A Man Who Should Never Be Forgotten

Wednesday marks 28 years since Joe Delaney drowned in a construction pond at an amusement park in Monroe, Louisiana. His 24 years were far too short. Still his talents and spirit were so memorable and endearing. I got a chance to visit him in his tiny hometown in Louisiana 28 years ago and there’s no question how hard it was for him to reach pro football. Last year, I wrote the following post which I repeat here in case you missed it then.

June 29, 2010 – Look at that smile. So vivid, so endearing, even now 27 years after he’s gone, it still provides a shot of life. It’s hard not to smile back.

Joe Delaney had one of the best smiles that ever walked through a Chiefs locker room. Shy and quiet by nature, he was always ready to push back his lips and show his pearly whites. For two years his teammates all remember one thing about him – no matter what time they walked into the locker room at Arrowhead Stadium, Joe was already there, sitting in front of his locker, sipping from a cup of coffee and ready to flash that smile to everyone.

It was on June 29, 1983 in Monroe, Louisiana that Joe Delaney drowned while trying to save three boys who were under water in a construction pond next to an amusement park. He was 24 years old.

Some three generations of Chiefs fans never got the chance to see him play. They know the story of his selfless act of heroism. They’ve heard of his tragic death. His most remarkable rookie season of 1981 is in the history books – his Pro Bowl trip where he was the only rookie starter, his Chiefs MVP award, the AFC Rookie of the Year, the All-Rookie teams and even a spot on a first-unit All-Pro team.

But they never got the chance to see him flying out of the backfield, headed for the corner of the defense and shifting into high gear. Oh my, it was something special. A crack in the defense was all he needed. He would explode out his stance so fast at the snap of the ball that quarterbacks Bill Kenney and Steve Fuller took awhile to adjust to handing off to him.


Once in the open field, there wasn’t anybody in the league that was going to run him down. Plus, he could catch the football. In his first NFL start, the sixth game of the 1981 season, he ran for 106 yards and added 104 yards in pass receptions. That was 210 total offensive yards on 31 touches.

When you think of Joe Delaney, think of Jamaal Charles, but 15 pounds lighter. They had the same type of bodies – slender build and strong legs that could get up to speed in the snap of a finger. They were both top flight sprinters in college. Charles 100-meter dash time of 10.27 seconds at Texas would have just nosed out the 10.3 seconds that Delaney ran the distance at Northwest Louisiana. But in the 200 meters, Delaney’s best time of 20.6 seconds was a half-step ahead of Charles at 21.02 seconds.

Charles shares another trait with Delaney – toughness. Neither one was a track guy playing football. They were football players that ran track. Delaney was never afraid to stick his head into the middle of the line and take a shot, just as Charles is always ready to handle the running between the tackles. During his short career, Delaney had to deal with several injuries, largely due to the fact that his body was not always equal to his heart. The most serious was a detached retina in his eye that required surgery in 1982 that was done at John Hopkins in Baltimore.

As Chiefs fans started to learn last year with Charles, any time the ball was in his hands, something big could happen. It was the same with Delaney. If there was a crack in the scrum at the line of scrimmage, there was almost a collective inhale by those watching at Arrowhead. The exhale came when No. 37 came sprinting through the opening.

Delaney ran every play as if it was his last one. He ran like his hair was on fire and the only bucket of water in the county was sitting in the opponent’s end zone. Joe would float along the line of scrimmage and then plant his foot in the turf and turn up field with such quickness you swore there was a flame coming out of his shoes.

I saw every one of Joe Delaney’s 363 NFL touches (329 runs, 33 receptions, 1 kickoff return) over two seasons. Had his instincts not taken over at Chennault Park that steamy June 29th and his career had continued, I cannot begin to guess what type of football legacy he would have left. Because of his size and his running style, it was unlikely that he would have had a long career, maybe five, six years at the most.

What I do know is that every time the ball would land in his hands, something big and memorable was possible. Like the 82-yard TD run against Denver, or the 61-yard catch and run against Oakland – he was a football home run hitter, able to change the game’s momentum and outcome.

I spent time with Delaney in his hometown of Haughton, Louisiana after his surgery for a detached retina. We rode through the dirt and gravel streets on the other side of the railroad tracks that split the town into two sections. That’s where he had his home, and where his mother and others family members lived. I remember sitting in the living room of his mother’s house listening to their conversation and being able to understand only about every fourth word. Joe didn’t so much talk as mumble and it all came out in a combination of a Cajun dialect and a Southern drawl.

As we cruised the streets, everyone would stop him and exchange conversation. It was part of the daily rituals of a quiet little town where one of their own had escaped, only to gladly return and show them he was still one of them. He would point to houses or lots along the way and talk about what he wanted to do in Haughton after his career was over, building a recreation center and a mini-mart where kids could go and get ice cream and sodas.

Joe Delaney was country. There was no puffed up personality because he was a pro football player. He worked hard at being a member of the Kansas City Chiefs, just as his father had worked hard at being a farmer. Whatever the opposite of diva is, that was him.

He was a simple man, with a huge heart, a wealth of athletic ability and a smile that wouldn’t quit.

R.I.P. Joe Alton Delaney.

7 Responses to “A Man Who Should Never Be Forgotten”

  • June 29, 2011  - Jimbo says:

    This story of him Bob is as good as it was last year.
    I saw him play too. When the news came out of his passing it struck a painful chord in me.
    A great talent and I’m sure a great father.
    A Chiefs great in the making.

    Hey Bob,
    Have you heard any good news on his family he left behind?

  • June 29, 2011  - rufus says:

    well said gretz. I agree, he really was like that on the playing field

  • June 30, 2011  - Bilyous says:

    Awesome article which sums it all up. He was the epitome of excitement, character, heart, and ability in the midst of a very tough era for the Chiefs. I saw him at Arrowhead in a game against the Bears where he ran for about 235 yards from scrimmage. Every play was a hold-your-breath moment. He popped through little cracks as you described and was so quickly in the secondary, you wondered if he was actually human. The Bears knew he was going to run, but they simply had no solution for him. They couldn’t bring an extra safety up, because he was so reliably into the secondary, that they needed everyone back there to keep him from going all the way. He was truly special.

    When he died that summer, it took all the air out of a flailing franchise for six years. There was no air there at all, until Derrick Thomas changed everything.

  • June 30, 2011  - Warner says:

    You do a superb job on articles like this, Bob. Just outstanding. Extremely well written. Thank you.

  • June 30, 2011  - PAChiefsFan says:

    Fortunately I am old enough to have seen him play. Unfortunately I remember the sadness felt on the day hearing of his tragic death. Another great one gone before he should have been.

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