“When your time comes to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with fear of death, so that when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.”
Since hearing the story of Joe Delaney’s death, over 35 years ago, I have often pondered the question, what would I have done?
The ultimate sacrifice made by Delaney on a long ago sultry Louisiana summer afternoon invokes emotions that defy fairness and torment the soul; leaving one to marvel with a sad head shaking resignation as to the heights the human spirit can soar. His heroic actions lay bare the most human of emotions, pin balling from one extreme on the continuum of benignity to the other. How Delaney died is inspiring and horrifying, joyful and tragic, selfless and wasteful; a spontaneous act so brave it is almost incomprehensible – and is today, mostly forgotten.
Joe Delaney was a lightly recruited high school football player from Haughton, LA. After graduating in 1976 from his small home town high school, located in the state’s northern pine forests, Delaney matriculated to Division II Northwestern (LA) State University. The coaches there promised only a chance at procuring a scholarship; as a walk on he would have to earn his keep after arriving on the Natchitoches campus. Sounds fair, said Delaney.
A receiver in high school, it took Delaney most of his freshman year with the Demons to adjust to his new collegiate position of tailback. By his sophomore year, Delaney was ready to explode on the college scene. In his first game in the backfield he ran for 268 yards – all in the second half, an NCAA record.
Proving all who doubted him out of high school wrong, Delaney became a two-time collegiate football All-American. In 1981, he was chosen in the second round of the National Football League Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.
By his senior year, Delaney was a legend on the Northwestern campus; as much for his reputation as a “good dude” and a “standup guy” as for his record shattering performances on the grid iron.
After the draft and before reporting to the Chiefs summer camp, Delaney, always the consummate teammate, had one last commitment to meet as a collegiate amateur. Courting displeasure from the Chiefs, while risking injury and future monetary gain, Delaney refused to drop off the track team’s 4x100 meter relay team. “The team needs me, he told the Chiefs.” Six weeks after the NFL draft Delaney ran the second leg for a small school Demons quartet that shocked the track world by winning the national championship. The race included Hershel Walker of Georgia and Willie Gault of the University of Tennessee.
Joe Delaney was now ready for the NFL and what a debut he made.
As an NFL rookie, Delaney was selected to the All-Pro team and named AFC Rookie of the Year. He rushed in 1981 for over 1200 yards, leading the surprising Chiefs to a final mark of 9-7, their first winning season in almost a decade.
On November 15, 1981, Delaney set a franchise single game record by rushing for 196 yards against the Houston Oilers. Houston defensive end (and future Pro Football Hall of Famer) Elvin Bethea paid the Rookie the ultimate compliment after the game when he said, “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.”
Delaney’s second professional season was cut short by a 1982 extended in-season player’s strike and a detached retina.
Delaney spent the off-season in the spring of 1983 back in Ruston, LA with Carolyn, his childhood sweetheart who was now his wife. Together they were raising their three young daughters. Joe and Carolyn had married during Joe’s first year as a college student. With a young daughter to support, Joe decided to drop out of college and work full time. Carolyn forbade any such move. Delaney became well known around the Northwestern campus for his wardrobe of necessity; two pair of well-worn plaid slacks and pair of old tennis shoes. After Joe turned pro, the couple built a modest home on the same street Delaney had grown up on and his mother still resided.
On June 29, 1983, Delaney and several friends drove to the nearby city of Monroe to attend opening ceremonies for a new amusement park, where Delaney was to be honored as a local celebrity. A two-acre hole had been left after the theme park construction was completed. Eventually filling up with rain water and with no protective perimeter fence, local children used it as a make shift swimming pool, a brief reprise from the stifling Louisiana summer heat and humidity. Along the shore line the water’s depth reached only several feet, but a sudden twenty foot drop off only five feet from the shore created a dangerous abyss.
Joe Delaney had a well know fear of water. He was so terrified, related his wife, that while attending the Pro Bowl in Hawaii in February, 1982, he would go nowhere near the ocean; wouldn’t even put his toes in the swimming pool at the luxury beach front Hotel where they stayed. Having known her husband since they were seven years old, Carolyn told Sports Illustrated she had never in all their years together seen him swim.
The blood curdling screams cut through the steamy Louisiana afternoon air like a slashing Joe Delaney rush through a prevent defense; “someone help, they are drowning.” Three boys, between the ages of seven and ten; two brothers and a cousin, strangers to Delaney, were in the construction pit and all three had slipped below the water’s surface. A number of adults were in the vicinity - witness accounts later put the number at between 20 and 30 - but only Joe Delaney dove in. He managed to get his powerful hands on one boy, eight-year-old DeMarkus Holland and pushed the terrified child to the shore where he was pulled to safety by bystanders.
An hour later, police divers recovered from the bottom of the pond the three lifeless bodies of Delaney and the other two boys.
At Delaney’s funeral service, five days later, then President Ronald Reagan sent the following message that was read to the mourners: “He made the ultimate sacrifice by placing the lives of three children above regard for his own safety. By the supreme example of courage and compassion, this brilliantly gifted young man left a spiritual legacy for his fellow Americans.”
What would I have done? What would you have done?
Why would a young man who had everything to live for - who was deathly afraid of water - make the decision in the blink of eye to dive into twenty dark and terrifying feet of horror to try and save three little boys he didn’t even know? That answer is simple: that is what true heroes do.
Delaney’s widow said years ago that she had giving up on ever remarrying. No man could ever measure up to the standards of her first husband. “There will never be another like my Joe,” she confides to friends.
Patrick Tillman, an All-Pro defensive back with the Arizona Cardinals, after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 walked away from a 4 million dollars a year contract to enlist in the Army Rangers. Tillman, who was subsequently killed while fighting in Afghanistan, is a true hero for his patriotic service. But Tillman, after conferring with his family in regard to the sacrifice he freely chose, made a calculated and thought out decision.
On a fateful afternoon over 30 years ago, Joe Delaney had no time to think, no time to reason and evaluate his options, to consider the consequences. He had only time to react. By his spontaneous action, Delaney validated a human spirit few possess, stamping legitimacy to a legacy of honor that should live on through the ages. It was the supreme test of human character and Joe Delaney passed with an A+.
While most Americans know of Patrick Tillman and his heroic and patriotic sacrifice, few know of how Joe Delaney gave his own life to try and save three little boys. That is within itself, tragic.