Remembering a hero, 30 years after his death

It’s been a bad week for the NFL, which possibly is experiencing its first serial killer.  But as we continue to process the notion that Aaron Hernandez may have ended three lives, let’s remember a man who gave his, in an effort to save three lives.

Thirty years ago today, Chiefs running back Joe Delaney noticed that a trio of young boys had waded into a man-made water hole.  It contained an unknown deep end, and they quickly were in trouble.

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.”

Delaney saved one of the boys.  Two drowned.  So did Delaney.

Joe Delaney, who had played only two NFL seasons, was 24.  He left behind a wife and three young girls.

As a rookie in 1981, Delaney rushed for 1,121 yards.  But he willingly sacrificed a bright future to help save three young strangers.

Today, Delaney’s tragic yet inspiring story deserves to be remembered.  Tomorrow and beyond, it should never be forgotten.

109 responses to “Remembering a hero, 30 years after his death

  1. That is so sad about Joe Delaney that it breaks my heart. He was a true American hero.

  2. Talk about a stark contrast from this week of tragic news. What a hero….This should not be my first time hearing about this , which means the NFL needs to do a better job promoting this epic , and heroic story. Once again ,great job Florio.

  3. Wow, it’s been that long!!? I actually remember when this happened. This guy had star potential written all over him. If I remember correctly he really didn’t know how to swim……but he went anyways to try and save those boys. Very unselfish act of love and courage. Guy was a class act, true hero!!!

  4. I remember this story when it happened. Joe Delaney risked and ultimately sacrificed his own life for someone else. Nice tribute.

  5. I clearly remember the day that story came across the news wire; one of the sadder, yet prouder days for the NFL. Joe Delaney was a true hero, in every sense of the word.

    Now we have Hernandez, a man who appears to have committed an execution style murder recently, and who may have been complicit in two other murders from last year. If convicted, he should pay with his life. His name should be stricken from every pillar and post of the NFL. All records, all mention of his name, stricken from the league’s annals.

  6. God bless Joe and his family. And may this generation of self-absorbed players pause over this sacrifice and begin to put others ahead of themselves as Joe Delaney so willingly did.

  7. Now is the time for the NFL to recognize those men who are true heroes in the league and show those that gave their lives to save others should be given the lime light. Joe Delaney is one of those.

  8. Why is it the good gets so over showed by the bad?

    I remember watching Delaney play. Had a really bright future.

  9. The full tragedy of this story was realized shortly after the bodies were recovered. Delaney was 5’10” the area he drowned in was only 6 feet deep.

    Delaney actually couldn’t swim at all and was well known to have a fear of water.

  10. I remember as a young NFL fan when this happened. I am as touched now, as I was then by this incredibly selfless act.

    If the KC Chiefs don’t have a special honor, or some other recognition named after Delaney, then shame on them. It doesn’t have to be a team member. Make it an award that is based in the greater KC area to recognize acts of kindness.

  11. He is, a true hero, I actually have his authentic jersey. I saw where the Patriots were exchanging Hernandez jersey’s, they should exchange them for a Delaney one, true professional, and a true hero. Go Chiefs!!!

  12. Thank you foe sharing that Mike. I had forgotten about Delaney. He and his selfless act should not be forgotten, especially by the current and future players.

  13. I remember this from when I was very young. I never forgot his sacrifice. My 10 year old daughter’s first name is “Delaney” in remembrance of Joe Delaney and the ultimate sacrifice he made.

  14. To often we hear the bad news which is more sensational, and sells better than the true hero stories. I’m guilty myself for following the tragic story of A.H. But its been one of the Sports headlines for a few days now. The Joe Delaney story should be the Headliner today. The NFL should have done a front page story on Joe Delaney’s life. Our Heroes need to be the top stories. Not the Ray Lewis’s, Aaron Hernandez’s, OJ Simpsons of our era. Joe Delaney and Pat Tillman need to be recognized more than they are. Maybe more NFL players would follow in their lead instead of these immoral money hungry players today.

  15. I still have his rookie card.
    I remember his rookie season he played the bears and we shut him down. The next year was a strike season and he died in the off season.
    The one kid he saved was in jail for awhile. Tremendous amount of guilt that he lived (he’s said in interviews”

  16. When I saw this headline, I thought to myself, “It’s gotta be Joe Delaney.” I remember reading this story in Sports Illustrated as a little kid. I’m not sure why, but It’s always stuck with me. He was a good one, for sure.

  17. I knew it was Joe just from the title of the article. That man was a true hero.

  18. This is what Geraldo and others should be reminding people of:

    Dan Marino building a hospital wing to battle autism.

    Nnamdi Asomugha providing food, shelter, medicine, vocational training, literacy efforts, and scholarships to widows and orphans victimized by poverty or abuse in Nigeria.

    Walter Payton, Kurt Warner, Mike Singletary, and dozens of others who have give time, money, and honest love of our society…to make people’s lives’ better.

    Aaron Hernandez is garbage. But we should never let a loser like him reflect on the NFL as a whole, let alone our country and communities.

  19. I can’t believe that there are turds out there giving thumbs down on the praise for this man who sacrificed everything to save those children.

    Shame on you.

    This is a touching story and Joe Delaney is a hero. God bless him, his wife, and children who were left behind.

  20. I remember this incident very clearly. It is hard to believe it has been thirty years. He had an entire career and life ahead of him. The fact I always marvel about is that he KNEW he could not swim, however, he went after those boys anyway. In a week where all the attention has been shined on a miscreant within the league, it is, indeed, a stark reminder that this kind of man strode the gridiron as well. RIP Joe, YOU were a hero.

  21. Joe Delaney’s name is on the Chiefs Ring of Honor at Arrowhead. He should also have recognition in Canton. He grew up poor in Louisiana and could have turned out differently but unlike so many people today he was taught to do the right thing. This story of an NFL career cut short is tragic. The current headlines and the media talking about the NE player who’s career is now over are just disgusting.

  22. I too remember this story. Joe Delaney showed a tremendous amount of courage and bravery going into that water.

    I clicked on this article because I needed to read something positive on this site after the past couple of weeks. Thanks for sharing this, Mike.

  23. Wow. What a tragic story of bravery and heroism. Brought tears to my eyes. RIP Joe Delaney

  24. Remember this like it was yesterday..DONT SEE HOW THIS GOT ANY THUMB’S DOWN..weirdos

  25. A true hero!

    I heard about this first at PFT, and THANK YOU FLORIO for reminding us of this amazing story every now & then.

    The SI article linked to is worth your time reading.

  26. This is such a touching story. HERO by every standard. Angels come in many shapes and forms. Thank you JOE, god doesn’t make too many people like you, and sadly not too many people who are of the same mold as joe, never get any real recognition until it’s to late. RIP brother.

    On a side note: how can a group of people not step up and try helping these kids? I understand the danger in it. but in all honesty if I ever came across a situation where life and death is hanging in the balance. i’d do whatever it took to make sure that HE/SHE would be okay or out of danger atleast. I mean how can people just stand there and watch 3 kids drowning and not try to run and get help, I know cell phones prob weren’t around 30years ago, but god damn standing around with your hands in your pockets aint contributing a damn thing.

    *And that’s what GRINDS my GEARS* (yup had to throw in a family guy reference =) )

  27. The tragedy of Joe Delaney had even more awful elements than most people remember. Retired and well-respected football star Buddy Young was killed in a car accident after a memorial event to honor Joe Delaney.

    Men like Delaney and Young are inspirations to remember and emulate, especially at a time when the despicable example of Aaron Hernandez is all over the news.

  28. I remember it well, God bless Joe Delaney, he was/is a true hero, and a person we all should look to be like. RIP Joe.

  29. That is one of the most courageous articles I’ve ever read.

    To give up everything to save someone else is heroic to say the least.

    RIP Mr Delaney.

  30. Best PFT article I have read in a long time. Nice job, Florio! We need to hear and be reminded about the many good guys and heroes whose stories get overshadowed by a relatively small number of clowns. I had never heard about this guy before and I feel better just knowing about him.

  31. Can we see more articles of this nature? Especially now. Why is it that a few bad apples dictate the daily headlines while all the good ones are seldom mentioned? It’s like waiting until somebody dies to honor them. Let’s display their numbers, name awards after them while they’re still living so they can appreciate the fact that they’re well thought of.

    A couple of articles a day dedicated to charitable foundations and events hosted by players and teams would be nice to combat the handful of bad players used by likes Geraldo and Limbaugh to prop up their own agendas. Include their email addresses in the article so we can all email the article to these buffoons.

    Maybe they’ll pass along the good performed by players and teams as anxiously as they are willing to point out the bad ones? HAHA

  32. Thanks Florio, the NFL needs more of these heroes, or at least acknowledgement as much as possible. “But I’ve got to save those kids” damn man Mr. Delany you’ve earned VIP treatment in heaven my friend.

  33. I consider myself a football junkie and I feel guilty because I have never heard of this guy. Shame on writers and other NFL people for letting this true hero’s memory be lost. Could you imagine being there during this situation? How guilty do the other people that were around that did nothing feel?

  34. Wow. Athletes have come a long way over the last 30 years and most of it has been in the wrong direction. From a true hero that tried to save several lives, to a worthless P.O.S that possibly took several lives. Time for the Commission worry less about the size of the next TV contract and worry more about the personalities of the players entering the league.

    I hope the league does more to honor the memory of guys like Joe Delany. R.I.P.

  35. “There were all sorts of people around, but only Joe dashed to the pond.”
    That is disgraceful. They should be ashamed of themselves. I had to do that as well as a 14 year old in Jacksonville in 1983. 2 kids (4ish and 6) fell off the edge of a boat ramp and neither could swim. There were 3 adults (not related) around 50 yards away in a boat but they just continued on their way. I had to run about 100-150 yards around to get to the ramp. The oldest was struggling near the dropoff so I basically tossed him up to sure footing. The other was under and I couldn’t see him until I knocked him with my leg and dragged him up. He was unconscious and I hung him upside down as water/foam drained from his mouth. He started coughing shortly after. I carried this kid home with his brother and older sister and told his mom what happened and she promptly closed the door in my face without a word.

  36. Wow, I had never heard this story before. Great story and perfect timing, with everything that’s going on with that idiot in New England.

  37. As soon as I saw this post’s title, I guessed that it was Joe Delaney. I was 12 years old when this happened and it made a big impression on me. I treated his football card like it was one for a Hall of Famer.

    The former original ESPN anchor Tom Mees died in a similar circumstance, trying to save his own child. I’m always amazed as to how many adults don’t know how to swim. It’s a skill that desperately needs to be learned and, unfortunately, as we get here closer to the 4th, there’ll be more stories like this about people who didn’t have the fame of Delaney and Mees.

  38. I love stories of people who put the lives of others above their own. Whether it be a parent who selflessly does everything in their power (while living) to make their child’s life great, clear down to people sacrificing their lives to save another, it makes me realize there’s still good in people.
    I wish everyone would live their lives as such, and sacrifice while living to make the world better for those they can reach out and help, and also be willing to do whatever it takes to save those around them.
    Sad, but inspiring story.

  39. I had forgot about that- Thanks for reminding me Mike. I get so cynical any more, it’s so nice to be reminded there is still goodness out there.

  40. I remember when this happened though I hadn’t thought of it for a long time. Its a damn shame Delaney didn’t survive and get to continue the life he had before him.

  41. The term “hero” gets over-used all the time. Not here.

    A “true” hero decides to put themselves at great personal risk to help others. Caught the winning TD? Nope – That’s your job. Dealing with cancer? Nope – I’ve had it, and believe me I didn’t ‘volunteer’.

    When I read the headline, instantly my first thought was “Joe Delaney”, and that’s 30 years later. That’s because there are so few in that category to really pick from.

  42. I want this article to get more comments so I’ll add mine.

    I remember Delaney and this story. I believe there are more good than bad guys in the NFL, but I’m not sure how many are Joe Delaney level good. RIP, sir.

    And brasho, nice tribute. 🙂

  43. Also Deford is a marvelous writer. Don’t see many if any like him today. His book “Everybody’s All-American” is still one of my favorite books ever and I’ve read a lot of books.

  44. I remember when this happened I was about 10-11 years old. It was the first time that I realized that those football players I watched on TV were real people. Shortly after this Larry Gordon and David Overstreet died (Dolphins).

  45. What a touching story…I only hope I would have the courage to do the same if ever in that situation. It truly saddens me to see thumbs down on these comments..

  46. I reference “Joe Delaney” to many of my friends that are Chiefs fans and they sadly have no idea who he is…..the Chiefs need to put a bronze statue outside of Arrowhead and educate their fans on what happened that day. Chiefs fans will wear a 58 jersey, but while D. Thomas was a better football player, J. Delaney was a much better man.

  47. That is a touching story about Joe Delaney. I have to say that it isn’t necessarily the NFL’s failure to promote the good character individuals as part of their image: the league is full of them, by far, compared to the dark, dark nature of Aaron Hernandez. Instead, it is the media’s need and hunger to promote the bad in our society that is the problem.

  48. I remember Joe Delaney, he lived and attended college in Louisiana. Had he had the chance to continue his pro football career he could have been one of the all time great running backs…RIP Mr Delaney. You did what many men wouldn’t do, you sacrificed your life and bright future to save a child. WOW!

  49. The media tend to focus on the negative. So it’s nice that you would bring forth this as a reminder that heroes do exist. Joe Delaney was one of them.

  50. Thank you for remembering and reminding us of Joe Delaney’s heroism on that tragic day. Amazing to think that so much time had gone by already! A stirring contrast to so much of the bad NFL nees of late. I wonder what became of the child that he saved. Hopefully that child had lived up to Joe’s legacy.

  51. I’m too young to remember that happening, but it’s an amazing story. Why do we spend so much time talking about the greats, but a guy like this only gets mentioned rarely?

  52. The Chiefs do have a commemoration on the front page of their website as well as a photo gallery of Joe Delaney today. It would be a wonderful gesture if they marked the 30th anniversary sometine during the season.

  53. HERO.

    This should inspire us to do the same.

    Not suggesting we all give our lives.

    Just to help others when we can.

    However possible. Next time you see someone need

    Help. Do what you can!

    One day you will be the one who needs help….

    We should take care of each other, not ridicule or ignore

    When you can do something. Even if its a small gesture.

    God bless this man and others who take the time to help others.

    It makes me cry to think that there are still good people today.

    It gives me hope.

  54. Geraldo & Limbaugh would never “think” to serve up a tribute like this one … that’s why I spend my time at PFT instead.

  55. Did not know this story…WOW! Now THAT is a hero!!! I hope his family found strength in his selfless heroic sacrifice & somehow managed to soldier on to a healthy & happy life… Much respect!

  56. I remember this well. Just a young teenager but the nfl was my life. A true hero. Without all the news outlets and such like today never got all the publicity like today. Great story and one that didn’t involve murder or corruption.

  57. Here we go again — cue in the 2 or 3 idiots that delude themselves into thinking that their anonymous thumbs down vote is an epic power play.

  58. One of the toughest things to do in life is to attempt to save someone from drowning in any body of water. Your risk dying yourself is high no matter how well you swim. I saved a little girl when I was 16, and that was no problem – she was around 7 and very light and it was in a pool where the depth was 5″.

    When I attempted to save a 6’3″ 260 pound man when stationed overseas in 2006 in Kuwait he nearly drowned me twice, while trying to save his life he tried to climb up my body, pushing my head underwater. Twice I had to push him off of me in order to save our lives. After the second time, another person jumped in and instead of trying to grab him and drag him to the edge of the deep, we alternated in pushing him to the shallows where we saved him. Him climbing up my body pushing my head underwater was beyond frightening, not to mention he outweighed me by 30+ pounds. I can swim, but without the other person’s help and idea to push Miller to the shallows we likely could have both died.

  59. I don’t think there are many football fans in Louisiana that don’t know Delaney’s story.

    He attended Northwestern State in Natchitoches.

    According to Wiki, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Award by Reagan. The Chiefs haven’t retired his number, but no one has worn it since.

  60. I remember…really stunned me, that was the first player I lost as a “fan ( hope that makes sense).

    He was destined for greatness, a hell of a runner, but there were greater plans. Then years later KC loses Derrick Thomas suddenly.

    Im proud of the way the Chiefs honor both of them.


  61. The infuriating thing is how many of those people just standing around knew how to swim and they did absolutely nothing to help!!!!

  62. How about Delaney – Arrowhead Stadium of Joe Delaney Field at Arrowhead Stadium with a statue of Joe Delaney out front.

  63. Joe is an inspiration for everybody. One does not have to be famous to be a hero. Being famous and selfless is class without boundaries.


  64. I remember this story from my childhood. I wad a Joe Delaney fan, as he played for one of my favorite childhood teams! A tragic, yet inspiring story of a time when people did the right thing despite the risk. I love this story, and the man who gave his life for a stranger. I often wonder whether or not I would have the balls to do sonething like that, even 30 years later. God Bless you and your family, Joe!! You are truly an American treasure!!

  65. I was a teenager when this happened and can remember thinking it takes a special kind of person to do something like this knowing the risks involved. with all the BS going on today with these athletes its nice to be reminded of the good in some people. RIP Joe!

  66. R.I.P. Joe.
    He had a promising career in the NFL. However that P.O.S. should not be mentioned in an article featuring Mr. Delaney.

  67. Joe Delaney was a good man who did what I would hope ANYONE nearby would have done. Whatever it takes is what one must do, if someone is in jeopardy like that. Sad that too many actually seem capable of standing idle while someone dies.

    I certainly am no hero but this reminded me of an incident many years ago. I was sitting next to a pond at a local park, while my date had walked away to look at some nearby flowers. A little boy (about 5 years of age) had wandered too close to the edge and he slipped and fell upside down into the water. While the water at the edge was probably only a few feet deep, he was lashing about and struggling. I reacted instinctively and ran over and yanked him out and patted his back to get him to expel the water he had breathed in. Once sure he was breathing fine, I looked for his guardian(s) and finally saw who I assumed to be his mother jogging over from the opposite side of the pond. She had not been paying attention to the boy, but rather making out with her apparent boyfriend. I still had my arm around the boy when she arrived. I told her what had happened and tried to reassure her that her son was alright. She scowled, said nothing and just took him by the arm and dragged him off.

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