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The life and death of Joe Delaney, part 1

Joe Delaney

Photo courtesy of arrowheadpride.com

Part 1:  Life

Imagine a scenario in which you are a rags-to-riches millionaire athlete who must make an instantaneous decision to either put your life at risk in an attempt to try and save the lives of total strangers, or simply play it safe by looking for someone else who may be better suited to perform that task.

If you hesitated to make a decision for even just a split-second, you’re no Joe Delaney.

June 29, 2013, marks the 30th anniversary of the untimely passing of one of the most talented yet equally selfless and humble stars American football has ever seen.

Joe Delaney was a star running back for the Northwestern State Demons and NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs, who died just two years after being named the 1981 American Football Conference offensive Rookie of the Year by the United Press International sportswriters association.

For all his speed, agility and power as a football player and track and field star, Joe was a poor swimmer. On that particular June day in 1983 he had driven his family 100 miles east from his hometown of Haughton, La., to Monroe, for a day of fun and recreation at Chenault Park.

While playing softball, Joe responded to the desperate screams of three young boys who had found themselves in danger of drowning while swimming in a water-filled pit.

“There was a little boy who was next to the pit and he was interviewed on the television after it happened,” Joe’s sister Lucille Delaney recounted to local reporters shortly following the incident. “And he said someone asked Joe, ‘Can you swim?’ And Joe said, ‘I can’t swim good but I’ve got to save those kids.’ And then he said, ‘If I don’t come up, go get somebody.’ ”

Those were presumably the last words Joe ever uttered.

One of the boys drowned instantly, along with Joe, while another died the following day. Only the third survived.

Humble beginnings

Joseph Alton Delaney was born on Oct. 30, 1958, the third of eight children. His father, Woodrow Delaney, drove a cattle truck and his mother, Eunice, worked as a housekeeper at the local First Baptist Church of Haughton.

“I remember when he was in seventh grade, a little kid, and he said to our mother, ‘Momma, I’m gonna be a pro football player,’ ” Lucille told one of the many journalists who interviewed her soon after Joe’s death. “’I’m gonna make you proud of me one day.’

“He was so small, we all laughed at him. I mean, it just seemed impossible that he’d ever make professional football.”

Delaney was recruited as a wide receiver out of high school by Division I powerhouses like LSU, Oklahoma and Texas. However, the guy everyone remembers as an honest and selfless young man was not surprisingly turned off by the less than scrupulous college football recruitment process.

According to Don Hudson, former managing editor of The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., who met Delaney as a fellow freshman at NSU, Joe confided in him that he’d been “offered cars, money and everything else,” but “it was the honesty of coach (A.L.) Williams” that ultimately landed him at Northwestern State in nearby Natchitoches to play college ball.

Williams will never forget the conversations he had with Joe while on the recruiting trail.

“We were a team that threw the football, and he asked me if he would be a wide receiver if he came to our school,” Williams said. “Joe said he wanted to play pro ball and it was at wide receiver where he thought he’d have a shot. I said, ‘yes,’ and he chose to play for us at Northwestern State.”

Consummate team player

Soon after practice began during his freshman season in 1977, Northwestern State’s starting tailback was injured.

“Joe knew we were in trouble, and he walked up to me and said, ‘If I can help the team at tailback, I’ll switch,” said Williams, who told him he’d come to the school as a wide receiver and the choice was up to him.

At 5-foot-9, 180 pounds, Delaney was considered too small to play the physically demanding position of running back. However, his speed and determination would eventually catapult him to stardom as one of the school’s greatest of all-time at that position.

Delaney finished his college career with 3,047 total yards and 31 touchdowns. He was posthumously elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1997 for his stellar career as a Demon.

Two-sport success

While football was the sport he became famous for playing, Delaney’s true passion was track and field.

Due to his commitment to the football team, he was unable to run track during the spring at NSU until his senior season. Hudson remembers asking Joe why he would risk potentially damaging his body and therefore his chances of being drafted early in the upcoming NFL Draft by running track.

True to his nature, Delaney’s response was, “Because my good friend, (head track coach) Jerry Dyes asked me to.”

Delaney still holds the NSU 200-meter record with a time of 20.64 seconds, and also ran the second leg of the school’s 4 x 100 relay team that won the 1981 NCAA championship at LSU’s Bernie Moore Track and Field Stadium. His teammates were Victor Oatis, Mario Johnson and a fellow football star named Mark Duper, who soon went on to earn the nickname “Super” Duper as one of quarterback Dan Marino’s favorite targets at wide receiver during his career as a Miami Dolphin (1982-1992).

Rising NFL star

1982 Topps Joe DelaneyDrafted by the Kansas City Chiefs and coach Marv Levy with the 41st pick in the second round of the 1981 NFL draft, Delaney would set four club records in his rookie season en-route to being voted the only rookie starter for the AFC in that season’s Pro Bowl.

Though his numbers declined during his second NFL campaign, Joe made no excuses. An eye injury he sustained early in the season severely limited his vision. He would play the remainder of the year wearing protective goggles before switching to contact lenses.

It wasn’t until May 1982 that he’d be diagnosed with a detached retina in his right eye. “Sugar Ray’s disease,” he called it, a reference to another famous patient of his surgeon at Johns Hopkins, boxing champion Sugar Ray Leonard.

Joe would never get a chance to find out whether or not the procedure had worked well enough to give him the opportunity to achieve the athletic success that Leonard went on to have.

Click here for part 2