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Former Linebacker Wrestles With The Devil And Mesothelioma


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 honorable mention.

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 attention to.

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

Van and Susan McNiel
October, 1999

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 and friends.

*** POSTED MARCH 7, 2000 ***