Van McNiel 6'4" Linebacker San Antonio East Center High School San Antonio, Texas 1966
He started as a sophomore at linebacker for the San Antonio East Central
High School football team. Van thinks he could have played varsity as
a freshman, but he wanted to stay on the freshman squad and play both
offense and defense. Some of Van's teammates never knew what to make
of him. Off the field, he would not run from fights, but he avoided them.
He sang in the church choir. He did not give his mother trouble, like
some of his similarly Texas-sized brothers did. But on the football field,
that's when he "turned the Devil loose." His senior year,
220-pound linebacker Van McNiel took all-district honors, and all-state
Coaches from the big colleges came calling, including Frank Kush from Arizona
State University. After Coach Kush swore repeatedly during their visit,
Van told him right on the spot he would never play football for him. Darrell
Royal was "more professional", but Van decided not to play ball.
A bone fragment at the end of his right thigh bone near the kneecap "just
came loose" a year after Van's graduation from high school. Two
more surgeries on the right knee and two more on the left followed. Van
kept storming through life. He married Susan. Van "knew" he
was going to marry her when he was fifeen and she was twelve. Van says,
"She's the brains." Among other things, Susan has a remarkable
talent for concrete work. Susan bore three children for Van, two girls
and a boy. Van conquered dyslexia by taking a speed reading course. He
worked as a plumber and then in the power plants of City Public Service
in San Antonio. That work ended with back surgery, but Van just moved on.
Van had his priorities straight at a very early age: God, family, others,
then himself. He says his uncle's "a righteous judge" in
Nacogdoches. He says he "inherited the blood line of a Holy Man."
He had always ministered to his friends informally. After leaving City
Public Service, he became a minister, formally "licensed by the Church
and the State of Texas to marry, bury and baptize you!" Van might
shatter your conception of what a "holy man" is like: he is
earthy and funny, swears (mildly) on occasion, and confesses his faults
freely. He still can crack pecan shells effortlessly in the palm of one
hand. When you meet him, he tends to look deep into your eyes, to check
out your soul. He appears on a weekly cable program, "Moments with
Jesus." He receives no salary for his ministry, but says he is "overpaid"
with blessings from God.
Through the years, Van hunted deer and elk, and fished. He would take "big
game" hunters out, but preferred doing these things with his kids.
He encountered a series of larger-than-life Texas characters, and never
backed down. In 1998, he was diagnosed and successfully treated for liver
cancer. He suffered a heart attack and had angioplasty stints placed last
May and December. This did not stop him, either.
Van knows physical pain. He's just had more important things to pay
Despite all of these temporary physical setbacks, Van McNiel was robust
and highly energetic until several weeks ago, when he began to suffer
from chest pain. He went to his family physician thinking it was related
to his heart condition. His doctor said he was unsure about the cause
of his pain and referred him to a physician at St. Luke's Baptist
Hospital in San Antonio, Texas.
On September 20, 1999,Van underwent a fine needle biopsy. The results of
the pathology test showed he was suffering from malignant mesothelioma.
CAT scans showed three clusters of tumor on the left front of Mr. McNiel's
chest, over the lung and the heart. His doctors have not performed a thoracotomy
because they fear "seeding" of the tumor along the incision.
Van and Susan McNiel
The McNiel's relate that their doctors have told them that the tumor
may already involve the lung parenchyma, and thus their doctors have ruled
out surgical removal of the tumor. Their oncologist has begun Mr. McNiel
on a regimen of radiation and chemotherapy. He has completed three (3)
weeks of radiation treatments. He is to have radiation treatments every
day for the next three (3) weeks, followed by chemotherapy. His condition
will then be evaluated.
Van has a very high threshold for pain, but the pain at the site of the
tumor is already quite severe. He is on a morphine patch for the pain.
He sweats profusely. He cannot sleep at night, and is becoming worn out.
During the day, it is difficult for him to concentrate on his health;
he is determined to tend to his flock. As a minister, Van has seen cancer
and death many times. He admits his fear that the pain may become more
than he can bear.
Van testified at his discovery deposition and for his videotaped trial
testimony just last week. He did this while receiving radiation therapy
and struggling against his pain and morphine. Van would ask the name of
each of his questioners, and try to call them by their first name. On
break, he talked with one of the asbestos manufacturers' lawyers about
what it meant to be a Mason. (Van is a 32nd degree Mason). The next day,
when Van finished testifying, this same lawyer came up to me with tears
in his eyes and said, "I can't do this anymore. I can't represent
these asbestos companies anymore. This is the All-American boy. Look what
they did to him!"
Van is upbeat but realistic. He has strong faith in his doctors, but he
is worried about what the future holds, not for him, but for his wife,
Susan. "I know where I am going," Van says, "but I don't
know when. I just want to make sure Susan will be okay when I'm gone."
These two sweet, gentle people tear up when they contemplate separation,
even temporary. They cherish your prayers.
*** POSTED OCTOBER 25, 1999 ***
Van McNiel lost his battle with mesothelioma on February 23, 2000 at the
age of 51. The service held on February 28 at the First Baptist Church
in LaVernia, Texas, celebrated the life of this prodigious character.
Van would have loved it. He devoted himself to the renewal of life, and
even nature seemed to pay tribute. Fields which had been brown from the
dry winter were bright green from recent rains. The sky was clear and
blue, and the air crisp. The service began late as family and friends
looked for seats on the first floor and into the balcony; folding chairs
were set up behind the pews to accomodate the crowd. An abundance of wreaths
splashed bright colors in front of Van's casket. Vertical columns
of family photos displayed his life's rich variety: Texas high school
football; marriage to his childhood sweetheart Susan; his children and
grandchildren; hunting and fishing; and his ministry.
At Brother Van's request, the Jubil Heirs, a five piece gospel band
with piano and electric bass, literally drove hundreds of miles straight
from Arizona upon hearing of his passing, so that they could perform such
favorites as "How Great Thou Art." The crowd stood, clapped
and sang. As First Baptist's pastor remembered this remarkably unique
individual, he joked that he was no longer in his body: "Van's
like a walnut. The shell is here, but the nut is gone!"
I had seen the exotic goats Van kept in fenced yard on his property, but
the pastor explained the rest of the story. Van just said that he would
pick these goats up at auction. The pastor said that Van would buy the
sick and weak goats, so that he could nurse them back to life. The pastor
continued that Van chose the same kind of people to minister to. He went
to the people that no one else wanted or cared for, and brought them back to life.
We extend our heartfelt condolences to Van's wife, his children, family
*** POSTED MARCH 7, 2000 ***