By Melanie J. Knox, Opinion Editor
Matthew Young’s mother described him as a very popular child with a wit that made others like him instantly. A deep thinker and very endearing, he was athletic and had a life of opportunity ahead.
That’s why the drugs and his imprisonment came as such a shock. It doesn’t end there.
“My heart was ripped out when he went to prison,” said Paula Sawall, Young’s mother.
Young, after being in prison for six years, has witnessed things that no one wants to see and has been places no one wants to go.
“My past experiences and where I am today are really just a testimony that I have overcome the odds, Young said. When everyone else was writing me off, I just became more determined.”
Young grew up in a solid Christian home, the youngest of four children with two older brothers and one older sister. His dad attended ACU and his mom attended Hardin-Simmons University, though neither graduated.
When Young was a year old, his family moved to Austin, and as the youngest, Young grew up in a competitive environment.
“I always wanted to be included in the things my older siblings were doing and so I had to be fast and smart to be able to be a part of what they were doing,” Young remembers. “That kind of set the stage for my athletics.”
Young started playing soccer at the age of five, and his identity became wrapped up in the sport. By age 13, he was playing for a club team with experienced European coaches. They won four state championships, and Young was chosen to play on a select team, to represent Texas.
Death of a Dream
Then the world came crashing down as Young broke his ankle during the last game of the season, leaving him unable to play on the select team.
“My life just spiraled out of control at that point,” he said. “I didn’t know how to rebound from that. Everyone who knew me, knew me for my soccer ability.”
Now in eighth grade and searching, Young turned to a different group of kids and took up smoking cigarettes, breaking curfew and sneaking out of the house.
“Anytime you get caught up in that cycle, it’s progressive,” he said. “Smoking and beer lost its excitement and smoking weed became the ‘thing’.”
Only 14 and in junior high, Young was already involved in drugs, and he took those habits with him when he entered high school in Austin.
“I let that become my life, doing those things, running away from home, skipping school.”
Young’s parents were helpless. They tried counseling to try to get through to him, but nothing worked.
“I was mad at myself,” he said, picking up his hat and running his fingers through his short brown hair. “You can’t help someone who doesn’t want to be helped.”
Young moved out of his parents’ house when he turned 18, and moved in with guys he described as “big-time partiers.” Around this time, he was introduced to cocaine and “everything you can imagine that goes along with that scene.”
“I had lost my desire to live,” he said with a hint of despondency.
At 22, Young had made contacts with people who were bringing large quantities of cocaine and ecstasy out of Houston to Austin where he was living, and Young and his friends started selling drugs on Sixth Street, a party district, on the weekends.
With the cash that the drug sales brought in, Young made money his new god.
Unknowingly, one of Young’s partners had sold drugs to an undercover officer, who put their apartment under surveillance. After a new shipment of drugs arrived in the apartment, the officers busted in with guns and hauled them all off to jail.
Young sat in the city jail for nine months waiting to go to court, and on his first day in court, the judge offered him 40 years in prison. After deliberation and plea-bargaining, his sentence was reduced to 12 years, and he was advised by his lawyer to take it, since that was as low as they would go.
Doing Hard Time
July 31, 1995, Young signed on for 12 years with the Texas Department of Corrections. But this sentence didn’t change him.
“Instead of allowing prison to just wake me up and shock me, I slowly became involved in a prison gang.” The words came more tersely now. “This ultimately ended me up in administrative segregation, where you are isolated from the other inmates and locked down in a one-man cell 23 hours a day, 7 days a week.”
Back at home in Austin, Young’s parents were being “driven to their knees” in prayer. Sawall said she was awakened by the Lord one night, and He told her that there was not a support system in Austin like the one she would need, and instructed her to start one.
“I began to invite other women to a prayer group where all we did was pray for our children,” Sawall said.
At their first meeting six women showed up, and anywhere from three to 15 people in her home prayed for Young the entire time he was in prison.
Young had spent four years in “population” before the two years he spent in administrative segregation.
While in population, he had established himself as a loyal member of one of the largest prison gangs in the state, the Ayrean Brotherhood, and moved up the chain of command until he was “seged” in September of 1998.
“When we found out Matthew was in a gang, I became very discouraged,” Sawall said. “We would try to reason with him, but we couldn’t get through. I could sense a great darkness in Matthew.”
When she saw the tattoos that covered his entire back, she didn’t know if he was going to ever turn his life around.
“My husband told me, ‘There’s nothing we can do except trust God, even when it seems there is no hope.” She tried to remember that every day.
“I was pretty angry at the fact that I was there, but it didn’t take very long after I had been placed in seg that I began to pray and began questioning God, ‘Why am I here’ and ‘Why does it have to be like this?'”
He speaks more quickly.
“I fell asleep that first night and woke up the next morning, and it was like God had answered my prayer, and he said, ‘Matthew all of your life you’ve been running from me. You were so involved and in love with me but then you fell in love with soccer and after soccer it was drugs and alcohol and after you got busted for that and got put in prison, you didn’t even turn to me then, you turned to a prison gang. This is what it has taken for me to get your attention.'”
Leaving the Gang
Getting out of the gang Young knew then that his life had to change, and that the first thing to go would have to be his involvement in the prison gang. He prayed for six months that God would give him the courage to do what needed to be done.
“The prison environment is pretty intense in that any time you get involved in a prison gang, it’s a ‘blood in, blood out’ situation where they will threaten to kill you in order to get out,” he said without a quiver in his voice.
“So I struggled with that because it’s a fear of always looking over your shoulder, ’cause I knew I was going to come home someday and I didn’t want that fear of always worrying if someone was actually going to try to kill me.”
Young said he finally found comfort through prayer, asking his mother to pray and in hearing what he said was the Lord speaking to his spirit and claiming that nothing would happen to him without it going through God’s hands first.
“That was the turning point in my life,” he said.
Young wrote five letters to the five gang members who were above him, and told them that he renounced his membership from the prison gang and told them as briefly as he could that he was heading in a new direction and would no longer participate in or be a part of anything the gang was involved in.
“I told them that I would suffer whatever repercussions came of my decision, but that my decision was final, and that I would not be responding further to any of their letters. I cut off all ties at that time.
“That was really the major milestone in my life, because once I was able to get all that out of my life, God really began to do some things and began to put my priorities back in order,” Young said.
Young was in “seg” for 26 months and during that time had nothing to do except read and study and evaluate the behavior that had gotten him there.
“My best efforts earned me seg. The best I could do in life and all I had to show for it was an 8×11 cell,” he said, drawing a square with his hands.
Young established a schedule for himself from then on, disciplining himself to follow it, working out and reading the Scriptures, knowing that he was growing stronger and ultimately preparing himself for the day he would be released.
In January, a prison volunteer, Dr. Bill Pierce, church administrator for Abilene Bible Church, came to Young’s cell on a Sunday, introduced himself, and said to Young, “Well Matthew, let me ask you something. Are you happy?”
Pierce, who has been in prison ministry for five years, said that he always prays about an opening sentence to say when he goes from cell to cell. This particular Sunday, the sentence was, “Are you happy?”
“I had asked about eight or ten guys that question before I ever met Matthew,” Pierce said. “Of course, the response I got each time was, ‘Are you crazy? Are you stupid? I’m locked in a prison cell, of course I’m not happy.’ Except for Matt.”
Young said that he looked up from his bunk, and thought a little bit before responding.
“You know, Bill,” he began, “I’m locked up in this cell 23 hours a day, seven days a week, I get one hour outta my cell, my dad is dying, but you know, I’ve never been happier in all my life, and I wouldn’t change anything in the world because God has me right where He wants me.”
That day, as Pierce and Young talked, the guy in the cell next to Matt accepted Christ as Savior.
A Strange Question
Young’s father was diagnosed with cancer while Young was still in ad seg.
“Matthew was very shaken,” his mother said
Young’s father and mother moved to Anson so that his father could die in West Texas.
“Matthew’s father said to me about the move, ‘When Matt gets out of prison, I think the Lord is making a way for Matt to make it. I’m going to die so that my son can live.'”
He passed away in April. Young had the opportunity to visit with his father in visitation the weekend before he passed away.
“He kinda put his hand up on the glass, and I could sense that he knew it was going to be his last visit. He couldn’t walk anymore; he was in a wheelchair and cancer had pretty much taken over his body.”
Young’s eyes had a faraway look. “When he left, I was able to get put back in my cell, and I faced the parking lot in my cell, and I was able to look out my window. My dad would always stand up in front of the car and he would wave to me and I could wave back. When he left that day, it was the last time I ever saw my dad. The last time I saw my dad alive, I was waving to him from a maximum security prison.”
A New Beginning
The last time Matt Young saw his dad alive, it was to wave to him from a maximum security prison. Young knew he had to get out of prison and change his life for his dad.
“It added to my challenge,” he said, punching one fist into his hand. “I wrote in one of my final letters to him, ‘Don’t worry, I’m going to make it, I’m going to be here to take care of Mom, and I know that there’s holes in the floor of heaven, and I’m going to be looking up at you.’ I really feel that he’s up there and he is proud of everything I have been able to accomplish.”
In June of 2000, Young received a “serve-all” which meant that when he had served half his sentence, he was eligible to be released under mandatory supervision. Knowing his release was just months away, Young asked Dr. Bill Pierce to pray about his homecoming and to pray about becoming his accountability partner, someone who would check up on him, meet with him, and call him once he returned home to make sure he was still doing what he needed to do.
Pierce told Young that he would be honored to be there for him and to provide accountability,
“He told me that accountability works both ways,” Young said. “He promised to be there for me, but said that I would need to hold him accountable, too. That touched my heart, because I’ve never really had anyone to call on me for something. I was just a number in the system, and he was a retired dentist, distinguished in the community, and he was asking me to pray for him.”
They began meeting together, starting the mentoring process and going over questions and homework-type situations in order to prepare Young for his release.
“He was so focused on Jesus, and so intent on living out a Christian life, and wanting so badly to show Christ to the guys in prison,” Pierce said firmly.
On Nov. 12, 2000, Young was taken to Huntsville, the gates were opened, and he walked down the street to a Greyhound bus.
“It’s unusual for someone in seg to be released straight into the general population,” Pierce said. “Usually they go back to population in the prison and get mentoring there, but it wasn’t that way with Matt.”
He headed for Abilene, near where his mom had moved, arriving in Abilene at midnight, and his mom and uncle were both waiting for him. For 26 months, he’d had no physical contact with his family; he was not even allowed to attend his father’s funeral.
“I got off the bus and my mom’s standing there, and she was crying, and we probably held each other for five minutes, both of us having a good cry.”
Young then recounted how, for the six years he was in prison, that his mom wrote him a letter every single day.
“I think that on the days when I was ready to quit, and thought that I just couldn’t go on, there was always a letter that would come, and God would speak through those letters to me, providing just enough encouragement or momentum to keep me going.”
“Writing Matthew was a form of journaling to me, a way to help him get through it,” Paula Sawall remembers. “I wrote letters and was constantly in prayer about other things to send him, like books or articles.”
“Matt’s mom has been an angel all along the way,” Pierce said, and Matt’s fianc‚e, Bonnie Liles, whom he met at ACU, agreed.
“His mother has always been an encouragement to him, and has always been there for him,” Liles said. “Seeing his dad die made Matt realize that he needed to take care of her.”
In spite of all Young did in his life, he remembers his parents always believing in him, and encouraging him.
“They never gave up on me,” he said, “in spite of the muck that I drug them through, and that I brought disgrace to the family name, the only son to ever go to prison. They always turned all that negative into positive.”
Young returned with his mom to Anson where she was living and found out that she had gone to high school with Dr. Gary McCaleb, vice president of ACU.
When McCaleb, Young and his mother went to lunch, McCaleb began to tell them about the football team, which looked promising but lacked a kicker.
“I told him, ‘gosh, I played soccer all my life, kickin’s all I know. I could kick field goals,’ and that’s really where the doors opened.”
Young shared his story with coach Gary Gaines, who was touched by what he heard and asked Young to share it with the rest of the coaches.
By the end of the week, Young had finished all the tests he needed to take, met with an advisor, and went back to Anson to wait on the results. A few weeks later, he came home and found a letter from ACU on the table. Young went into his room to open it and read, “Congratulations! Welcome to ACU!”
After the drills and beginning of the football season however, Young decided that he didn’t need the stresses that it involved.
Instead, he decided to live and work in Mabee for a year and a half as a resident advisor for incoming freshmen. This way, he would be close to campus and able to participate in school functions.
“It was a tough transition. I had to learn to study and discipline myself. I went out of my way to get to know my professors, since I had no background in the classes.”
Young had to create a focus for himself, and tried to remember that it wasn’t about what he’d done or where he’d been, but ultimately about where he was going that mattered.
Today, Young is working at the Mabee lobby desk, concentrating on his classes, and is engaged to be married on May 16 to Liles, who graduated from ACU in May with a nutrition degree and is now interning in Houston.
“I’m going to marry my best friend,” he grinned. “I can’t describe how I feel. I’m so excited, and I wish it were happening tomorrow.”
“I’ve seen a special part of Matt that no one else sees,” Liles said. “I think sometimes people view him as intimidating, because his manner is so abrupt or ‘cut to the chase,’ but he is such a gentle person with a gentle heart. He’s very romantic and always remembers the little things.”
Young’s mother watches him now, and sees a young man who is fulfilling his dream of going to college.
“If there was just one message I could send out, it would just be to never give up. Don’t be a quitter and you can overcome any obstacles,” he said passionately.
Young, now 32 years old, hopes to graduate in 2005.
“As I reflect back on my life, it just reminds me to ask for courage to step through doors. I haven’t faced a struggle yet that overwhelmed me, and I’m determined not to give up.”