The year was 1983. The month was June. I’d just graduated high school and turned 18. College was coming but, before that, I had three months of living to do.
I felt alive and invincible, fueled by the goofy delusion of immortality that goes along with being young and dumb. Not that anyone actually believes they’ll live forever, but the idea of having another 60 or 70 years to live feels like, for an 18-year-old, another 600 or 700 years.
Then came the harsh reminder that youth ultimately doesn’t mean squat.
The wake-up call arrived on June 30. Sitting at the kitchen table, eating a bowl of Frosted Flakes, and flipping through the newspaper. There it was. The headline that Joe Delaney had drowned.
Delaney had become a star for the Chiefs as a rookie in 1981, rushing for more than 1,100 yards. Injuries contributed to a disappointing second season, but he still had a high degree of name recognition, and it still was believed he would become a very good player.
That ended on June 29. Delaney died that day, as he tried to save three children who were drowning in a man-made pond in Louisiana, and because he decided to act at a time when plenty of bystanders chose not to. (Delaney managed to save one of the children.)
Delaney acted even though he couldn’t swim. He acted even though the 24-year-old had a family of his own to provide for. He acted even though his entire life — a life of fame and wealth as an NFL player — remained in front of him.
We remember Delaney ever year. Every year, someone who hadn’t heard of Delaney learns about Delaney for the first time through our annual story about him.
The Chiefs have added him to the team’s Ring of Honor, and his number (37) never has been re-issued. Last year, a monument was placed near the pond where he died.
More should be done to honor and to remember Joe Delaney. It would ensure that more people appreciate what he did, acting on an impulse of selflessness and heroism in the literal blink of an eye.
Would I have done what Delaney did, jumping into a body of water to save three children despite not being able to swim? I ask myself that question every year on June 29, and the honest answer is most likely, no. I would have been one of the bystanders, waiting for someone else (someone who hopefully could swim) to save the day, or at least to try.
The Joe Delaney story remains a testament to an innate and instant courage that very few have. Delaney had it. He made the ultimate sacrifice, a sacrifice that was even more significant given that he had three children of his own, and plenty of years of pro football left to play.