Radio's Will West Reveals Secret Past
On the air, it's a success story.
"When I heard sports talk radio for the first time, that was always my dream," said Will West. "It's something I've wanted to do for just about my whole life."
Before the lights ever came on for West it was a very different story. It was a story of struggle, of addiction, of survival.
"I started doing a lot of drugs when I was in high school and it started just experimenting and grew from there into harder drugs, harder drugs, harder drugs," he admitted.
It took six months for the preacher's son, the straight-A student from Seymour, to go from never trying a drug in his life to becoming a full-blown addict.
"I don't know that I realized the addiction for a long time. This is what I wanted to do. I enjoyed it, I liked it a lot and it got to the point where I wanted to do it more than I wanted to do anything else and it got there pretty quickly," he said.
It wasn't long before he was kicked out of high school. Eventually, his parents kicked him out of their family home.
"They had to lock all of their wallets at night and money in a lock box briefcase type thing because I would steal their money," West said.
He would try to keep a job and pay rent for a few month, but he couldn't hold on for long.
"I would be clean, go out with some friends to a bar one night and then blackout drunk, come to in a bathroom stall with four people I don't know with a key in my hand having spent $1,000 on cocaine," he said. "There would be my rent money would be gone, and I would get evicted and I would be back out on the street again."
After being evicted from several Knoxville apartments, Will was homeless.
"Sometimes I would sleep in woods, I had an old tent my dad had given me and I would use it sometimes. I slept underneath overpasses. I've slept in parking garages that were closed for the night because you know nobody is going to bother you," he said. "A lot of times you keep moving and during the day you'd go to the library and try to get a little bit of sleep in the stacks."
West said he would collect change that had fallen out of cars in the fast food drive-thru after they would close so he had enough money to eat throughout the day.
The cycle lasted for longer than half a decade.
"I've pulled food out of trashcans. I had to wash up in gas station bathrooms just to try to be able to maintain some semblance that I had my stuff together so I could get a job or try to get a job in between those times," West said.
Until a particularly bad night.
"My grandmother was in Baptist hospital, I think it was 2004. She didn't want to see me because I was so strung out. The last time she saw me I hadn't showered in a long time. And my mom didn't want to see me for her birthday because it hurt her to see me."
That night he made his bed in a bush in front of Church Street United Methodist Church.
"And I said enough of this, what is the point of this, I'm going go kill myself. What is the purpose of this, to be on the street over and over again?"
He got up, crossed the street and walked to the edge of the Henley Street Bridge.
"And I remember yelling out into the air, 'If you want my life, here I am, take it.' And nothing happened. I really expected at that time for God to do something and help me out," he said. "So, I put my foot on the ledge and I get ready to go over and this gust of wind hits and knocks my hat off my head. I went to go get the hat and when I reached down to pick up the hat I felt down in here God say, 'If you want to kill yourself I can't stop you, but if you want me to change your life then come on.' And my life has been different ever since then."
Will was on the streets again. This time heading home.
"I went to my mom's house and she looked at me and she said, 'God told me to serve you,'" he said. "I drank Dr. Pepper and drank coffee and I had a Bible. That was what my life for a few months was like until I got clean."
He got clean and got a job, but he spent most of his time in his Bible.
"I was reading it like it was new like I'd never read it before even though I read it when I was a kid," he explained. "So, I get to the book of Habakkuk and I get to the verse that says, 'Write the vision plainly upon the tablet so that he who reads it may run with it.' So, I just start writing this vision of what I want my life to be in this binder, I wanted to do sports radio. That's what I wanted to do."
But the job he had was in retail, paying the bills while he took classes at Pellissippi State, until someone he worked with happened to have another job at Cumulus and asked Will a question.
"You want to do radio?" he recalled. "As a matter of fact, I do," he answered.
Will started as a show producer. He worked overtime and weekends and voiced promotions. Then, there was an opening on an afternoon sports show on The Sports Animal, WNML. They called it Sports 180.
"They said, 'You've got six weeks to turn this show around,' he recalled. "That was nine years ago now. Josh and I have been doing this show ever since."
"Will's work ethic is really incredible. Will has done anything that's been asked of him and has gone above and beyond. I think that's why he's in the position he's in now having his own show every day, and I think it's because he did the little things first to get more opportunity," said Sports 180 co-host Josh Ward.
"Sometimes when I was working at jobs that I didn't really want to do, the one thing I could do is I would just listen to sports radio to get me through. The guys who are here, John and Jimmy, the guys here in town are the guys who would help me get through my day," said Will.
"Will has the ability to cover a very important topic, he can make people laugh, he can come back at people as well. There's really nothing that Will can't cover," added Josh.
Of all the topics and games he's covered, perhaps the biggest win, his own win, he didn't share for many years.
"What I've seen out of Will is coming out of a place that may be embarrassing and shameful and getting to a place where we talk about it a lot," said Will's longtime girlfriend, Tiffani Waller. "He's not giving in like he's not allowed to fail. It's really nice to see that and of course it makes me proud."
What life for Will looks like now is a home he shares with Tiffani and daughter Averi, a family.
It's his friends, his family and his faith that gives him strength to tell his story with recovery groups, struggling addicts and anyone on the other side of the radio.
"We can grow from that and use that to witness to others, where sometimes it feels like we want to hold it in because it's embarrassing, but you can use that to help someone else," added Tiffani.
"I've had people tell me, 'Will has made a difference in my life.' People we work with and people who we meet who didn't know his story and now that he's telling it, that will help people that he never even knew he could touch and that will continue to happen. That, to me, will be a much greater impact than taking about sports every day," said Ward.
In order to embrace who he is, he has to face who he was.
"I just think it didn't have to be that hard. And that's OK because it's over now," he said.
"Everybody wants to have their passion come out in what they do so to watch someone you are so close to and love so much get to do that it's just awe-inspiring and it gives you hope that your dreams can come true, too," said Tiffani.
Before the lights ever came on for Will West, it was a story of struggle, of addiction, of survival. A success story in the making.
"I just look at the way God restored all of those years that I blew, by putting me exactly where I always wanted to be," said Will. "Had I not had any of the drug problems, had I not been on the street, had I not done any of the things to mess my life up, I would pretty much be in the same place that I am right now. This was what I wanted."