“Instead of picking myself up, where that void was left, instead of filling that void with good things, I filled it with negative things – cocaine, ecstasy, pills, all the designer drugs. In my fraternity, I was partying all the time. I was not a good person to be around.”
Never was this more evident than the day West was apprehended by Dallas SWAT officers for his role in the burglary ring. By the time he began serving his sentence at the maximum-security Stiles Unit, coincidentally near his hometown of Beaumont, West had started planning how best to survive life behind bars.
“In prison, the majority of the population would lay around and wait for things to happen, and if they were up for parole, they would try to get into shape,” said West, who credits his family’s visits and letters as life preservers while in prison. “My thinking was, ‘Man, you’re sitting on a gold mine here. Get outside of the mindset of prison as punishment and instead look at it as an opportunity, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that the state of Texas had so kindly given me, to utilize my time for something good.’
“A teacher, a history teacher from seventh grade, wrote me while in prison, on September 11, 2011, and said, ‘When you get out I’d like to have you come speak to my kids.’ He’s a junior high principal now. I tried to put together a powerful presentation to give kids hope. It planted a seed that’s now grown into a forest. Like so much in my life, it’s one of those God things.”
Two days after leaving prison in November 2015, he was employed. By February 24, 2016, he had given his first speech. Now, more than 200 audiences have heard West’s story.
“If you read a book or go to movie, you want to feel like you’ve been in the book or the movie,” said Randy Ross, who is the director of football operations for the Arkansas Razorbacks. “You want to feel involved to the greatest degree, like you’re there live, and that’s kind of what Damon did. I walked away amazed and said, ‘Brother, I never wanna spend a day in prison.’ He’s got a gift of presentation to those kids, and they hear what he’s saying.
“They trusted in him, believed in him. To talk to somebody who hasn’t experienced it just doesn’t do it justice. You can sit there and say, ‘I know war is bad,’ but if you’ve not been in it, you really don’t know. But you talk to a person who’s been on a battlefield, they’ve got a different way of conveying it.”
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