After Joe Delaney of the Kansas City Chiefs drowned last June in a heroic attempt to save the lives of two small boys, Senior Writer Frank Deford expressed a desire to do an appreciative story to run during the football season. "There'd been so much in the news about athletes in trouble," says Deford, whose piece on Delaney begins on page 44. "Drugs, greed, horrible behavior...terrible things. Yet here was an athlete who was involved in none of that, who actually gave his life trying to save someone else.
"I'd heard that people who knew him weren't surprised by what he'd done. He was obviously a special person, and I felt that readers would like to know more about him, what his friends and his family remembered."
Deford and Pro Football Editor Joe Marshall tried to determine the best date or event to key the story to. They tossed a couple of ideas back and forth, and then Deford said, "Maybe he had a birthday coming up during the season." Marshall dug out a Kansas City press guide. "Sure enough," he said. "He was born on Oct. 30."
Deford was shaken. He had recently finished a book called Alex: The Life of a Child about his daughter Alexandra, who had struggled all her short life against cystic fibrosis before dying at the age of eight early in 1980. Alex' birthday was Oct. 30. She would have been 12 on the same day that Delaney would have been 25.
Alex was an extraordinary child, aware of the nature of her dread disease and the imminence of death, yet bright and lively and a joy to those who knew her. Like Delaney, she was someone special who died much too young. In listening to Delaney's family and friends talk with pain and pride of Joe, Deford understood what they felt. "If you've been through it, you learn from it," he says. "There's a certain kinship that is shared."
His urge to pay tribute to Delaney as someone out of the ordinary was akin to his primary reason for writing Alex, just published by Viking. "Writing it was cathartic to a degree," he says, "but whatever therapy it provided me was far down the list. I hoped that a book about Alex might help other cystic-fibrosis kids and their families and make more people aware of CF [Deford is executive vice-president of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation]. Also, I had kept notes for years, knowing that Alex' life and death would be the saddest and most traumatic event of my life. As a writer, I had to write about Alex.
"But most of all, I wrote the book because Alex was a special person, a terrific person, and I wanted people to know her. Writing the book hurt—I'd write a little and then cry a little—but it was a labor of love, like childbirth. Great pain, but joy afterward.
"I was on the Today show, talking about the book and Alex. As the show ended, they held a photo of her on the screen for a long time. That made me feel warm. I thought, 'There, Alex. Now millions of people know you.' "
DEFORD AND ALEX IN 1978. SHE WAS SIX