came over and their posture was different. The head Blood said to me, ‘you pulled something off out here that we’ve never seen a white boy do before. You’ve earned our respect. You won’t have to worry about the black the rest of your time here in prison.’ All I could think of was Mr. Jackson and the coffee bean. In six days I had changed the environment out on the yard, and they and accepted me. From then on, they’d come get me, ‘West, let’s go shoot some hoops.”
“But, there was problem, based on a flaw in his statement. The head Blood, he couldn’t promise to keep the entire race off of me. That was out of his control. And then there was another problem, I’ve always taken shortcuts. Two weeks after that Saturday, I was coming off the court, and this guy named Carlos pulled me aside. He takes me into the stairwell and tells me that this big black guy is coming for me in the shower, and that he’s not coming to fight you, he’s coming to rape you and he has a knife. My reply? I just won’t take a shower today. To which Carlos reminds me that I’m a fool, because sooner or later I have to take a shower, and he’ll be waiting for me. He tells me, ‘You’re on the track and the train is coming. What are you going to do?’ I answer Carlos, ‘I don’t have a knife.’ At this point, Carlos gives me a knife, and I hand it back. I’ve never fought with a knife before, and if I go in there with a knife, he’s going to kill me for sure.”
At that moment it sinks in, I am going to kill a man.
“Carlos has an idea. We go back to my cell. I have this little fan in my cell, because prisons in Texas have no air conditioning, and you need that little fan when it gets hot in August. It is March of 2010 when this is happening, so I’m not actually using my fan. Carlos takes my fan apart, takes the motor off and puts it into this bag that he has, and makes a weapon out of it. He hands me the weapon and instructs me, ‘don’t wear your flip flops to the shower, and wear your boots. Turn the shower on, make the water as hot as it will go to create steam and as soon as he comes in, hit him in the head and kill him, or he will kill you.’ At that moment it sinks in, I am going to kill a man. How did this happen? How did I get here in life?”
“I walk the 20 steps to the shower, and I realize, I am never going home. If I kill him, they are going to give me another life sentence, or he’s gonna kill me. But I have to do it.”
“I do everything he says. I’m waiting in my boxer shorts and my boots with my weapon, and the wait seems like forever. My heart is pounding in my chest, and then he pops his head through. All I remember seeing is this big grin on his face, which pissed me off and I screamed as I hit him. I hit him in the breastbone, totally missing his head. He drops his knife, and now I’m on this guy, smashing the motor into him. He’s on the ground, and I’m smashing him in the head. Two of his gang brothers come and demand that I stop or they’re gonna throw me off the run, which would be my death for certain. You see, once he hits the ground, and I’m still hitting him, I’m violating the rule. The rule is, once the other guy is down, you have to stop fighting; you have to let him get up.”
“I snap out of it, grab my bag, and run back to my cell, closing the cell door and I start to cry. I fall asleep, or more like pass out, and sleep until the next day. When I walk out of my cell the next day, everyone knew I spoke the universal language that is spoke in prison, violence; and once they all saw that, they never bothered me again. No more challenges, no more fighting. Once that pressure was lifted off of me, I started working on myself; mentally, spiritually, physically, and I started the process of recovering. I learned that we all need to eat, and what you feed yourself is not only food, but it is also what you read, what you watch on TV, what you do to feed your spirituality. I started reading a book every other day. Whatever I could get my hands on. I started learning about the five major religions, and what I learned is that they are all based on four main principles.”
“Those are the four principles I based my recovery on, and through them discovered the secret of life. When I came to the understanding that those principles were how I needed to run my decisions, I discovered these retreats that they offered through the prison, called the ACTS retreat. The ACTS retreat is based on serving others and being humble. ACTS is an acronym for: Adoration – Community – Theology – Service. These men would come in to the prison from the outside, leave their jobs, their families for four days and come in and love the inmates. There were 66 of us who would go on these retreats, and the men would hug us and shower us with love. You could just see a transformation happening to the guys in the room.”
“Big murderers, crying like babies at the end of the retreat. I was mesmerized. I saw a transformation happen at that retreat that I never thought could happen in that deep dark place.”
“A great example of the ‘servant leadership’ that comes out of these ACTS retreats, is my buddy Joe Tortorice. Joe started a sandwich shop in 1976 in Beaumont, Texas. He began his Jason’s Deli restaurants with four employees and one store, and now he has 270 stores, 11,000 employees in 29 states. But if you ask Joe, he’s not in the restaurant business, he’s in the people business. He believes that you help others achieve their goals and through that you elevate yourself. That’s how the universe works, when everything is in harmony.”
“Since I already had a college degree, I couldn’t take classes in prison, but I came to the realization that I could teach others in prison. I became a tutor, and started mentoring my fellow inmates; helping them go in the right direction. Any way I could give back, I did. I learned that the best way to free myself of my addictions was to help others.”
“Next, I started going to AA meetings on a regular basis and working the steps. One day, I went into a meeting and the sponsor told us, today we are going to diagram the Serenity Prayer.
God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
“First, he drew a long line across the chalkboard. For the first line of the prayer, put all of the things you cannot change on God’s line. For the second line of the prayer, erase one inch of God’s line, and that’s your line. That’s what you get to work on every day. There are four things that you can control in your life: what you think, what you say, what you feel, and what you do. That’s what you need to work on every day. For the third line, the wisdom to know the difference, know the difference between what’s on God’s line, and what’s on your line.”
“Everything I went through in prison was very humbling. And I believe when you are humbled, it’s because you needed to be right sized. After you have been humbled, whether or not you stay there, is up to you.”
“I helped a lot of people during my time in prison, but then I got to a point where I wanted to get out.”
“There are two ways out of prison, through the courts, and through parole.”
“It came time for me to sit down and write my appeal. There are jailhouse lawyers, and they will tell you, in exchange for $100 at the commissary, I’ll get you out of here. But the more I thought about it, I knew I was a smart guy, so I paid one of the lawyers two bags of coffee to show me how the use the law library, and after an eight hour tutorial of the library, I got to work. It took me two weeks to write my appeal, and then I sent it off to Provost Umphrey Law Firm, asking them if they would review it and let me know if it was something I could use. My Umphrey responded to me saying it was one hell of an appeal, and that when I got out of prison I should come see him for a job.”
“I file my appeal, and I’m trying to do all of the right things, but as Dabo Swinney says, ‘you bloom where you’re planted.’ Growth happens outside of your comfort zone, otherwise you wouldn’t grow, and you’d stay stagnant. I was lucky, I had a lot of help. My parents came to visit me over 150 times when I was in prison. I had visits from friends and family almost every week. I had encouragement from so many people, but what I had most was hope, which is also in short supply in prison. With hope and time on my hands, I went to work on myself spiritually, mentally, and physically; and on November 16, 2015, the parole board set me free.”
“When they granted me parole, they told me this. ‘Hey look, if you come back to prison, we’ll keep you for the rest of your life. Make it right.’”
“The guard walked me to the gate and he told me, ‘here’s your last order. Once you get out of here, get off of our property and don’t ever come back to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice every again.’ I run to the car, where my parents are waiting for me, and my dad says, ‘You want to get a Whataburger?’ And my mom says, ‘hang on Bob, don’t start the car just yet. I have three tools that Damon needs to restart his life.’ First, she handed me an iPhone. I was blown away. When I had a cell phone before I went to prison, it had buttons, not a computer screen! Second, she handed me my driver’s license, which I had been able to renew from prison. Third, she put an ACTS bracelet on my wrist, from the men who ran the retreat I went to in prison. She told me, ‘all the men who have been on these retreats, just like you … they’re waiting for you. Wear your ACTS bracelet so that you can identify each other. I have signed you up for another ACTS retreat in St. Charles … go find your friends.’”
I am doing right by God.
“I thought I was in a good place with my bible and my rosary, but that first retreat after I got out of prison was so great for me. These men shared with me the failures in their own lives, explaining that they were sharing their stories so that others don’t make the same mistakes. This was the servant leadership guide that I have chosen to follow. If by sharing my story, I can save even one kid, or save one family from having to go through what my family went through, or save one future victim from suffering, I am doing right by God.”
“Now my prayer is, ‘God, put in front of me what you need me to do today, and let me recognize it when I see it.’”
“The best thing I have every single day is my program of recovery, because I will always be an addict. I go to meetings, meet with my sponsor, work my steps, and continue to clean out the junk in my life. I have made lists and apologized to people, because whether or not they accept my apologies, it’s my job to keep my side of the street and life clean. And if I can do that, I can stay right with my God. I do this every single day. It’s not something I’ll ever graduate from, it’s something I’ll have to do for the rest of my life.”
“The day after I got out of prison, I went to see Mr. Umphrey, as he had instructed me, and he gave me a job at his law firm. I work in the pharmaceutical division, and I’ve been there for two years now. To get a job at a law firm like this, it’s a one in a million chance, but they feel I am a real life service project.
On the side I started going to local prisons and speaking to the inmates, and then the next things I wanted to do was start speaking with students and student-athletes. I got the opportunity to go speak at the University of Florida. They couldn’t pay me, but they had me flown in, and they were blown away by my story. And then it happened … other schools started calling. What everyone started to realize was that I am the only former NCAA student-athlete to get a life sentence, get paroled, and have the opportunity to go out and speak about it.”
Damon has spoken at multiple Division I universities including Alabama, Georgia, Clemson, Texas A&M, SMU, Michigan State, Pitt, Kansas, and many more. He has had coaches from Dabo Swinney to Nick Saban endorse his servant leadership, and he continues to speak at universities and prisons to make a difference in the lives of young men and women. He has devoted his life to sharing with others the dangers and consequences of making bad decisions, and the benefits of staying humble.
Are you interested in Damon West coming to speak to your organization? Please visit his website, www.DamonWest.org for more information!
And don’t forget … “Be a coffee bean!”
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- A Football Player’s Lucky Charm? - February 22, 2018
- Part II: From Football to Coffee Beans? - January 31, 2018
I am a proud Notre Dame grad (’71), a former judge, and an ex federal prisoner. With the grace of God, support from my family, reliance on the Christian values I acquired in 16 years of Catholic education, counseling for my drug & alcohol problem, and medication for an undiagnosed bi-polar condition, I have changed my life and today I am a contributing member of society. I founded and now run a neighborhood revitalization center in one of the poorest districts in Ohio, and have the opportunity to help many people with fewer advantages and privileges than I grew up with. This story resonates with me. God is Good.
Thank you for sharing your story, and I’m so happy to hear you enjoyed Damon’s story! God is good!