Damon West, standing outside the Frank Crowley Courts Building where he was convicted in 2009 of leading an Uptown burglary ring, seemed to have it all going for him before drugs sent him into a downward spiral. (Smiley N. Pool/Staff Photographer)


A better blend
‘Coffee Bean’ co-author inspires others by telling how he overcame adversity

Damon West had just passed the pipe to his dealer, as he recalls the events of July 30, 2008, when his life and the window next to him shattered into a thousand tinkling pieces. A canister tumbled across the floor of his Dallas apartment. If it hadn’t yet sunk into his meth-addled mind what was happening, the flash and brain-rattling bang soon removed any doubt.

Next thing West knew, an officer in riot gear loomed over him, boot on his chest, gun barrel in his eye.

From somewhere in the tumult, he heard a cry of victory:

“We got the Uptown burglar!”

From that day forward, little would be the same. The 10-month string of break-ins that had scared Dallas stiff with tales of brazen intruders making themselves at home — poaching from refrigerators, sleeping in beds, carrying off so much loot that the police property room couldn’t hold it all — suddenly ceased.

Here’s what also came to an end that day: The sordid lifestyle of a former North Texas quarterback, a charismatic one-time political wannabe whose escalating drug addiction led him to mastermind a crime spree that earned him a 65-year prison sentence.

Only that wasn’t the end of Damon West’s story after all. Not by a long shot. Because last Friday he was in Waco, telling his tale to the Baylor men’s basketball team. Sunday, he was in Chapel Hill, N.C., where Mack Brown was so moved by the message to his North Carolina football team, he said, “It’s gonna take people like us, listening to people like Damon West and his story, before we can straighten out our country.”

Wednesday and Thursday, West will be at Oklahoma State, then Harding University in Arkansas on Sunday, followed by a swing through California to speak at a San Diego high school and talk about a Netflix deal before closing out October at the Army base in Fort Sill, Okla. And any day between stops, he’s available for corporate presentations in person or online.

Maybe he’ll even be at a high school near you.

Like the national headline says, “When Damon West talks, college football teams listen.” He’s best buds with Dabo Swinney. Nick Saban taped an endorsement. Chip Kelly might have even facilitated the Netflix gig.

West’s message, and the best-selling book he co-wrote with Jon Gordon, is The Coffee Bean. Clemson players wore coffee bean T-shirts the week of the CFP national championship game last year. Jalen Hurts preached the virtue of the little bugger at Oklahoma, and Deshaun Watson is evangelizing Houston.

What’s the story of the coffee bean? Hold on a minute. First you’ve got to hear Damon West’s.

In a free fall

Growing up 90 miles east of Houston in Port Arthur had its perks. Damon’s father, Bob, longtime sports editor of the Port Arthur News, once landed Damon a gig as Jimmy Johnson’s sideline valet at Cowboys games. Long after his football dreams played out, Damon would benefit from friends in high places.

Five-foot-10 high school quarterbacks are a tough sell, but North Texas gave him a scholarship in the mid-’90s. Some versions of his story cast him as a former “star.” Maybe it’d have been true if not for injuries. He got in three games under Matt Simon in 1996, threw one touchdown pass and that was that.

Losing football was hard, but Damon had other plans. Not long after college, first in Washington, D.C., and then Austin, he carved out a fledgling career in politics. Hoped one day to run for office. Garry Mauro, the former Texas land commissioner, became his mentor. Together they worked on Dick Gephardt’s 2004 presidential campaign until the Missouri congressman dropped out of the race.

West dropped out, too. In fact, he was in free fall. Needing money to support a growing cocaine habit, he moved to Dallas and worked at a bank. One day in the company parking garage, a co-worker introduced him to meth, and his life spiraled from there.

Pretty soon he was breaking into apartments and cars on his own to trade goods for drugs. His ring grew to a dozen members. They were brash and clever and stupid all at once. They picked apartments where mail had accumulated at the door, partied in them, then packed up any and everything. In the “safehouse” apartment where West had stored the goods he didn’t barter, police found guns, key fobs, garage door openers, car titles, electronics and piles and piles of women’s clothes.

The loot was painfully personal, too. An engagement ring. A cop’s gear. A stamp collection.

A football belonging to Marion Barber III, signed by his quarterback, Tony Romo.

Took a box truck to haul it off and all night for the police to catalog it. The final tally, according to court records: More than $1 million worth of cash and goods from 51 burglaries, though a deputy would testify that more than 80 burglaries on record bore the gang’s telltale sign of entry, a tiny drill hole over the deadbolt.

Charged with engaging in organized criminal activity, West listened as prosecutors presented a damning case. Mauro testified as a character witness. So did Arthur Schechter, a wealthy Houston attorney and former ambassador to the Bahamas under Bill Clinton, as well as West’s parents, his high school football coach and the family priest.

Nothing they could say helped. The jury deliberated 10 minutes. He was 33 years old and going to prison, maybe for the rest of his life.

It was the best thing that ever happened to him.

Be the coffee bean

The coffee bean parable isn’t new, and it’s not always the same. Most times it’s a carrot, egg and coffee bean; sometimes it’s a potato instead of a carrot. Occasionally it’s a father lecturing a daughter, but in some versions a mother does the lecturing. Or a grandmother.

Whatever the particulars, it’s a parable about dealing with adversity, and Damon West needed to hear it in the Dallas County Jail.

The man who told it to him, West writes in his book, The Change Agent: How a Former College QB Sentenced to Life in Prison Transformed His World, was a fellow inmate. “Mr. Jackson” had no characters in his tale. Just a carrot, egg, coffee bean and boiling water, a metaphor for the life West was about to face in prison.

Put a carrot in boiling water, he asked West, and what happens? Becomes soft. You can’t be a carrot in prison and survive. A shell protects the egg, but the boiling water hardens the inside, as lockup hardens most prisoners.

But the coffee bean? The boiling water doesn’t change it as much as it changes the water around it into something better.

Be the coffee bean, Mr. Jackson said.

You’re about to be thrown into that pot of boiling water that is prison. You’re gonna have to go in there with a smile on your face and a great attitude no matter how painful it gets. No matter what, you can never let them know they’re getting to you.

Life in prison was hard, as West details in his book. Fights were common at first. But over his seven years behind bars, before his parole, he lived the life of a coffee bean, he said, transforming not only himself but those around him.

Since his release from prison in 2016, he figures he’s told the story 600 times to rapt crowds everywhere. Swinney was his first convert. He cornered the Clemson coach at an awards ceremony in Houston in 2017. Four months later, Swinney invited him to speak to his team.

“I’ve been at Clemson 15 years,” Swinney says in a video made after West’s speech, “and I just heard a guy who’s delivered easily one of the top messages I’ve ever heard.

“Watching my team and how he captured them was priceless.”

Swinney called Saban and told him he needed to book West as soon as possible. In his own taped testimonial, Saban called West’s message “compelling.”

“I’ve never heard it done quite so well as Damon did it tonight,” Saban said.

After such an auspicious start, speaking engagements picked up all over. West has appeared in front of the Minnesota Timberwolves as well as high school kids in McKinney and Frisco. Most of the SEC schools and just about every university in Texas. Lane Kiffin booked him at Florida Atlantic and Ole Miss.

West was even the commencement speaker at his graduation from Lamar, where he earned a master’s in criminal justice. He teaches an online course at the University of Houston’s downtown campus. Taught by an ex-con, it’s not a little ironic that the course is called “Prisons in America.”

“You can’t imagine the relief and pride and joy we feel to see what Damon has done with his life,” Bob West said. “It was such a horrible mess before.

“To see how sincerely he wants to help people, especially prisoners, well, we just feel like this is God’s purpose for Damon.”

Damon’s not much for conventional religion, but he considers himself spiritual. He said he’s been sober since the day the cops interrupted his reverie. He got married and is now a stepfather. He follows the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, hewing to one in particular. Because he can’t contact his victims under terms of his parole, he’s attempting to make “living amends” by leading a godly, purpose-filled life.

Swinney helped him along by introducing him to Gordon, a motivational coach for Clemson, the Rams, Dodgers, Miami Heat and Dell computers. The Coffee Bean came out last year. A kids’ version is due out in November. In their collaboration, Mr. Jackson is a teacher instructing his student, a young man named Abe. If it’s yet another version of the same fable, it’s certainly the most famous, and growing in recognition by the day. Football season helps. Clemson players will wear a coffee bean decal on their helmets this fall.

When I asked if the “Mr. Jackson” who told him the story in the Dallas County Jail is an actual person, Damon conceded it’s not his real name. He said he doesn’t know his name. But he insists that’s how he learned it, and he hopes one day to see the man who changed his life.

Mr. Jackson wouldn’t believe how it all turned out. Damon can hardly believe it himself.

“God puts you on a path,” he said. “You become a warning or a message of hope.

“Maybe I’m both.”

Twitter: @KSherringtonDMN