by Chris Rolf (New Life)
By 2013, hard man Allen Langham had served six prison sentences amid an 18-year storm of violence, crime, drug addiction and homelessness.
Facing a seventh stretch, Allen had hit rock bottom. Hating the life he felt trapped in and contemplating suicide, he could little imagine this latest sentence would kickstart a transformational journey to restoration and faith.
Allen's troubles began in childhood. Bullied by neighborhood kids and family, abandoned by his father and sexually abused by a family friend, the troubled teen discovered his mom dead at home just before his 15th birthday.
"My whole world fell apart. I moved into my sister's house and vowed I'd become someone who could never be hurt again," he says.
Allen's talent for rugby was a source of hope. He secured a professional signing with Sheffield Eagles at 17. But rugby could not compete with the 'family' Allen found among the hard-drinking fighting men who befriended him at his sister's pub.
"I was desperately searching for family and looked up to them. They took me under their wings.
"By 18 I'd committed a lot of violent offences. They say hurting people hurt people, and I was festering with hurt."
The downward spiral accelerated. Allen's first prison sentence came in 1996, swiftly followed by a second in 1997. Here, he became addicted to heroin.
"In a year, I'd gone from being a big, tough rugby player to an addict. I ran away to London and within 48 hours was sleeping on the streets."
Stealing to fund a £500-a-day heroin and crack addiction, another arrest in 1998 was inevitable. Allen was charged and shipped between Doncaster, Wandsworth, Brixton and Belmarsh prisons.
Initially, the outlook looked bleak.
"I was 21, locked up with armed robbers, gangsters and triads doing 25 years to life. I had to get aggressive fast or be annihilated, so I shaved my head, put on weight and became a ticking time-bomb."
But Allen knew this violent version of himself was a front. He worked hard to kick his addiction, re-educate himself and become a mentor to younger prisoners.
Once released, however, the rollercoaster continued. Despite his best efforts, Allen couldn't escape his former lifestyle.
"I beat people up, became a dealer, a debt collector, a gangster. I spent years in a revolving door of prison, failed relationships, violence and drugs."
By 2013, he was facing his seventh sentence. Alienated from family, friends and his three children, ground down by decades of violence and rage, an overdose seemed the only option.
But God had another plan. In prison, Allen had been attending chapel and in desperation turned to the ministers.
"We prayed and I came away so convicted of who I'd become. That night, I dropped to my knees completely broken. I couldn't live with who I was anymore.
"In prison, you spend hours staring out of the window. I'd watched the grey pigeons outside, so I prayed to God, 'If you're real, send a white dove to replace them.' It was amazing – the pigeons lifted to reveal a dove. To me, it was a sign of hope.
"I ran out of my cell absolutely elated, shouting, 'There is a God!' Everyone was staring because I had a fearsome reputation, yet I was running down the stairs like a child at Christmas."
Allen had been given a book Battlefield of the Mind by American writer Joyce Meyer. God began Allen's journey of restoration as he read how she had forgiven her abusive father.
"I gave my anger to Jesus. In the morning, the violence and rage inside me had gone and I felt peace. Since then, I've never hit anyone."
Next, Allen asked his minister to pray about the charge of hostage-taking he was awaiting trial for, though innocent of. Within two days, his solicitor called. "You're going home, they've dropped the charges."
This time, life was different.
"I went to the pub, but went round telling everyone about God. Before, I would kick off at the slightest thing. Now, I was smiling, on fire with faith and wanting to hug everyone."
Allen joined a church. The members welcomed him, despite their fear of his violent reputation. Over the past seven years, they and many other Christians have helped him rebuild his life.
After prayer, counselling and mentoring, he has been reunited with his family, taken part in prison ministry, run his own fitness business and even been welcomed back as a player, coach and chaplain at his former rugby club.
Now, Allen, 41, is keen to share his dramatic journey and has written an autobiography, Taming of a Villain.
"The book has been amazing because I've had to go back through my life and see it through the eyes of a man who's been saved by grace. Everyone had written me off as a psycho, but God had other plans for me.
"I've still got a way to go, but I'm no longer Allen the recovering addict or ex-offender. I'm Allen the Christian and father. If my story can stop others going down that path, those years I thought I'd wasted won't have been in vain."•