In the mid-1990s, Damon West's ('99) football career was on the rise. The North Texas quarterback was part of the 1994 Southland Conference Championship team and witnessed the program's transformation back into Division I-A. But West suffered a season-ending injury when he separated his shoulder in 1996. The next year, he severerd his Achilles tendon in a home accident, ending his football career. It was then he experienced his own transformation, and it wasn't for the better.
After graduating with a degree in sociology, West traded in sports for D.C. politics and then Wall Street, training as a stockbroker for one of the biggest banks in the world. That's where he was introduced to methamphetamines and instantly became hooked. After several years of committing property and drug-related crimes with other meth addicts, West was arrested in 2008. On May 18, 2009, he received a life sentence of 65 years.
"Serving time in prison with 'lifers' was like living in a giant sociological experiment -- a dangerous, even deadly, petri dish," says West, who was paroled in 2015.
He knew he wanted to use his story as a warning to others about the dangers of drugs and alcohol and the consequences of bad decisions. So West, who is in long-term recovery, speaks at some of the biggest college athletic departments in the country, as well as corporations, schools, churches and even prisons.
His prison journal became the basis for his first book, The Change Agent, published in March, and his second book, The Coffee Bean, co-written with best-selling author Jon Gordon, hits stores this summer. In May, West graduated from Lamar University with a master's in criminal justice. As the speaker at his graduation, he shared the allegory presented in his book, in which a carrot, an egg and a coffee bean are put into boiling water. The carrot turns soft. The egg turns hard. But the coffee bean changes the water into coffee. In that same way, West says, "we all have the power to change the atmosphere around us for the better."
The day after graduation, on the 10-year anniversary of his sentencing, West was married to Kendell Romero and became a stepfather to her daughter, Clara.
"My relationship with Kendell and Clara is, without a doubt, the greatest thing that has ever happened to me since being released from prison," West says.
He still apologizes for foisting UNT into the limelight in a negative way. He spoke to players in the athletics department last fall and personally apologized, which provided a sense of closure. He continues to make amends and share his journey with audiences, including those in maximum-security prisons.
"Hope is the thing that is in shortest supply in prison," he says, "and I have a unique currency to spend with this population."