Joe Delaney's legacy still strong, 33 years after he died trying to save others

This offseason, Shutdown Corner will travel down memory lane with a series of stories presenting some interesting and sometimes forgotten stories from the NFL’s past. Join us as we relive some of the greatest and craziest moments in the sport’s history.

Do you know the story of Joe Delaney? You probably should.

Thirty three years ago this week, the life of a promising young running back — one who didn’t much like going in the water — came to an end as Delaney tried to save three young boys who appeared to be struggling to swim in a Louisiana water hole. One made it out; the other two drowned, along with Delaney.

Kansas City Chiefs running back Joe Delaney in 1982, less than a year before he lost his life (Photo by Peter Read Miller /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
Kansas City Chiefs running back Joe Delaney in 1982, less than a year before he died. (Getty Images)

The sixth of nine siblings, Delaney was born in Haughton, La. in a family that had to stretch to make ends meet. Delaney’s father discouraged him from playing football — “a sissy sport,” he said, per Delaney’s sister in the ESPN “30 For 30” short — but Joe did anyway and became a high school star at receiver despite being undersized. That earned him a scholarship at Northwestern State University, and after the team suffered a few injuries in the backfield Delaney switched from receiver to tailback, emerging as a multi-tool star.

Despite being undersized at 5-foot-10 and 184 pounds, Delaney was a second-round pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1981 and helped the team rank third in the NFL in rushing yards per game as a rookie. “He’s going to be one of the stars of this league for years to come!” shouted Chiefs play-by-play announcer Wayne Larrivee after Delaney ran untouched for an 82-yard touchdown against the rival Denver Broncos that season.

He earned a starting spot in the Pro Bowl as a rookie by rushing for 1,121 yards, adding 246 receiving, for Marv Levy’s Chiefs and was considered one of the fastest players in the NFL the day he stepped foot in the league. Levy was always reticent to play rookies, but he had no choice but to get that speed on the field immediately.

“When Joe touched the ball there seemed to be this electricity in the air that something special was going to happen,” former Chiefs running back Ted McKnight told the team’s website.

Added future Hall of Fame defensive end Elvin Bethea, who watched Delaney rip up his Houston Oilers for 193 rushing yards that first season: “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.”

After suffering a detached retina during the strike-shortened 1982 season, Delaney was about to enter his third year in the league primed and ready for stardom at age 24. He was back in his home state waiting to report to training camp less than a week later when tragedy struck.

Delaney was hanging out that hot, late June day in 1983 near a man-made pond behind a water park known as “Critter’s Creek” in Monroe. It was the only name given to a hole that collected water after construction workers dug a large ditch in the area. Some local kids were swimming in it, and though accounts from that day seem to vary wildly from person to person who was there, Delaney reportedly discouraged three kids he didn’t know from continuing to swim in the murky, dangerous-looking water.

Delaney barely knew how to swim himself, if at all, and friends later would say they never saw him go in more than waist deep. But when he saw the three kids struggling, Delaney handed his wallet to a bystander and told them to call for help if he didn’t come up soon.

Into the water went Delaney, and it’s believed he pulled 10-year-old LeMarkits Holland to safety before going in to help the other two boys. None of them came out safely. By the time help arrived, it was too late. Delaney and two 11-year-olds, Lancer Perkins and Harry Holland Jr., didn’t make it. It’s believed that Delaney suffered a broken ankle while trying to save them in the pond that featured a steep dropoff beyond a shallow area that was only 6 feet deep. That’s where Delaney’s body was found when a search-and-rescue unit arrived and tried in vain to administer CPR.

Joe Delaney's two oldest daughters, Tamika and Crystal, in 1983, holding their father's Mackey Award (Photo by Brian Lanker /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)
Joe Delaney’s two oldest daughters, Tamika and Crystal, in 1983, holding their father’s Mackey Award (Photo by Brian Lanker /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images)

The news stunned the NFL. The local community in which Delaney was a hero was rocked to its core. Suffering the most might have been Delaney’s three young daughters — Tamika, then 7; Crystal, 4, and “JoJo” (short for Joanna), who hadn’t even turned four months old when her daddy died — and his wife, Carolyn. She never remarried to this day because, as she said to friends via the Kansas City Star, she had never gotten over Joe.

Thousands came to his memorial services at the Haughton High School gym. It was so crowded in there, two of Delaney’s sisters had to share a seat. Then vice president George H.W. Bush and Chiefs owner Clark Hunt and his wife Norma were at the funeral. Almost all of Delaney’s former teammates — from Haughton to Northwestern State to Kansas City — were there. Everyone came to pay their respects for the beloved, fast-talking, fast-running selfless hero who gave up his own life to try to save three others.

“He did the right thing,” McKnight said. “He put himself at risk for somebody else. What more can you ask of a person?”

Delaney was buried that day with a football in his arms. His tombstone had the inscription from the Gospel of John that came to define Delaney’s short but powerful life: “Greater love has no man than to lay down his life for another.”

Delaney was posthumously honored with the Presidential Citizen’s Medal by President Ronald Reagan. The proclamation, which was read aloud at Joe’s service: “By this supreme example of courage and compassion, this brilliantly gifted young man left a spiritual legacy for his fellow Americans.”

The Chiefs wore a patch on their jerseys that 1983 season to honor their teammate, and though his uniform never has been officially retired by the team no Chief has worn Delaney’s No. 37 since. He was inducted into the Chiefs’ Ring of Honor in 2004.

Carolyn carries on his husband’s memory warmly, especially around this time of year. His three daughters all went to college and entered careers in medicine. Joe has a grandson he never met, Crystal’s son Se’darrius, one whom Carolyn swears reminds her of Joe.

And what a noble legacy Delaney carried in those 24 years.

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!