June 29th marked the 36th anniversary of the tragic yet heroic death of Kansas City Chiefs’ running back Joe Delaney. Let’s take a look back at his life.
“Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another.” – John 15:13
Joe Alton Delaney was born to Woodrow and Eunice Delaney, the third of eight children, in the sleepy town of Haughton, Louisiana in 1958. The son of a traditional blue-collar family, where his father hauled cattle and his mother worked as a housekeeper, hard work and sacrifice was natural to Joe. These characteristics molded Joe, who saw a brighter future both for himself and his family.
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At an early age, he believed he would be a football star and that belief culminated in reality. After a successful high school career, which left Joe a sought after recruit by the likes of schools Texas and Oklahoma, he ultimately chose local Division I-AA school Northwestern State University.
It might seem odd that, given such prestigious football powers were enamored with his ability, he chose to play at a smaller school. It wasn’t odd to his family, however. Joe was known to be a family man, having an extremely close relationship with his mother which arguably became stronger upon the death of his father in 1978. Even when he played in Kansas City, he owned a small house down the street from his mother and found time every day during the offseason to swing by and check on her.
Not surprisingly, Joe would have a productive career for the Demons. He came to Northwestern State under the presumption that he’d play wide receiver, of which coach A. L. Williams had promised, thinking it was his best shot at a professional career. However, fate had other intentions.
At the outset of his first camp, the Demons’ starting tailback got injured leaving very little depth at a position of need. As was his character, he selflessly offered to transition to tailback to help the team even though he thought it could hurt his chances at the NFL. Good things don’t always happen to good people, but in this case they did.
Even though the Demons were mostly a passing team, Joe had an extremely productive college career rushing for 3,047 yards and 31 touchdowns. He also showcased a penchant as a return man, averaging nearly 20 yards per kick return for his career. While the Demons’ record was rather poor during his time with the team, Joe’s tremendous success in the midst of that stuck out to NFL scouts. The school would eventually retire his jersey and he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as part of the 1997 class.
With the 41st pick in the 1981 NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs made Joe the 10th running back selection off the board. The fact that nine other backs were chosen before the small school product only motivated Joe more. That first season with the Chiefs, he left no doubt he belonged as he rushed for 1,121 yards and thr3ee touchdowns, adding 246 yards through the air, en route to his first and only Pro Bowl selection and AFC Rookie of the Year honors.
While his encore season wasn’t quite as productive, this was largely due to injury and the player strike which limited the 1982 season to only 10 games. There was no question, once fully healthy, Joe’s future looked bright. Les Miller, the Chiefs’ personnel director at the time, recalled Joe to be one of the hardest working and most popular players on the team. Unfortunately, he would never play another down.
On June 29th, 1983 while attending a “Kids Day” in Monroe, Louisiana Joe would bravely meet his fate in a way that was unsurprising to all who knew him—in service to others. While playing softball, Joe overheard the helpless screams of three young boys who had ventured too far into a nearby pond. A young boy would later hauntingly recall Joe’s response when asked if he could swim, “I can’t swim good, but I have to save those kids. If I don’t come up, go get somebody.”
Joe would save one of the three children, with one child passing on the scene and one passing the next day, but the help Joe had hoped for himself never came. His extraordinary life was cut short and he was laid to rest five days later in his hometown of Haughton. However, his tale of heroism continues to live on to this day. He was survived by his wife Carolyn and their three daughters Tamika, Crystal, and Joanna.
Joe Delaney was a great player and an even better person. Unfortunately, though his actions 36 years ago saved a life, they could not save his own. In an era replete with selfishness, it’s important to reflect back on those who selflessly gave all they had with no expectations of personal gain. Joe lived his life selflessly, led his teammates selflessly, and met his fate selflessly. Rest in peace, Joe.