Who is your all-time-favorite Dallas Cowboy? Troy? Emmit? What about some of the old guys like Roger or Dandy Don. Maybe you favor the defense. Maybe your favorite is Charlie Waters, or Bob Lilly, or Chuck Howley? Any one of those might appear on somebody’s all- time-favorite Cowboy list. But they aren’t on mine.
Do you want to know who is? John Niland.
Never heard of him? That wouldn’t surprise me. You see John Niland was an offensive guard. I know what you’re thinking, “Who picks a guard for their all-time-favorite?” I’ll have you know that Niland was a great guard. Number one pick out of Iowa in 1966. Even so, I must admit that I didn’t pick him for his play on the field. I picked him for how he treated me.
Back in the mid 60’s, when I was in grade school, some of the Cowboys would come to my home town to play exhibition basketball against our High School coaches. We loved going to those games. Kids like me would line up around the gym before the game for a favorite autograph. So there I was, standing in line, minding my own business, right under the basketball goal. The Cowboys were trying to warm up. Suddenly a 2nd string quarterback named Jerry Rome came crashing through the line after a lay-up. He looked at me and yelled, “Hey, you better get over there and stay out of the way!” I was mortified. Hot tears swelled uncontrollably in the corners of my eyes. I tried to fight them back but it was no use – the damage was done. Not only had I gotten yelled at by an idol, I’d cried in front of all my buddies.
John Niland must have seen it happen. The next thing I know this giant has one of his tree trunk arms wrapped around my pencil neck. He’s right down in my face. I could see in his eyes that he cared about me. He asked me all sorts of questions. Encouraged me. At that moment time seemed to stop. I’m sure he was only there two or three minutes, but it seemed like an hour. In those few minutes I went from goat to glory. And John Niland made a fan for life.
I never got the autograph that night. Don’t even know who I was in line to see. It didn’t matter. Niland had left a much more indelible mark on my 9 year old life. In two or three minutes he taught me about the power of encouragement. Almost half a century has come and gone since that balmy evening in the Denison High School gym, and I’m still trying to remember to apply Niland’s lesson to my life. Nothing lifts us quite like encouragement. Actress Celest Holmes once said, “We live by encouragement and we die without it; slowly, sadly, angrily.”
(1 Thessalonians 5:11) “Therefore encourage one another, and build up one another, just as you also are doing.”