John Niland: The Concrete Cowboy
John’s personality is as robust as the imprint he left on the football field. A sense of humor that leaves you smiling and a faith that can stand up against any foe, John Niland is truly an NFL icon. His eleven-year career as an offensive guard spans from 1966 to 1976 where he played for the Dallas Cowboys and Philadelphia Eagles. John was a six-time pro bowler and three-time all-pro but John will tell you that his faith in God is the most important aspect of his life. Let’s peer into John’s mind and heart so we get an up close and personal view.
MyEliteNetwork: Why did you choose to attend University of Iowa?
John Niland: Well, fortunately, I had a lot of opportunities to go to lots of different schools. There were about 30 or 40 schools recruiting me at one time. I visited Notre Dame, Iowa and all the Big Ten and independent schools like Pittsburgh and you know I couldn't really say which school I wanted to attend. The Iowa people, they got my dad a job. My dad was having trouble getting a job and the alumni somehow arranged for him to be hired, he worked as a policeman for Pinkerton for four years. For that reason, I chose to go to Iowa out of respect for what they did.
MyEliteNetwork: Talk about a couple of memorable moments from your time in Iowa.
John Niland: Well, there were some great moments there. Unfortunately, what I remember most is being in the dorm room when Kennedy was killed. I remember there was a lot of solemn quietness, but at the same time, you know, there was a kind of reverence. I was thinking, well, you know if they did this to our President what is going to happen to our government? I was a political science major and the head of the political science department of Iowa was the only Republican in a completely democratic school. He made it quite interesting, he initiated the most memorable discussions because he could argue both to and from the standpoint of a Republican or Democrat. For the most part I was pretty much a low key student not really getting too excited about anything.
MyEliteNetwork: How did you learn about being the number one pick for the Cowboys in 1966?
John Niland: They either drafted or recruited all the players on the same day that the AFL was competing with the NFL. There were only so many players in the AFL and if you signed with the AFL it eliminated the NFL. So the NFL came up with what they called a babysitting synopsis in which they sent out businessmen to literally grab you by the collar and “sit” with you for the following week. These businessmen would basically take us around and show us a good time; they took me back home to New York to visit my father and mother who had adopted and raised me; and they took me to Las Vegas and San Francisco. When I returned to Iowa the Eagles called me, John we're going to grab you. And I responded, Oh, really, okay. We talked money, but then the Cowboys called me and said they were going to grab me first before Philly. The Cowboys said, they're not going to get you. We are. I said, okay, now what do I do? They said, we’d like to fly you over here to Dallas to meet the coach and I ended up going to Dallas the next day.
MyEliteNetwork: Once you were an official Cowboy, how was it practicing against Bob Lilly, and what did you learn from him?
John Niland: It's good to go against the best in the competition of sports so in my case I was very fortunate. Bob was an extremely talented ballplayer. He was already an All-Pro and the team was focused around his ability. Trying to block him was extremely difficult. But as I learned to block Bob I became more confident in my own blocking; he taught me a lot. Taught me how to watch the movement of the feet, the legs. Bob was very much a student of the game so to speak, and he was very helpful in educating me on some of the minor points and major points of being beat up because that's what happens on a Sunday.
MyEliteNetwork: Yes, you sacrifice some parts of your body to play the game.
John Niland: You sacrifice your entire body says a small part of your contract when you get hurt. Don't call us we'll call you. It turns out that it's not a matter of if you get hurt, you're going to get hurt. I've had both knees replaced. I've had both shoulders replaced and a number of other operations; I can't remember things but I can walk and talk; I can't run across my bedroom, you know. I have no stability in my legs anymore.
MyEliteNetwork: What was it like playing next to Rayfield Wright?
John Niland: Well he was very strong…VERY strong. He did a wonderful job at offensive tackle. I was fortunate to have the right tackle on the opposite side of that balance when it came to our running play. I think the strength of having Rayfield, John Fitzgerald at center, and Ralph Neely on my left side so we had a very powerful offensive line that seemed to do extremely well against the run.
MyEliteNetwork: What are your memories from the Ice Bowl?
John Niland: Cold…extremely cold. We all went out on the stadium field the day before the game to see how it was; it was very nice, very pliable, very soft, and perfect for playing football. Well, what happened was that the grounds crew wanted to water down the field the night before the game and the temperature got down below zero. Later that Saturday we walk out on the field just wanting to warm up once again and we were slipping and sliding like it was an ice skating rink. The next morning when we got ready for the game we had no traction whatsoever. It was more like bumper cars than football. You’d bounce into somebody and they’d try to keep their traction while we tried to keep ours…it was a terrible game from the standpoint of performance. Of course it was also terrible because we lost. They took our game away from us. They pretty much neutralized us.
During the game the drinks froze up on the way to our lips. It was very uncomfortable because there was just no way to keep warm. There were heaters on the sidelines and all the rookies were there trying to keep themselves warm. It was a wasted opportunity to play a great game. It was a game to be remembered but not for its performance.
MyEliteNetwork: Describe your experience going against the Fearsome Foursome, Purple People Eaters, No-name Defense and Over-the-Hill Gang.
John Niland: I remember the Purple People Eaters in Minnesota because I had to go against Alan Page. I used to play pretty well against Alan but the week we were playing was the playoff season. He had just been named NFL player of the Year which is the highest honor that any player can get. And I had to play against him that weekend. Well I was scared to death but I hoped I held my own…let's put it that way. I have great respect for Alan. Still do. He was a wonderful talented man. We had a good game plan where we held it enough to win the game; we did a good job. After that the No-name Defense didn't really bother me. The Over-the-Hill Gang never bothered me. It was the Fearsome Foursome; those players were always ready for the fiercest of battles.
MyEliteNetwork: Share your memories of Duane Thomas.
John Niland: Thomas was a problem to himself. You know he didn't ever talk to anybody, and right before the championship game I called him to the side. I said, Duane I know you're not talking to anybody but give me a hint that you're going to stop a block for me, and am I going to be able to depend on you? He nodded and gave me a wink. He had a great game that day and I was able to lead him out on a few plays. Duane not talking in the offseason to the ownership or the coaching staff really kind of sealed his doom and I think his career was shortchanged. He could have been an outstanding ballplayer. He kind of cut himself off at the knees. There were always issues with him negotiating his contracts as none of us had agents at that time. He took the offers for less money very personally and since he really had no one to bounce things off of, he basically said he wasn’t going to play, he wasn’t going to listen, although he knew he had to play until he got traded, which eventually happened. It became a sad story; he could have been a great ballplayer but we traded him and the rest is history. He didn't last long after that.
MyEliteNetwork: Tell us how Tom Landry led the team. Describe his coaching style, his discipline style. What was that like?
John Niland: Coach Landry at the beginning of every training camp said, Jesus Christ is first. My family is second. My team is third. That impressed me because I was not a Christian. I didn’t know what I didn't know; I wasn't an atheist but I was not a Christian. I had no spiritual interests. I thought God would be somewhere when I died. I had no understanding of what Landry was saying at that point and it surprised me so much that I was taken aback by it, but that was his style and he lived that type of life. He was a very spiritual man and he was a very strong coaching man. He let his family come second and the discipline that he showed us in his own performance, the way he led himself around the team, the way he led himself around his family, and most importantly, how he led himself in his spiritual life made a big difference later on in my life. When I got saved, I went to Coach Landry and told him, here's what happened last night, I want you to know it was a strange experience. And he responds, oh yeah, it was like that when Paul of Tarsus came to town and the Lord knocked him off his horse. John, when you were saved last night God knocked you off your horse. The way he responded kind of explained what happened to me.
Landry understood. He said, okay go back and get trained up at practice, you know we're moving on, we’re moving forward. If not for his wise response I probably would have second-guessed myself. He was a very strong leader, extreme family man, and extremely successful at coaching. But his greatest attribute was that he opened his mouth about Jesus Christ. That personality of his so many people admired and looked up to yet not everyone quite understood it because he was rather quiet in certain places, but he knew what he was doing and he was extremely profitable from the standpoint of being able to lead our team.
MyEliteNetwork: Share any specific memories you have of Roger Staubach.
John Niland: I remember one time getting on the line of scrimmage to run a play. I guess we didn't get many yards and we were frustrated. So Roger gets in the middle of the huddle like he normally does. He looked over at me said, John you think you can block one good play? I looked up at him I said, yeah, call 42 wedge. He called that play and we gained a lot of yardage on it. Well, we get back to the huddle he goes, I run the team but you're the one giving us the plays you want to run. So it was really kind of fun in the sense of he wasn't too serious.
MyEliteNetwork: How did Landry handle the Craig Morton and Roger Staubach trade?
John Niland: Simple. He traded Craig. That's how he handled it. There was a problem with the two great quarterbacks of course. What happened the year Roger came aboard was the year that dandy Don Meredith retired but Roger was fourth on the totem pole. Jerry Rhome came in as third on the totem pole behind Meredith with Craig Morton rising up from backup quarterback to starter, with Roger now as second. Although Morton was recuperating from shoulder and elbow surgeries, he led the Cowboys to Super Bowl V where the team lost to the Baltimore Colts. Thus, the controversy when Landry started switching Morton with Staubach, ultimately settling on Staubach who threw two touchdown passes in the final 90 seconds to win over the 49ers. So it turned out terrific that Roger had the patience to wait his turn. He was very happy he waited.
MyEliteNetwork: How did you ultimately find out you were traded to the Eagles?
John Niland: A sports reporter called me and asked me for comment. I didn't know. The Cowboys traded me to Philadelphia and along with that I got two tickets to the world’s fair and rest was history. I got up to Philly and I loved it. I really enjoyed playing with that team. They weren't as talented as the Cowboys at that time but they had good players and a good coach, Dick Vermeil. Unfortunately they weren't in a winning tradition back then and I think it was my second year with the team that I got hurt. I rolled up my leg so I could barely play the two to three years I was there. It's kind of a sad story because teams don't want to play players that are hurt because they obviously don't perform as well. But they were stuck with me and I did the best I could.
MyEliteNetwork: With the physical ailments you have now, would you do it all over again?
John Niland: I would but I would make some changes. When you’re young you think you're indestructible and nobody can hurt you. I think about all the times I got hurt during practices. I remember one guy who played with the Philadelphia Eagles and he was crazy. He was all over the line and he rolled up into my leg and tore my cartilage up. I was on a practice field in Dallas one time and another guy fell off a block and rolled up into my ankle. So both legs were really at the mercy of freaky accidents and it turned out that those were the things that shortened my career or else I would have played another five years if my body could have held up.
MyEliteNetwork: In your NFL career how has your faith been woven into the picture as a whole?
John Niland: Well, I call myself the “concrete cowboy” because I sell concrete and I played with the Cowboys. That's a joke of course but for myself I'm grateful for the gentleman who owns the company, Randy Owens. I had called on Randy for another business I was in at the time and we became friends. One day I was saddened to hear that I was going to be let go by the company I had been with for 30 years. No pension. No nothing. Randy and I ran into each other at lunch the day after I was let go and we just coincidentally started talking about the concrete business and he says to me, you know, John, you ought to come to work for me.
He didn't know I'd just been let go the day before so I sat at the table and thought about it quietly for a moment before I responded, okay I'll come to work tomorrow. That was it. And that's really the Lord's work because I had no interest in the concrete business. But Randy made it very interesting——he took me under his wing and I learned enough to get in trouble. I've been there for the last three years and it's been a good ride. I have found I enjoy building things. Concrete is the number one building product in the world and everything we do is centered on concrete. Concrete is a noble product. It's not going out of style; it will be around for hundreds and hundreds of years.
It's also a wonderful experience to go to work every day and enjoy a conversation about the Lord. We talk about what our purpose is on earth and our purpose in life which is to glorify the Lord. The little things, the big things, everything you do should glorify the Lord. If you're not doing that you're missing a great opportunity to get to know the Creator of this earth and your Creator in heaven.
MyEliteNetwork: So, what are you up to these days? Are there any non-profits you support?
John Niland: My job is to develop business which is obviously a big umbrella of responsibility and developing business includes sales. We support customers in a lot of different ways. As a company we also support the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. We work with the FCA because they work with kids in school sports; football and basketball teams.
We’re also involved with another good group called First Liberty. First Liberty is a group that handles constitutional rules and regulations; they’re the constitutional liberties watchdog and keep us on the straight and narrow. Basically what they do is fight and stand up for the Constitution as well as the Lord. So those two organizations the company sponsors very strongly.
MyEliteNetwork: What are the websites for Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and First Liberty?
MyEliteNetwork: If you could share anything with today’s NFL players, what would it be?
John Niland: Well that's a good question. I would tell today’s players the same thing I would tell my own son, if you enjoy playing, great, do that, but if it becomes a chore and you really don't have the body or the mentality to deal with the war, because it is war, then stop immediately. You have to have a gladiator mentality every week. If you can’t handle a gladiator mentality, do something else you'll enjoy. There's other sports out there. But if you do enjoy it, get your body ready. Get your mind ready. Be prepared for your coach's influence; good and bad. Stand your ground. Don't let anybody take your ground. Don't think you're unbeatable. Just go out there every day and put the best effort you can into your performance. And if the Lord wants you to be a success at it he will bless your efforts.
MyEliteNetwork: Anything else you’d like to add?
John Niland: I’d like to close with a story which I think is funny; readers will enjoy it. When I came to Dallas and started for the Cowboys, my parents had never seen me play in high school and college because of their work schedules, but now the Cowboys were going to play the New York Giants in New York so I got them tickets to the game. They're in front of the stadium and a busload of us ballplayers were just pulling up. Mind you, my mother was five foot two. My father was five foot four. The bus stops and at that time the coaches got off first. The GM, Tex Schram, gets off the bus first. All five foot two of my mother runs up to Tex, you know Johnny Niland is my son. Is he on the bus with you? Tex says, I've got a bunch of ballplayers ready to get off this bus. Then coach Landry steps off the bus. My mother says to him, I’m Johnny Niland’s mother. Coach Landry just looked back at her. You just didn't do that and get away with it, but she did.
Interview conducted by Michelle Hill, Your Legacy Builder, at Winning Proof. Michelle is a sports ghostwriter, book collaborator, and author. She works exclusively with pro athletes, coaches, team owners, and other sports professionals, to march their book idea from concept to publication, from the Red Zone to the End Zone. You have a story to tell! Contact Michelle at firstname.lastname@example.org or (714) 797.3731. You can also visit the Winning Proof website at www.winningproof.com.