How UNT quarterback Damon West became resilient like a coffee bean in prison
In the 1990s, Damon West was the star quarterback for the University of North Texas. As the decade closed, he was working in politics in Washington, D.C. In the early 2000s, he was training to be a stockbroker in Dallas.
On paper, it looked like he had everything.
Already dabbling with cocaine, he said he was introduced to meth in 2004 and became an addict.
By May 2009, he was sentenced to 65 years in prison for the robberies he committed to support his addiction.
He served seven years and three months in the Mark W. Stiles Unit in Beaumont before being released by a parole board. He'll be on parole for the rest of his life.
Now, four years after his release from prison, he's written two books about the way he turned his life around: an autobiography, "The Change Agent," and an illustrated parable about resilience, "The Coffee Bean."
He's traveled around the country talking to school groups and football teams about the lessons he's learned, and, starting last month, he's returning to Texas prisons to bring his books to their libraries and his message to the prisoners.
He'll be in Austin this week talking to recovering addicts about his journey.
University of Texas football coach Tom Herman has said in a video that West's story is "very impactful, very powerful, very poignant, very relevant in terms of the lessons he taught our team."
Clemson University head football coach Dabo Swinney said West's message is "easily one of the top most powerful messages I've ever heard."
The University of Georgia has used West to help struggling football players and actually take them into Texas prisons to see the path they don't want to go down.
"The Change Agent" begins with the story of the coffee bean. It's a lesson West heard from a fellow prisoner while they were in a Dallas jail waiting to be moved to a state prison. He doesn't even know this prisoner's name, but in the story he calls him Mr. Jackson.
The older prisoner told this newbie about the coffee bean and why you want to be one.
Think about putting three different things in a pot of boiling water, which represents a difficult environment — prison, for example, or life in general.
If you put an egg in the pot, it hardens. Someone who identifies with the egg goes into a prison and becomes hardened to protect his liquid core (his heart), which eventually hardens as well. "You don't want to become the egg," he says he was warned.
If you put a carrot in the pot, it softens and falls apart. "A carrot goes into a prison and gets beat up and robbed."
If you put a coffee bean in the pot, it changes the environment for the better. It creates coffee.
West was told to be the coffee bean. "I had the power to change the entire atmosphere," West says. It's the law of attraction. He was told, "If you walk around with a smile on your face and not letting prison get to you, the other positive inmates will find you."
You will create change.
One of West's big goals in prison was set by his mother and father and the message they gave him during the few minutes they saw him after his sentence was delivered. His mother told him, "Debts in life need to be paid, and you've been hit with a big debt by the state of Texas." And then she told him, "You owe your parents a debt, too."
She made him promise that he would not join a gang and that he would come back "as the man we raised."
It wasn't easy. The first few months he was beaten as he tried to put out positive vibes and find positive people. He worked on his case to try to reduce his sentence. He sent off a copy of the appeal he had written to Walter Umphrey of the Beaumont law firm Umphrey Provost. Umphrey promised West a job working for him if he got out of prison.
And so, when he made parole seven years and three months after he began what was essentially supposed to be a life sentence, West says, "I didn't realize my life would take off the way it has."
Two days after he was released, he called up Umphrey and was given a job as a legal clerk.
"It's unheard of to walk out of prison and into one of the most prestigious law firms in Texas," he says.
While in prison, West kept a journal and began to turn his experience into the book that became "The Change Agent"
When he got out of a prison, a fraternity brother connected him with a literary agent. West sent him what he calls "half a book" and was told that as soon as he finished it, this agent would sell it to a publishing house. He expected to be given a ghostwriter or be heavily edited, he says, but his publisher let him keep it in his own words.
West used his time in prison to study criminal justice and get his master's degree. He later reconnected with a member of the parole board who ruled on his case, and she asked him to come talk to her class at the University of Houston. That has led to even bigger things. In spring, he says, he'll be teaching a class there, giving criminal justice students the unique perspective of someone who has been to prison.
He calls a lot of what has happened to him, from meeting the older prisoner in jail to connecting with Umphrey, "God things. How does all this happen to one person?"
He projects a positive attitude and attracts positive people. His message is something that others have been looking for.
After meeting with Swinney and his team, the coach mentioned West's story and the story of the coffee bean to Jon Gordon, who is known for his books on leadership. One day, Gordon called West to collaborate on putting "The Coffee Bean" into an illustrated book.
West sees "The Coffee Bean" as a book that is good for adults as well as kids.
West's new project is to go to every prison in Texas to find the coffee beans there. He's bringing his message to them as well as donating copies of "The Change Agent" and "The Coffee Bean" for the prison libraries.
"It's part of my program of recovery," he says. "I turned my life around when I was in there. ... I want to be able to be part of the solution today rather than part of the problem."
One of the biggest things he's learned through his experience is that "change comes from within us," he says.
When he was in his addiction, he could have moved, he could have found other people to hang out with, but "the problem is you take yourself wherever you go."
"The something that had to change was me," he says.
It's like that coffee bean. The change in the water comes from inside the bean. He credits his change to "being willing to work my program of recovery. For an addict, that's the most important thing."
That means he has a sponsor, and he goes to meetings for recovering addicts.
"Because of my program of recovery," he says, "I have all the things in life I wanted."
That includes a new wife and stepdaughter.
He wakes up every day and says the same prayer: He asks God to put in front of him what he needs him to do today and let him recognize what that is.
"The way I lived in prison and the way I live now is the whole mentality of being a coffee bean," he says.
And even though he says his worst day out here is better than his best day in prison, "I meet more people out here that are in prison by their thoughts. I want to give these principles and these stories to them, too."