GREENSBORO — Lynch Hunt wants to tell you — and he's not afraid to tell you — that he's made mistakes.
Once the leader of an $8.3 million drug operation in the late 1990s and early 2000s, he spent 10 years behind bars. He’s not "Big L" anymore, a man who wore expensive watches and furs and today doesn't bear any resemblance to that other life.
These days, he has different handles: Coach Lynch. Mentor. Businessman. Prison-reform advocate. Motivational speaker. Transformation specialist.
In the drug game — and it’s a cliche, but true — you either end up in jail or dead. It's just a matter of time.
Thing is with Hunt, he was actually trying to get out when he got busted.
Now as a free man, the lessons he's learned on the way to changing his life he wants to impart to others.
Many of those lessons are taught at AWOL Fitness on the edge of downtown, a place Hunt runs with all the compassion of a drill sergeant.
And as he teaches people to face their fear, he faces his own.
• • •
For a long time, Hunt didn't talk about his past.
He worried that he hadn't built enough value in the community although he counts some of the most powerful and prominent people in Greensboro as clients and has been involved in efforts to help the less fortunate.
But he also couldn't shake the feeling that he could help prevent ex-convicts from returning to prison and others from getting into the pipeline. And people are paying attention.
Hunt's book, "From Prison to Prosperity," influenced legislation introduced by U.S. Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro on criminal justice reform that would enlist several federal agencies to train inmates in such fields as manufacturing and health care so they are better prepared to succeed after their release.
At an appearance together last week, Walker told the crowd that he drew inspiration from Hunt.
"We hope to replicate your story," Walker said.
• • •
Hunt wasn't the best at football, baseball or basketball. He had to work at every sport as far back as Pop Warner. But they always made him captain.
"Through work ethic, through discipline, through being a leader," he explained as he stood in the middle of AWOL Fitness, a place for serious gym rats and for the unfit to get serious.
His parents separated when he was young. Outside, not far away from the apartment where he and his siblings resettled, drug dealers gathered on a street corner.
The New Jersey neighborhood was steeped in poverty and seeded with despair.
As Hunt’s mother left in the early morning for the two or three jobs she had that day, she would tell her three children — Hunt at age 7 was the middle child — to watch after each other as they ventured outside to ride their bikes.
"We raised each other," Hunt said.
In high school, he made good grades — and was excellent in calculus and trigonometry — without having to study.
By then, some of the neighborhood kids he hung out with were making a name for themselves, too — as regulars on the corner selling drugs.
But not Hunt. Not yet. He was going to a small college in New Jersey on a scholarship. He was leaving the streets, and the life, behind.
The guys on the corner didn't bother him. Maybe they were pulling for him, too.
He would have been the first in his family to graduate from college. Only he didn't graduate.
Once he was there, the independence — perhaps not having his mother as a personal "snooze button" — was something he handled poorly.
He started showing up late for class. Soon, he was sleeping through classes. Eventually, he dropped so many classes that he was no longer a full-time student and lost his scholarship.
For Hunt, that meant one thing.
"I had to go back home to that same environment," he said.
• • •
The family had long moved out of Hunt's childhood home. But Hunt, back from school and without a job, gravitated back there and to a best friend who dodged cops while selling crack.
When that friend asked Hunt to stash drugs for him while he was out of town, he did so. But so many people came looking for drugs as he hung out on the corner, that he got the stash and sold them. More than $400 worth of crack in a matter of minutes.
"I was the last one to even consider it," he said of his decision to sell drugs.
The money put him on a path. The path would put him in jail.
"I still had hustle," Hunt said. "I still had work ethic. I always did things right, but I didn't always do the right thing."
The crack epidemic was filling his pockets and allowing him to wear a different fur for every day of the week.
"I would buy everybody sneakers," he said.
Soon, he was buying cocaine on his own, and cooking it into rocks of crack, which multiplied his investment.
There were $50,000 cars. But it also felt good to put money in his mother's hands.
His mother didn't condone it, but she took it anyway.
It was complicated, Hunt explained.
"I think my mom had needed help for so long," he said.
After being the last of his friends to sell drugs, he was soon the largest drug dealer in the county.
• • •
Something hadn't felt right.
Hunt took different routes home.
He studied the cars in the parking lot of the condo units so he would know if any didn't belong there.
The drug game has a shelf life, and Hunt wanted to get out while he was ahead — as in alive and not in jail.
He had rented space at a local mall where he sold retro jerseys, then going for $350 each, and popular ball caps.
It was hugely successful. More than that, though, it was legitimate. A way out.
But it was too late. By then, police in Mount Laurel, N.J., had him in their sights.
Hunt had just paid $100,000 for a stash of cocaine. But as he started cooking it to make crack cocaine, it was a bad batch and he had to stop.
About 20 minutes later, police surrounded him as he drove away from his home. His arrest in September 2003 marked the end of an 18-month investigation.
"One day, you are eating lobster and shrimp, and the next day they're pushing something you don't recognize through a slot," he said.
"Operation Summer Heat" as police called it, would catch 12 in what was an $8.3 million drug-trafficking operation. The local newspaper ran a flow chart of everyone involved. At the top was 27-year-old Hunt’s mugshot.
"The moment they told me to freeze and put my hands up, was like a video game finally ending," Hunt said. "Game over."
• • •
From the county jail, using a free postcard and stamp affixed to it, Hunt promised his mother he would change his life.
"What I wanted to do but didn't have the will to do," Hunt said of dealing drugs, "God came in and put a stop to it."
He had written the judge before sentencing, calling the day a "gift " and a chance at redemption.
"I went to work on myself,” Hunt recalled. "I said, ‘This is not who I was meant to be.'"
He would be forced to do what he couldn't do himself.
"What I wanted to do but didn't have the will to do, God came in and put a stop to it and said you are going to be used in a different way."
During his 18 months in the county jail, he devoured books on self-development and spirituality.
He had barely arrived in prison when he was summoned from the prison yard. Guards said they found drugs in his locker. Hunt said they weren’t his.
Still, Hunt was sent to solitary confinement and would stay there a year.
Hunt wrote to the governor and anybody else in authority who he thought might have listened. He figured it might have been someone setting him up or simply someone using his locker to hide contraband.
He didn't know it at the time, but the transfer to a higher security prison came with perks not available where he had been housed.
It was there he would earn finance and fitness certifications through correspondence courses.
"The thing about how God works, is, even though it was a worse prison, that's where I got all my certifications," he said. "I did exactly what the letter (to the judge) said."
• • •
It wasn’t just a way to pass the time. Hunt was working on a future.
Nothing could replace those years lost from age 27 to 37. But at least when Hunt left prison in 2013, he had a marketable skill.
And other changes were underway.
While serving his time, he had written to someone he had previously dated from his neighborhood. She responded, but then stopped writing back for nearly a year.
Then Hunt was busy working as a trainer at an LA Fitness franchise on work release — with all his certifications, he was hired on the spot — while living in a halfway house. Hunt quickly became one of the more popular trainers, who didn’t mind getting in your face to get results. When needed, his bluntness could be tempered with compassion.
When he next heard from the woman who had been on his mind, she was now a police officer. She had been in training.
She had also left New Jersey with her two young daughters for a better life. And she believed in him.
He married the future Wendy Hunt while sneaking away during a break while on work release.
When Hunt was released from the halfway house, he followed her to Greensboro, finding a job at the former Rush fitness center on Battleground Avenue.
He focused on being a husband to Wendy and a dad to his new wife's children.
"I have to give my wife a return on her investment," he explained. "She had a lot to lose, trusting me and my vision. That was all faith. That was all vision. That was all heart."
At Rush, clients gravitated to Hunt because he got results.
He made it a point to meet three new people a day by giving away a free session or helping someone in the gym learn how to use a machine. The idea was to network and increase his potential client list.
Soon, he felt confident enough to open a make-shift gym in his garage and hold private appointments.
One of those people Hunt had made a point to meet told him about a building that had become available. It would make a great place for a gym— although it would need a lot of work. There was indoor and outdoor space for an obstacle course and the kind of exercises he could think up, such as pushing tires in the dirt.
WFMY anchor Tracey McCain was referred by a friend after a stubborn battle to get rid of the 70 pounds she gained during her first pregnancy. She recalled how she would spend the first few minutes in AWOL chatting with people as she made her way to the bowel of the building.
Hunt put a stop to that.
"He said to me, 'If you put more energy into your workouts than your conversations then you would have your transformation," McCain said. "I didn't like him in that moment."
But he uses obstacles in working out to empower people to take risks. McCain had put off a children's book for years. She's just finished with writing it.
"All of a sudden, it's like this is not impossible," McCain said. "So maybe that's possible."
• • •
At AWOL, being a local celebrity, pastor or judge — which Hunt counts among his clients — won't protect you from a tongue lashing.
"There's no comfort in the growth zone, and no growth in the comfort zone," is one of many Hunt matras.
Among those drawn to AWOL — which stands for A Way Of Life — was Ken Canion, a former N.C. A&T football player and past “Biggest Loser” contestant. When he darkened AWOL's doors, Canion had fallen into a rut. His father had gotten sick and Canion got burned out.
"I just wanted to come to a place where it was different," Canion said. "Where I didn’t have to lead anything. I wanted to follow instructions and do what I’m told."
After Canion became familiar with Hunt’s story, he told him to share it.
"I said, 'I think you have a message that the world needs to hear,'" Canion recalled. "The reason why you’re effective ... is because most people walk around and they’re masquerading."
They want to pull off their masks, he said, but they're afraid.
"But what’s going to help you touch the lives you touch is because you are not afraid to take off your mask," Canion told him. "You are not afraid to say, 'Here’s where I screwed up.’"
• • •
Some would call him reformed. That’s a word he hates. He prefers transformed.
These days, Hunt talks to middle school and high school students about the "traps" that lead to prison.
He's usually not in a suit and tie when he shows up.
"I just make sure I have the newest Jordans on," he said.
He knows he'll get their attention. He also says he's got to be authentic.
Hunt has been a graduation speaker at N.C. A&T's Middle College and for inmates receiving their high school equivalency degrees, and as a motivation speaker at various colleges and for groups.
He has written several other books, including "Seven Levels of Discipline that Manifest Success" and the daily inspirational "Accelerate Your Resultz" with Canion.
On that panel last week with Walker, Hunt spoke of the lengths he went for a second chance — something he encourages others to do.
"The man that I was, I was willing to kill him so that when I got a chance at redemption I would be able to seize the opportunity," Hunt said.
When he talks about his plan to open other AWOL locations across the country, he says it's to help others reach their potential.
"I feel I'm on the right path," he said.