Last year’s keynote speaker at the Cleburne Christian Leadership Prayer Breakfast Mike Barber — a former NFL tight end and founder of Mike Barber Ministries, a prison ministry — introduced this year’s keynote speaker during Monday’s 18th annual CCL Prayer Breakfast, Damon West.
It’s important, Barber said, to seek out dominant and true voices.
“There are many voices in our world today,” Barber said. “The voice of Hollywood, voice of Washington, voice of the world.”
West, Barber said, brings a true dominant voice to the table.
A former starting quarterback for the University of North Texas, West marveled that it’s a miracles of sorts that he was able to be in Cleburne on Monday addressing the crowd of several hundred.
Surprising given that Dallas jurors on May 18, 2009, deliberated for 10 minutes before finding West guilty and sentencing him to 65 years in state prison.
West instead has since been released, earned a master’s degree in criminal justice and hired on as a professor at the University of Houston.
West quoted Matthew 25:36’s “In prison and you came to see me” line calling it his favorite scripture line.
“I learned it when I was in prison,” West said. “It taught me about the forgiveness of Christ and servant leadership. It taught me that inside of every adverse situation, every tough and difficult time, there are opportunities. But you have to know how to find those opportunities and I think we know in this room that Jesus Christ is the way to those opportunities.”
Thirteen years ago, West’s life outlook was markedly different.
“July 30, 2008 I was sitting in a rundown apartment in Dallas on a ratty old couch with my meth dealer sitting next to me,” West said. “I was a full-blown meth addict and head of an organized crime ring in Dallas. I’m sitting on a filthy couch passing a meth pipe back and forth with the dealer and telling him I think the end is near.”
Right after a window shattered and a little canister spewing smoke tumbled end over end across the floor before the bright white light and loud noise of the flash grenade exploded in West’s face. West, known by then as the Uptown Burglar, awoke to a policeman’s foot on his chest and gun in his face.
Life began much differently for West. The Port Arthur son of a sportswriter father and nurse mother, West said he grew up with all the advantages.
“My parents are still alive, been married for 53 years,” West said. “Mom has a prayer plaque or cross in every room. You can’t escape Jesus in mom’s house.”
Despite that, West said he began drinking at age 10 and smoking pot at age 12. But, West said, the Lord also blessed him with a cannon for an arm making him the star quarterback in his hometown and later at UNT.
“Sept. 21, 1996, we’re playing Texas A&M,” West said. “The third play I go down on a screen pass and separated my shoulder. I never played college football again.”
Which, West said, required a decision on his part or what he refers to as fork-in-the-road choices life sometimes throws at all of us.
“Instead of replacing athletics and football with something good and godly I threw in with all the negative things in life,” West said. “Cocaine, ecstasy, pills you name it.”
On the surface, however, West said he kept up a good front. After graduating college he found a Congressional job in Washington D.C. after which he worked a presidential campaign in 2004. Once that job completed he moved to Dallas to train as a stockbroker.
A coworker, seeing West “passed out asleep” at his desk one day offered a solution for West’s exhaustion.
“He said, ‘Come down to the parking garage. I’ve got something that’s going to pick you up.’” West said.
West said he initially freaked out when the man handed him a glass pipe with crystal rocks inside.
“He told me, ‘Relax. You’re going to love this stuff,’” West said. “Truer words have never been spoken. I fell in love with that drug that day. I tell audiences, especially young audiences, that meth is the most evil, most destructive, most addictive drug ever created by man.”
Methamphetamine, West said, destroyed his family, his sanity, job, savings and relationship with God.
“I went from working on Wall Street to living on the streets of Dallas,” West said. “Within one year of that first hit I was homeless, living on the street, in cars, at other people’s houses and living with other dope fiends.”
Crime followed the loss of money, West said, simple things at first like car and storage unit burglaries, which soon escalated to home burglaries.
“My victims gave up most,” West said. “When I broke into people’s houses I didn’t just steal their property. And we stole a whole lot of property over three years. But I stole those people’s sense of security and I don’t know that they’ll ever get that back. I pray that they do.”
Though he didn’t know or think it then, West said he now considers the day he was arrested to be the day he was rescued.
“God got me out of a situation I could not get myself out of,” West said.
That took time to realize, West spent more than seven years in jail.
West said he managed to honor his mother’s request that he not join a prison gang or get tattooed.
A fellow inmate helped as well.
“An older Black guy, Mr. Jackson,” West said. “A career criminal but the most positive guy I ever met.”
That man compared prison to a boiling pot of water and told West that in prison, or life in general, a person can choose to be a carrot who goes soft in boiling water, an egg, which grows hard or a coffee bean, which changes and flavors the water.
Another inmate taught West to see prison, or life challenges in general, as an opportunity rather than a punishment, an idea that West admitted took a little time to work his head around.
West credited as well a prison employee with teaching him that it’s important to decide whether you’re going to let God run things or try to do God’s job.
“She said, ‘If you’re going to pray, don’t worry. If you’re going to worry, don’t pray. You can’t have it both ways.’” West said. And the person who told me to look at prison as an opportunity rather than a punishment pointed out that being in prison gives me the opportunity to work on myself 24 hours a day. When we try to change we face adversity. But We have to remember that results take time. Nothing happens overnight.”
In the end, West said he chose the coffee bean route and gleaned several lessons from that choice.
One is to exude positive body language because it’s infectious. Another is to tend to yourself spiritually, mentally and physically each day. Also important is to realize you can’t run the world so to control what you can and leave to God what you can’t all the while praying for wisdom to know the difference and to realize that having a bad day is your choice because have the power to step back, take a deep breath and reassess when adversity strikes.
“Another is knowing the secret of life,” West said. “Which is servant leadership. Helping others and raising others up. The power each of us have to impact human life whether we know it or not.”