BY WENDY M. DODD   |   PHOTOS BY BOB THOMPSON, THOMPSON BRAND IMAGES

At 19 years old, Steve Hopper was just one year into a ten year prison sentence and it was time for lights-out.

“There I was, in this pitch black cell, alone. This particular night when that steel door slammed shut at 9:00 pm, the weight of the world just came crashing in on me. I don’t really know why it happened on this night as opposed to others but I was consumed by emotion. Every emotion you can imagine…helplessness, hopelessness, remorse, fear, regret… “ Steve remembers, “all of it, I crouched down in the corner of my cell, pulled my knees to my chest and just cried.”

Today Steve is a motivational and peak performance speaker traveling the world, speaking at business conventions, churches and to youth.

Growing up in the Carrollwood area with a love for football, Steve earned college scholarship offers early in his senior year and dreamed of going pro one day, but he never had that chance. A split second decision one night in high school would change the course of his life forever.

One Friday night Steve was invited to a high school party with some teammates. They met and came to no other beach than right here, Cypress Point. Here was this public beach, much different than it is today, no picnic tables or pavilions only palmetto bushes. His first offense, trespassing. As with most public beaches in the area, after dark the beaches are closed. For good reason.

A few hundred teenagers, a bonfire on an open beach and  plenty of alcohol likely equals a recipe for disaster. As he recalls, a fight broke out between one of his teammates and a boy from another school. As most would do for a teammate, Steve engaged in the fight. Three days later, the Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Department showed up at his doorstep with a warrant for his arrest.

One of the teens that he hit during the fight had slipped into a coma, and at that moment everything changed. His bright future playing pro-football quickly slipped from his grasp and he was instead facing complete uncertainty.

A well known athlete in the area, he was unanimously picked out as the assailant by others that attended the party that night and as a result, was the sole person arrested from the fight.

“My father had turned me in and my bond had been revoked while charges were pending.”

Life around him moved forward, his friends attended homecoming and enjoyed their senior year in high school, as Steve was lodged in the Hillsborough County jail. For three months he waited to see if the boy in the coma’s condition would improve. Would he be charged with murder, or attempted murder?

Steve recalls, “After those three months, I remember calling home and my mom answering the phone crying. I still remember her words,’Son, he came out of the coma and he’s going to live.’ It was the best news I’d ever heard. When I talk to middle schools and high schools around the country, I always try to impart on them that when you make bad choices, there are almost always bad consequences. For me, those consequences were going to be huge. The media had gotten a hold of the story and at the time, there had been a lot of fighting going on in the area so they made an example out of me and I was sentenced to 10 years in a Florida state prison at 17 years old.”

Nothing in life prepared him for the world he was about to enter. He was sent to one of the most violent prisons in Florida, a prison which has since been shut down. He recalls that first year being absolutely terrible, having to fight for his life on numerous occasions. While other kids his age were heading off to college, Steve watched as other inmates were beaten or stabbed to death right before his eyes. It was a far cry from anything he’d ever known. Nothing in life can prepare a 19 year old boy for that world.

The Darkest Moment

It was about a year into his incarceration and time for lights-out . “It was that moment, a year into his incarceration when the lights went out. That rock bottom crossroad when his emotions took over and he was finally able to feel God’s presence, remembering his Grand-dad’s words from all those years ago.”

For the first time in his life the thought of suicide crossed his mind. He felt like his life had no meaning and no purpose. As he sat there contemplating suicide, he remembered something his grandfather told him when he was little. He and his sister had spent their summers in Tallahassee where their grandparents owned property. As many grandfathers do, his grandfather would preach and impart his wisdom over their time together.

Steve remembers one summer, “he asked me to promise one thing. He said, ‘Just promise me if you’re ever at the darkest moment in your life, your back’s against the wall and you feel like you don’t have any way out, just promise you’ll drop to your knees and you’ll cry out for God’.”

He was there. The darkest moment of his life. No way out. So he took his granddad’s advice, and he asked God for help. In that very moment his life took a dramatic shift. All of a sudden it was like his life was given purpose and the meaning returned. He knew, deep inside there was something big he would do with his life. At 19, he had no idea what it was yet.

First, he needed to survive this place. After all, he was only one year into a ten year sentence and needed to find a way to survive the next nine inside. He began studying everything going on around him, watching people and interactions. In doing so he began to learn how people connected with each other.

Survival Mode

Steve began to eat, sleep and drink every ounce of self development material he could get his hands on. At the time, he didn’t even know why. He just knew he needed to develop himself from the inside out. He began by reading books on personal development, not knowing what he would even use it for. Never knowing one day he’d be an international motivational speaker, or that he would hold leadership conferences and seminars for business professionals and coach the youth of our nation.

It all began in prison, teaching other inmates how they could change their lives before they were even released. Steve had begun changing the lives of others before he even realized he had begun changing his own. He served seven years of his ten year sentence before he was released, becoming a free man when he was twenty-four years old.

A Second Chance

He had become incarcerated as a seventeen year old kid and was being released into a world expecting him to be a responsible, productive member of society. Although he had used his time more wisely than most, studying business as much as possible while incarcerated, he would undoubtedly need some help reintegrating. He focused on protecting his mind while behind bars, helping him to better integrate back into society when released. Something he credits to the positive literature and material he submersed himself in early on. Even so, being institutionalized took a great toll on him, and he still remembers the overwhelming feelings he had on his first trip to the grocery store after prison.

Decent jobs can be tough for convicted felons to come across, but an auto dealer took a chance on Steve.  Someone said, “despite your record we’re going to give you a chance to prove yourself.” Within a short time he earned a top sales position, was moved into a leadership position within the company, promoted to management and became a national sales trainer for the company’s employees.

Creating Destiny

In 2008, when the economy saw a decline in the job market, like many others, Steve found himself in the unemployment line. Reality hit. He was an ex-con with no college education in an economy where even someone with a college degree couldn’t find employment. That’s when that little voice inside spoke up again and he decided he would create his own destiny: his own marketing company.

After all, it wasn’t just his own destiny depending on his success now, but also his wife, Lauren, and their four beautiful children, Chloe, Cory, Katie, and Cody’s futures were in the balance as well.

Steve began networking and built a successful marketing company from the ground up, yet even with monetary success, he still felt there was a missing component. He didn’t feel like he was doing the great things he envisioned in his cell that night in prison. That’s when he started to pray, “whatever it is you created me for God, I’m ready. Whatever my purpose is – tell me, let me go after it.”

While attending a networking event he’d struck up a conversation with a gentleman who, unknown to him at the time, was a magazine editor. The two met for coffee a few weeks later and the next thing he knew, his story was a feature in a magazine.

Steve recalls, “After the feature, my phone, email, everything just exploded. I was overwhelmed with an outpouring of invitations to speak at youth groups, churches, companies and leadership conventions, with scheduled events five or six nights per week at least.”

Jokingly, Steve remembers his wife expressing her admiration for his work one night about a year into his speaking but also inquiring as to when and if he would be making any financial gains from the hours he was putting in. That was when he began designing the business model for Steve Hopper International.

This was the missing component. Motivational speaking, helping others to achieve more, to push themselves to be the best version of themselves in any aspect of life. Steve’s story of rehabilitation is one that inspires, not only within faith based communities but also from a business standpoint. He now focuses his time as a keynote speaker and peak performance coach, inspiring others to perform at a higher level.

Since that revelation, Steve has stepped up his game to expert level in the speaking world, reprioritizing his company’s purpose to inspire strength and extraordinary in everything he contributes.

RM (Resident Magazine): Tell us about your present-day motivational speaking business.

SH (Steve Hopper): I am now a peak performance coach, I inspire people to perform at a higher level, to find that strength inside of them to go and do something extraordinary with their life or business.

RM: How do you envision modeling your business?

SH: I’m training and mentoring a lot of speakers right now and that component could definitely be implement into the business model in the future. Right now, my focus is in delivering keynotes at large corporate events and conventions, and also church and youth events.

One event I hold is called the Hundred-Thousand Dollar Handshake. it’s a two day intensive designed to teach business owners to grow their business through joint ventures and relationships. What happens during my seminars for many business professionals is a realization that what is holding them back are the limiting thoughts and negative beliefs are keeping them from achieving the success they want. It’s not that they cannot network or advertise properly.

The reality is, everyone has a story. Everyone has been through something that has changed their life and affected them in some way. If they’re still holding on to those things, that can really affect the direction their business or life is heading. When I got out of prison, it’s important to remember that it took me years, YEARS, to tell my story. I had convinced myself telling my story was a bad thing… that it would prevent me from being successful or stop me from having any good opportunities in life. So I wasn’t sharing my prison experience with anyone. It wasn’t until I started sharing my story that it actually had the exact opposite effect.

When a person becomes authentic in the marketplace, others are drawn to them.

One person that stands out to me was ex-military and stationed overseas in Afghanistan. He’d witnessed some of the worst events one could imagine, he watched as his best friend was killed in a firefight just feet from where he stood. Through the years his relationship with his children and his marriage had been negatively affected by the emotional pain he was holding inside, and no one knew why, he had never opened up to them.

The day he attended my Hundred-Thousand Dollar Handshake event, he began to understand the importance of sharing his story. He went home that day and told his wife and kids about what he’d experienced and once he did, it changed everything. His marriage became everything he wanted it to be, and  his kids now understood why their dad had been so reserved for all those years and what had forced him to hold back.

RM: What would you say to someone who wants to step into their purpose but might not know how?

SH: For someone at that place in their life, where they have come to the realization something is missing, they’re just not sure what yet. I would tell them to start searching. Many times we get so caught up in the day to day routine of paying bills, soccer practice and trying to make ends meet, that it’s very easy to get to a point where we stop chasing our dreams. We also stop searching for what it is that we were put on this earth to do.

I believe at that point we need to stop living in the moment. Stop reacting to everything life is throwing at us and actually start searching for what it is that we, individually, should be doing. What is your gift? What is your mark to leave on this world?

I would also add, a person’s purpose is going to be related to something they have a strong passion for. We’re not going to fulfill a purpose related to something we care nothing about. If you don’t wake up every day loving this particular thing, or go home at the end of the day with a fulfilled heart, then it’s probably not your purpose. Now, I’m not saying go out and quit the job that’s paying your bills, but you might want to start searching for that one thing in your heart. We all have a gift, a talent, and nine times out of ten that gift will be related to our purpose.

Cypress Point

SH: I’d mentioned before that this park had a certain significance in my life. It was 1995, and the park was all palmetto bushes the night the party and subsequent fight happened. At the time, the park was owned by a local business. The City of Tampa had attempted to purchase the property for years with hopes of building a public park. When the fight took place, due to the significant negative media coverage the fight created, the owners of the property decided it was time to sell. They contacted the City of Tampa and decided to finally sell it. Therefore, this park was actually built as a direct result of that fight and everything that transpired. For me, this park is a reminder that good things can still come from bad situations. Cypress Point will always be a big part of my story, a place I come back to often when I need a calm.

I made a horrible choice that night, but a lot of lives have been impacted in a positive way from that choice that I made as well. Would I go back and make that same choice? No, absolutely not. But it’s interesting to see what has come from that point forward. Just another reason I come to this park when I need clarity.

RM: What advice do you have for someone who can’t move past a negative moment in his or her life?

SH: I would say that what you import is what you export. If you’re someone that tends to struggle with getting past negative situations in life, surround yourself with others who have gotten past negative situations. Those people are going to inspire you, they will push you to get to the next level. I also tell people to listen to as much self development material as you can. We live in a day and age where it is so easily accessible. I was listening to Eric Thomas on my way here, one of my favorites and one of the top motivational speakers in the world right now.

In order for you to overcome negative situations you need to put positive things into your life. Listen to positive, motivational things. Follow these guys that are going to throw some good positive things your way, Tony Robbins, Les Brown, or you know, follow Steve Hopper!

RM: Do you have a favorite self help book?

SH: One of my favorites is a book by John Maxwell called The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader. What this book does is break down what people are going to buy into. I believe our success in business and in life is dependent on our ability to influence others in a positive way. The reality is, in order for us to influence others, they need to buy into us. This goes back to the authenticity of a person as well. If I want to do business with a person, I need to trust them before anything else. This really goes for anything and everything… even our kids are not going to do what we tell them unless we have the ability to influence them to do so.

The great thing about that book is that it breaks down what characteristics you need; character, integrity, appearance, attitude and all these different things that go into leadership. In fact my number one, signature keynote speech is called The Ability to Influence. When I go into corporate America, I share my story and then head into what we need to possess every day when we walk out of our house if we want to influence others. Once we master that, the sky’s the limit. Your relationships will improve and your business will grow to a level you never dreamed it could reach.

In the beginning I never would have dreamed I’d become a motivational speaker or write my own book, From Prison to Purpose. It wasn’t until I had person after person asking me when was I going to write my story, that I finally told myself I needed to just do it. Once I sat down, it just flowed out of me.

I always encourage people I come into contact with to write a book. It has the potential to be a legacy. If you think about it, someone in California can buy my book, read my story and it can impact their life. Even though I’ve never met them, I can still have an impact. Not to mention my grand-kids, will always have access to that knowledge. A book is such a powerful thing. You don’t have to have a crazy prison story, it’s just a matter of having something positive that you can put back out into the world that can encourage, inspire or teach someone something. We all have that. We all have a story, an experience that has the potential to help someone else.

My first, From Prison to Purpose, is the story of how my life came to be what it is today. Right now I’m currently working on three new books. One is The $100,000 Handshake, in line with my event. Another is The Incarcerated Heart, which I am co-authoring with my mom. This book is for moms and families of young men who are incarcerated. The fourth book is The Ability to Influence, which will be on how to go about finding your purpose in life.

RM: If you could put up a billboard anywhere and have it say anything, where would you put it and what would it say?

SH: I would put it in a high traffic area, on the interstate. It would say ‘true success in life is when you become part of someone else’s story’. That is what I live by. I have to, any time you value your success based on money or status you can very easily be mislead in life. When you impact someone else’s life, that is powerful.

What does it take to become a speaker of this magnitude? If you ask Steve Hopper, he would tell you just as with any industry, you find your niche and you get what you ask for. You want to become a doctor? Find a medical school and study the right information to become a doctor.  Want to become a speaker? Study the industry.

Once you find your desire start sharing it with others. Tell others what you want to do. Tell everyone, share your passions with the world. Before you know it, the people you come into contact with will start opening doors for you. We meet new people every day, and unless we share our desires with them, they won’t know to open those doors.

Steve Hopper is available for speaking anywhere and everywhere. He resides in Lutz on the county line and speaks at leadership conferences, seminars, churches, all youth and sporting events. He has something special for every audience. To book Steve to speak at your next event contact him at 813-918-8609 or Steve@SteveHopperInternational.com today!