Remembering Joe Delaney, 38 years later

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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.

60 responses to “Remembering Joe Delaney, 38 years later

  1. Delaney set a high bar for heroism. The risks were extremely high and he didn’t hesitate to act, saving the life of another.

  2. This is one Raiders fan who will always have total respect for this member of the Chiefs. A Prince among men.

  3. It’s weird how many people don’t know how to swim actually go near or jump in the water.

    Sad story.

  4. Still a great story, thanks for sharing each year Mike. I wonder how the child (now full grown adult) is doing these days

  5. I was preparing for my Junior year of High School football at that time.

    His death still says with me today.

    I can’t fathom the selflessness.

  6. I can’t understand the down votes for Florio keeping this story alive. It should be shared every year. SMH…

  7. This makes me feel old and shows how quickly time flies. It seems like this story is always posted here.

  8. I have never forgotten his heroic efforts and ultimate sacrifice. Thanks, Joe Delaney!

  9. This story is a testament that ALL of us have the responsibly to help others and do what is right.

  10. Pretty disgusting to see down votes on this story. Thanks Mike for not forgetting Delaney’s story of heroism, I enjoy reading it every year.

  11. In a world where heroism has been minimized by too broad of a definition of it, thanks for the annual reminder of what a hero truly looks like. So sad that this great man couldn’t have had more time on this planet to remind us all how to love others.

  12. Lord knows I have had occasional disagreements with Mike for some of his football takes. But I do appreciate his annual reminder of Joe Delaney, one of the Chiefs Kingdom’s finest human beings. Thanks again Mike.

  13. Same as you I graduated HS in 1983 and remember two tragic stories from my youth. Joe Delaney and Len Bias. Both tragic and obviously different. RIP Joe, a true hero.

  14. All of you who click “thumbs down” on the comments respecting the memory of this true hero are the ones who would never, ever have jumped in to try and save those kids, even if you were a champion swimmer. That one click reveals your character. SMH

  15. Everyone thinks they know how they’ll handle a high stakes situation that can end in life or death not realizing that in those moments it is fight or flight and for the vast majority of humans, flight wins out. People can down vote it all day and those same people would’ve stood there and done nothing but watch.

  16. Great story Florio. And to those who downvote this stuff as well as the story on Greg Olsen’s son, you miscreants should really get some lives

  17. I remember this like it was yesterday, I was so saddened. Being a lifelong Vikes fan, RB was always my favorite position as a kid, so I knew all about Delaney and routed for him a lot. Just two weeks ago, I had a Chiefs longsleeve tshirt made from nflshop with his name and number on the back. I always wanted to honor him with a jersey, but I have started with a tshirt. A lot of people ask me about it, and I always them the story! A true hero. God Bless and keep you, Mr. Delaney. Rest easy, brother. We keep your memory and heroism alive 🙂

  18. Stories of selflessness and courage should never be allowed to fade away.

  19. Brave and heroic sure but anyone with training will tell you not to attempt to save a drowning person without something for them to hold onto other than themselves. Idk might explain some downvotes. I’d be curious how the hero’s family paid for his courage over the years.

  20. The word “hero” is criminally over-used in sports.

    Joe Delaney was a true hero.

  21. He wore No. 37, and the Chiefs won the SB 37 years after his heroic sacrifice. I wish the NFL and the media paid more attention to men like Joe Delaney.

  22. Always good to honor the memory of those who are truly selfless.

    Also, his nephew is Terrace Marshall Jr.

  23. Thank you PFT for honouring Joe D every year……a hero who deserves to be remembered. No Diva, not all about himself. Knew he couldn’t swim, and he was more worried about saving lives despite the risk. RIP JD!

  24. I always appreciate that you do this story Mike. I cannot for the life of me understand a single thumbs down that are littered through nothing but positive comments. He saved a kid’s life and tried to save two others while nobody else did a single thing.

  25. Awesome for you to never let us forget. Thanks Mike. It’s just as sad today as it was 38 years ago.

  26. There’s a Walter Payton Man of the Year award. How about a Joe Delaney Person of the year award? Not for players. Each team nominates a regular civilian who has displayed some heroism in the past year. Great way to keep his name and story alive.

  27. I always assume that people who downvote well received articles or comments likely fat fingered the buttons. But for this yearly article there is an abnormal amount of downvotes.

    Honestly, if you downvoted this article because you disagree with it, have the backbone to explain why.

  28. Glad you hit this every year on the anniversary. Some things are worth keeping the memory alive – and the selfless act of Joe Delaney is one of those things.

    As to the thumbs down we see, I’d like to see just one of the “thumbs down crowd” put their name to an explanation and post it.

    But they won’t. Anonymity is the shield for their lack of shame, compassion and decency. They’re not going to give that shield up.

  29. Wow, this is truly awe-inspiring what a hero of a man! i never heard this before Florio thanks for posting this.

  30. Thank you for continuing your annual tradition of remembrance.
    I learned about this from your website years ago, and it’s nice to read others learn from it, as well.

  31. I will always up vote stories that remember and commemorate the actions of American heroes such as Joe Delaney and Pat Tilman.

  32. To all the people down voting Mike for this article. Go get vaccinated! I know you haven’t been.

  33. Thanks for keeping those memories going. It’s normal for people to forget as it’s been so long, and normal for so many young folks to not even know about it. It’s good for all of us to know there are and have been selfless people who have done so much for others. And by the way– he was a great player. Very similar to James Brooks for Chargers and Bengals fans.

  34. Thank you for sharing this every year and keeping his heroism and memory alive.

  35. Good reminder Mike to remove the thumbs down from the site. Let people appreciate the ‘thumbs up’ in the comment section but the thumbs down has run its course and really does no good to most conversations

  36. It’s great you remind us of this every year. Great NFL story and just a great human being story. Thanks Mike.

  37. Thanks for the reminder again. Every year I come across your story and run the gamut of emotions, ending with the question you pose, “What would I do”? Somber moment of self-reflection and resolve to do better. Keep the tradition alive.

  38. Thanks for keeping it going Mike. We like to bust your chops in general but these are always some of the finest words you put together. #Respect

  39. Thank you for the yearly reminder! I live in his home town of Haughton, LA and the town recently completed a community park in his name and it is a wonderful place for the local kids and a way to keep his memory alive.

    God Bless him for his contribution to our community!

  40. Instead of owners naming their stadium after some corporate entity that pays. I’d like to see an owner call his stadium Joe Delaney Stadium. Instead of income make it a deduction and pay his family for the use of the name … that would be honoring him.

    I don’t buy anything just because it happens to be a stadium name … I don’t shop that way. . . and it’s not like the owners really need that few million dollars from the naming rights. They could never spend the money they have.

  41. Even though I know the story, I read your article from start to finish every year. Every year it gives me the same feeling. What a completely selfless act.

  42. I’ll be honest, this is the first I heard of this story. Maybe in passing but the first time I’ve really heard the story. Thank you for sharing Mike.

  43. Don’t worry about the down votes, those are just mistakes.

    Not the actual downvotes, the people who downvote are the mistakes.

    RIP Joe D.

    It’s nice to always honor heroic people of honor.

  44. There should be a permanent section in the pro football hall of fame for players like Joe Delaney and Patt Tillman, NFL players who laid down their lives for others

  45. I’ve been checking this site out daily for the last couple of years and have read your Joe Delaney story multiple times. While we don’t agree on much, I respect you for sharing the story of this hero. Thanks Mike

  46. I’ll wait his every year to you Florio: thank you.

    Every year there is someone maybe new to following football or maybe getting tired of the Antonio Browns and Leveon Bells of the world and need to hear something about a player (be it Delaney or Tillman) that knew there is more to life.

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