Joe Delaney was a star NFL player in the making. In his first two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, he set four franchise records. He was one of the brightest young players in the NFL. In 1983, his life was cut tragically short in an act of heroism. This is the story of Joe Delaney.
Joe Delaney was selected by the Chiefs in the second round of the 1981 NFL Draft. His impact on the Chiefs was immediate as the team went on to have their first winning record since 1973.
In his very first NFL start, Delaney ran for 106 yards while also recording 104 receiving yards. He set four franchise records in his rookie season; most rushing yards in a season (1,121), most rushing yards in a game (193), most 100-yard rushing games in a season (five), and most consecutive 100-yard rushing games (three).
NFL Hall of Famer Elvin Bethea said of Delaney “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 was named the 1981 AFC Rookie of the Year by the United Press International and earned a Pro Bowl nod.
Delaney’s second pro season was cut drastically short. On top of the 1982 NFL player’s strike, which shortened the season to nine games, Delaney also had to have eye surgery to repair a detached retina. Delaney only recorded 95 rush attempts and 380 rushing yards in the 1982 season.
Tragic Act of Heroism
On June 29, 1983, Delaney went to an amusement center with a group of friends. The park had recently added a water hole for aesthetics, not swimming, that was six feet deep and covered two acres. Delaney heard three children screaming for help in the water hole and despite his inability to swim, he dove in to attempt to rescue the children. Delaney drowned giving his life to try and rescue others.
Delaney may not have been fully successful in saving all of the children or himself, but his bravery shone through to people across the country. Three thousand people attended Joe Delaney’s funeral. President Ronald Reagan honored Delaney with the Presidential Citizens Medal and said “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”.
The NCAA posthumously awarded Delaney the NCAA Award of Valor in 1984. The Louisiana Governor presented the Louisiana State Civilian Bravery Award to the Delaney family.
A Kansas City group called 37 Forever Foundation was founded in Joe Delaney’s honor and works with the American Red Cross to give underprivileged children swimming lessons. The Chiefs have unofficially retired Delaney’s number and in 2004 he was elected to the Chiefs Hall of Fame. Joe Delaney’s name is hung in the Chiefs Ring of Honor.
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