Remembering Joe Delaney, 29 years later

Twenty-nine years ago today, a budding NFL star did something that few of us ever would do.  And he made the ultimate sacrifice while doing it.

Chiefs running back Joe Delaney, a 24-year-old father of three young girls who needed him, tried to save three young boys who needed him, in that moment, even more.

On June 29, 1983, the boys had waded into a man-made water hole that had a deep end they didn’t know about.  They soon were struggling, and Delaney reacted.

As Frank Deford, then of Sports Illustrated, later explained it, “There were all sorts of people around, but only Joe dashed to the pond. There was a little boy there. ‘Can you swim?’ he asked Joe.

“‘I can’t swim good,’ Joe said, ‘but I’ve got to save those kids.  If I don’t come up, get somebody.’  And he rushed into the water.”

One of the boys made it out, two didn’t.  Neither did Joe Delaney.

It didn’t matter that Joe Delaney couldn’t swim very well.  It mattered that three boys were in trouble.

Nearly three full decades after his death, Joe Delaney’s ongoing message to the rest of us is that there are plenty of ways to help people who are in trouble, ways that don’t involve risks to life and limb.

And so when the time comes to make excuses for not lending a hand, that’s the time to remember Joe Delaney.

46 responses to “Remembering Joe Delaney, 29 years later

  1. His sacrifice didn’t allow him the opportunity to strive for the Hall of Fame in the NFL, but it definitely put him in the Hall of Fame of mankind.

  2. Hall of Fame defensive end Elvin Bethea on Joe Delaney: “I’ve played against the best–O.J. Simpson, Gale Sayers, Walter Payton and (Delaney) ranks right up there with them…He is great with a capital G.”

    He was primed to bring the Chiefs out of their decade-long post-Super Bowl IV slump. The team went 9-7 in 1981 and looked ready for the playoffs. Sadly, the strike of 1982 happened, Marv Levy got fired, and then Delaney tragically died. One of the most heroic things an athlete has ever done. He’ll always be missed.

  3. I remember the day when I heard about Joe Delaney dying and how. He made the ultimate sacrifice and I respect him for that. A very good running back and could have been one of the greats when he was done.

  4. I’ve never heard this story as I’m only 29. What an amazing 24 year old man to do that. #respect

  5. This was, and remains, a heartbreaking tale of courage and selflessness.

    Very tough to complain about anything when one contemplates where Joe Delaney was coming from, and the risks he took for the benefit of others. Wow.

    Much respect. Much.

  6. I’ve written and deleted about 9 different ways of telling you why and how much I respect you for articles like these that … I simply gave up. Some were too lame, others made no sense and … I’m a lil too close to drunk to care to figure out the best way to say exactly how I feel so … I love this story, I love that you continue to bring it to light (never heard of it at all until reading here at PFT), I love that you were aware and waited until this specific time to post it and I love the personal touch you always bring to this site.

    Thanks for the story, thanks for your work here at PFT and …… Who-Dey. Please learn to love my Bengals. That is all.

    PS: I DO work. I’m just off tomorrow. It’s okay. :)~

  7. Always nice to take a minute to step away from the game and remember someone for great moments like this. Unfortunate that his life was taken in trying to help, but a lesson to all that even if not as serious as risking your own life it’s important to lend a hand to others.

  8. My God, has it been that long already? Wow. I remember when that happened. Such a tragic loss…

  9. I recommend reading Rick Reilly’s piece about Joe Delaney from 2003, but I’ll warn you–have some tissues ready.

  10. I remember this tragic story vividly. It simply does not seem possible that it has been three decades. What an extraordinary story of unselfish bravery and love for one’s fellow man.

  11. Did not know about this story, it was before I was born, Thanks Florio. Such a sad story, but one filled with bravery and heroics. Joe Delaney should be a reminder that no matter what the circumstance is, you can always help those who need help.

  12. I’ve never known of Joe Delaney until now. Thank you for keeping his memory alive. We’re all brave and selfless in our minds, but not as many would actually be willing to put their lives at risk knowing the reality of the possible outcome.

  13. 29 years ago? Man, I still remember when that happened. I was a teenager and I just remember thinking that Joe Delaney was a hero.

    There aren’t too many people in the world like Joe Delaney, and I wish there were.

  14. Good article. Very sad! I’ve never heard of this until today, so you’ve accomplished part of your purpose for writing the piece. I can’t believe I’d never heard about him before. I’ve been an avid football fan since 6. Actually I’m told it was well before that, but I can remember watching NFL games at 6 years old. Some of my earliest memories. And I was 9 when this happened. And after thinking about it, back in 1983, in June, 9 year olds were outside playing football, or baseball, or something from dusk till dawn. Must’ve missed the news cycle that day 🙂

  15. Wow, I salute you Joe Delaney. I can’t even put into words how much I admire you for that. The Air Foce pararescue special forces have a motto, “so that other’s may live” and you embodied that like few others ever will.

  16. “Greater love than this no man hath, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

    – John 15:13

  17. I’m an Australian that has loved the nfl since 1981 & have been a diehard 49ers fan. When joe Montana left and went kc they became my second favorite team & I have always hoped they’d come good. But after reading this montana is now my second favorite joe. wot a inspiration this man is. Does anyone know wot happened with his kids. Hope they made something of themselves if they are half the people there father was then they will have made the most of there life’s

  18. I was a little boy when this happened and I remember reading the SI article shortly after it happened. The story of the ultimate sacrifice really touched me deeply and stuck with me all of these years.

    The name of Joe Delaney stuck with me for the last 29 years perhaps more so than other people and as my way of keeping alive this man’s ultimate sacrifice I named my first born daughter after him. My daughter, Delaney, is now 9 years old and now that she’s old enough to read well I will direct her to the link so she can better appreciate the name they I hope one day she appreciates as one of love and sacrifice.

    Thanks for posting the link to Deford’s article, it’s being bookmarked as well as being turned into a word document.

  19. I remember when Joe was playing at Northeast Louisiana U. I watched him play my school, McNeese State , and he was so talented. No one then ever thought that a running back from our conference would ever make it in the NFL. As a fan, I was proud of him. After he died doing what he did, I sa so proud that I had actually seen a true hero in person. God rest his soul. Doing what he was trying to do was a ticket straight to heaven.

  20. Like a few of my fellow posters, this is the first time I’ve heard about this story. What an amazing selfless act that just made me pause for several moments and relflect.
    Thanks for posting this, Florio.

  21. I remember when Joe Delaney lost his life. What a self-less act. I still think of him to this day when I am near a body of water. I am not a strong swimmer either. I often wonder if I have the courage to do what he did?

    As a die hard Steelers fan, two RBs back in the day always concerned me..Chuck Muncie and Joe Delaney. Joe was on his way to being one of the best ever. RIP

  22. I want to thank Steve Sabol and NFL Films for telling me of this story more than 20 years ago. For a guy who cannot swim jumping into the water to save someone is unbelievable.

    I jumped into the base pool over on “The Rock AFB” while stationed in Kuwait to save another sailor and he nearly drowned me twice, both times when we were within 2 feet of the edge. It was only when a second sailor jumped in and instead of getting him to the edge of the deep which was closer thought to alternate pushing the man to the shallows that we saved him. When we got to the shallow end the guys legs were so tired that he sank like a rock to the bottom in 4 feet of water and we had to pull him up.

    I can swim, but trying to save someone in water is very scary because the person is so terrified they try to climb up your body to find air, so for someone who could not swim took unbelievable courage. May he rest in peace for his courageous actions.

  23. As a life long chiefs fan and local kid I was very young when this happened. I remember my dad and uncles talking about it and how he would have been the best! I was so impacted that I became the biggest Joe Delaney fan! Hell I even chose number 37 as my jersey number every year in pop warner through high school. My first true hero!! A mans man! If you ever get a chance to see old tapes of him playing you will be empressed.

  24. I remember when this happened, and how upsetting it was to hear the news. A very brave and courageous man, lost far too soon.

    I also have to second the comment by Elvin Bethea. On the field, Delaney was a beast. I remember an 80-yard run he ripped off against Denver at Arrowhead stadium (on the old artificial turf there at the time), and I swear I think it was the fastest I’ve ever seen anyone run on a football field. He gave Chiefs a legitimate break-away threat that I’m not sure they’ve had in their backfield since.

    Delaney was a great man, and a great player as well. Thanks for remembering him.

  25. I remember this story (and man) very well. What a selfless, amazing act of kindness and bravery. As a swim coach it also highlights the need for kids (starting at age 2) to learn survival skills in the water ~ being able to roll onto their back in the water and make their way to the edge of a pool. Parents, if you aren’t comfortable in the water join your kids for lessons. 3/4 of the world is water, why not be at ease while in it?

  26. I had forgotten all about this story, thank you for bringing it to the forefront again.

    I am absolutely amazed at the almost total lack of “thumbs down’s” on these comments. I can’t remember the last time I saw that here.

  27. his story is also an important reminder to learn to swim. and that’s no snarky joke. learning to be a decent swimmer is extremely easy. and it could save your life or someone else’s.

  28. WoW! what a story…I like to think I would have done the same thing. It’s men like this that inspire me, & I’m damn near un-inspirable! God Bless him..

  29. I see a lot of kids wearing Ochocinco and Terrell Ownes jerseys or the jersey of every other self-absorbed NFL player of today. But I never see any kids wearing Joe Delany jerseys. Maybe the NFL needs to make more of an effort to promote the true heros of the game instead of worring about squuezing every last nickle out of the TV contracts. I’ll take one Joe Delany over a million Chad Ochocincos.

  30. RIP, Joe.

    And I am speechless at the 2 idiots downvoting every post. May you never need someone to act selflessly to save YOUR lives.

  31. Being a 5 decade fan of the Chiefs, Iremember his heroism all too well. It truly left a void in his family’s lives, to Chiefs nationthe NFL and most of all HUMANKIND. As many of us Chiefs fans believed…GOD needed RB so HE took the best available !!! GOD bless you Joe & RIP !!!

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