By DOUG IRELAND, Journal Sports
It’s been 40 years now, and the tragedy is still resounding. But it also has become a vehicle for good, benefitting thousands of young people in Kansas City and back home in Louisiana.
On a steamy afternoon in Monroe, Haughton native Joe Delaney gave his life trying to save three drowning children.
It was June 29, 1983. The Northwestern State two-sport All-American and Kansas City Chiefs Pro Bowl running back was attending a water park outing for children at Chennault Park when he heard cries for help outside the park, from a nearby oxidation pond.
He handed his wallet to a bystander, telling him, “I can’t swim good, but I’ve got to try to help those kids,” and dashed a couple hundred yards to the pond, and leaped in. He never made it back out. One child did.
Delaney was a two-time All-America running back in 1979-80 for the Demons. After being picked by Kansas City in the second round of the 1981 NFL Draft, he joined Mark Duper, Victor Oatis, and Mario Johnson on the Demons’ 1981 NCAA championship 4×100 meter relay team, earning All-America honors.
Delaney was the 1981 AFC Rookie of the Year for the Chiefs and played in the Pro Bowl. Pro Football Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy, who drafted Delaney in the second round of the 1981 draft and coached him in 1981-82, said Delaney was one of the five best players he coached in his 45-year career, including nearly 30 years in the NFL. He thought Delaney was destined for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Delaney left behind his wife, Carolyn, and their three young daughters. His heroic act matched his selfless lifestyle and coupled with his astounding athletic career to make him an instant icon in north Louisiana and elsewhere far beyond the sports world. Among those attending his funeral: then-vice president George Bush.
His No. 44 Demon football jersey was retired at halftime of his final game at NSU. Since his death, no Kansas City player has worn his No. 37. He is immortalized in several ways at Northwestern, including plaques at Turpin Stadium and the Ledet Track Complex, a painting by renowned sports artist Chris Brown in the student union, and with the permanent football team captains receiving Joe Delaney Memorial Leadership Awards annually. The Demons’ spring football game has been known as the Joe Delaney Bowl since 1989.
He was the subject of a 2015 film entitled “Delaney,” part of ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 Shorts series, available through ESPN+.
The Joe Delaney Park in Haughton honors his memory and provides play space for youth in his hometown. Swimming lessons are taught in his name in Kansas City, and next month will begin in Haughton, supported by The 37 Forever Foundation.
Last fall, the “Joe Delaney Learn to Swim Program, Presented by GEHA Health” launched in Kansas City, supported by the Hunt Family Foundation and the YMCA of Greater Kansas City, reports Vahe Gregorian, a columnist for the Kansas City Star newspaper who covered Delaney in Kansas City and has avidly chronicled his story since. The Hunt family owns the Chiefs franchise and the late patriarch, Lamar Hunt, founded the team in Dallas and moved it to Kansas City shortly after being a founding owner of the American Football League in 1960.
The program is expanding this summer, Gregorian reports, including $10,000 in support to the Delaney37 Foundation to bolster its efforts to promote water safety in and around Haughton. Already, more than 100 local children have signed up. By summer’s end, nearly 1,000 children in Haughton and Kansas City will have gone through the program, which will provide swimsuits, goggles, swim caps, and towels that bear the Delaney tribute decal the Chiefs wore in the 1983 season.
Three years ago, a monument honoring Delaney was dedicated at the site of the drowning in Monroe’s Chennault Park. The mayor of Kansas City declared Oct. 30, 2020, as “Joe Delaney Day” on what would have been his 62nd birthday.
In 2021, a two-mile stretch of I-435 going past Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City was renamed “Joe Delaney Memorial Highway.”
Delaney was posthumously awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal from President Ronald Reagan, presented at his funeral by then Vice President George H.W. Bush to the Delaney family. Delaney is enshrined in the N Club Hall of Fame, the Ark-La-Tex Museum of Champions, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, the College Football Hall of Fame, and the Chiefs’ Ring of Honor at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.