Skip to main content

Sometimes The Good Die Young

The Chiefs' Joe Delaney would have been 25 last week had he not given up his life attempting to save two drowning boys

Last Sunday, Oct. 30, Joe Delaney's team, the Kansas City Chiefs, played the Denver Broncos. And in Shreveport, down the road from Haughton, where Joe was reared, the Louisiana State Fair was in its last day. The signs said: IT'S YOUR FAIR—SO BE THERE, and for sure a goodly number of folks came out.

Had he lived, Delaney last Sunday would have celebrated his 25th birthday while playing against the Broncos. But on June 29, 1983 he died, a gentleman and a hero, in Monroe, at Chenault Park, around two in the afternoon.

There was a huge hole there, carved out of the earth some time ago. The hole had filled with water, and three boys waded in. They didn't know it, but a short way out the bottom dropped off precipitously, and suddenly the boys were in over their heads and thrashing and screaming. There were all sorts of people around, but only Joe dashed to the pond. There was a little boy there. "Can you swim?" he asked Joe.

"I can't swim good," Joe said, "but I've got to save those kids. If I don't come up, get somebody." And he rushed into the water.

One boy fought his way back to the shallow part. The other two didn't. Neither did Joe Delaney, 24. He was hauled out a few minutes later, dead. He gave his own life trying to save three others.

God rest his soul.

Shortly thereafter, back in Haughton, JoAnn Delaney woke up from a nap. She'd had a terrible pain come over her, so she had lain down; but now, miraculously, she felt whole again. Later she found out the pain had come as Joe had approached Chenault Park in his baby blue Cougar and had departed when he'd died.

JoAnn was Joe's twin.

When they were born in Henderson, Texas on Oct. 30, 1958, JoAnn's birth was uneventful, but Joe turned blue and almost died. He had some kind of bubble over his face, his mother, Eunice, says, which made it hard for him to start breathing. The midwife was familiar with this problem. She called it a "veil," and when the crisis had passed and the baby had filled his lungs with air, she told Eunice, "Any child born with the veil will die of drowning."

Lucille, one of Joe's five sisters—he had two brothers—says, "We were mighty glad when he learned to swim." But he was never more than a rudimentary swimmer; he was scared of water any deeper than his waist. It was amazing that he would rush in after those boys.

Let us now go down the road and around the bend from Joe's house on West Madison Street in Haughton to the Galilee Baptist listen to the people eulogize him. The words are all real, but you're going to have to imagine the scene, because when Joe died there were so many people, from far and wide, who wanted to honor him that his parish church, the Galilee, couldn't be used for the services. They had to be held in the largest building in town, the high school gym—HOME OF THE BUCCANEERS it Says on one wall, over an American flag. Joe rested there in an open casket before the services.

It was July 4, Independence Day, brutally hot, and a number of mourners passed out. Many Chiefs and other NFL players came, but the local people watched Norma Hunt especially closely. She's the wife of Lamar Hunt, the owner of the Chiefs, and if the home folks were impressed that this millionaire had come to pay his respects to Joe Alton Delaney, they were moved that his wife had come.

But for the purpose of the retelling, we're not in the Hades-hot gym. Instead it's a soft Loosiana autumn night—midweek, no football games—and we're assembled at the Galilee to hear the encomiums for the late Joe Delaney.

Galilee was originally used by both races, the whites letting their slaves worship there on Sabbath afternoons. Since 1863, after Vicksburg fell and that part of the Confederacy began to crumble, the blacks have had Galilee to themselves. These days the church is located in a neat, solid red-brick chapel, and Joe spent his Sunday mornings there during the off-season. He was an usher. His spot was in the back, just to the left as you come in. A little sign there says USHER, and Joe's folded chair is still in place, leaning against the wall. Look hard; you might see him there as his friends begin to enter.

Outside, a harvest moon ducks out from behind the clouds. Inside, the Rev. W.B. James is presiding. He's a trim little man who has known the Delaneys for years. Back in the Depression he walked to the Slap Chapel school for the colored with Joe's late father, Woodrow, and Woodrow's twin—Joe had twins on both sides of his family. More than 40 years later, two of the Rev. James's sons played with Joe on the football team at what's called Northwestern Louisiana, down in Natchitoches, which is pronounced NAK-a-tish.

Now the Rev. James stands in his pulpit and bids the people talk about Joe. Scour the area and Kansas City, too, and you'll never hear a bad word about Joe Delaney. He was a hero at the last instant, but he'd been a good man all the time leading up to it.

Marv Levy, who was Joe's coach in both his years at Kansas City, speaks first. Levy had no idea how talented Delaney was when the Chiefs drafted him in the second round in '81. Joe was penciled in as a "situation back," but in 1981 he gained 1.121 yards, started in the Pro Bowl and was AFC Rookie of the Year. Levy says. "Joe was a person who was genuine and honest right to the core of his being."

He sits down, and near him A.L. Williams, who coached Joe at Northwestern Louisiana, gets up. The football people are over on one side, more or less, and the home folks are on the other, with the family up front, all save Uncle Frankie Joe, Eunice's baby brother, for whom Joe was named. Of all his nephews, Uncle Frankie Joe was especially close to Joe. The two of them and Lucille would often sing together. But Uncle Frankie Joe wouldn't go to the funeral services, hasn't visited Joe's grave yet and, when Eunice gave him first crack at Joe's belongings, he wouldn't take a thing. So he wouldn't be here at the Galilee on this night, either.

Coach Williams speaks now. He says: "The first year Joe was up in Kansas City, Les Miller, the Chiefs' director of player personnel, called me on the phone. He said, 'I want to talk to you about one of your players.' I thought something was wrong. But then he said. 'I just wanted to tell you that Joe Delaney is the finest young man and the hardest worker we've ever had here.'

"You know when Joe came to Northwestern he was a wide receiver. The night I signed him, we went and sat on the fender of my car, and I promised him he could play there because he thought his best chance to make the pros was at that position. But we had a few injuries to running backs early in his freshman year, and Joe came to me and said if we needed a running back he'd switch and play there.

"People ask me, 'How could Joe have gone in that water the way he did?' And I answer, 'Why, he never gave it a second thought, because helping people was a conditioned reflex to Joe Delaney.' "

Bobby Ray McHalffey, who coached Joe at Haughton High, stands up next. Coach McHalffey says he has had a number of better athletes down through the years, but Joe worked a whole lot harder than the other boys. Coach McHalffey finishes up: "You missed somethin' when you didn't know that young 'un—a fine American man."

That's it for the coaches. The next person to speak is Harold Harlan, principal of Haughton High. He says, "Joe was one of those who assumed responsibility. He was one of those who had goals. He was one of those you could always count on." He pauses then and scans the crowded church. "Joe Delaney was a cut above."

Carolyn Delaney, Joe's widow, sits in the front row. nodding. She brought their three girls to the church in the baby blue Cougar. There is Tamika, who's seven, Crystal, four, and JoJo (for Joanna), who wasn't even four months old when her daddy died. They all look up as Alma Jean rises. She's Joe's oldest sister, and she has been selected to read aloud the proclamation from President Reagan that Vice President Bush had personally delivered to the family back in July.

It finishes by saying, "By this supreme example of courage and compassion, this brilliantly gifted young man left a spiritual legacy for his fellow Americans, in recognition of which Joe Delaney is hereby awarded the Presidential Citizens Award."

A lot of people—even many of the football people—are crying now. Crystal wants to leave. Her father spoiled her something awful, and she can't bear to stay in any room when people talk about him. But Lucille is going to be the final speaker. She has brought her guitar, just to strum a couple of notes on, and then in the hush she reads MR. JOE D., the poem that she wrote about her brother two weeks after he died:

My brother Joe was a small man in size,
but you'd have to know him to understand
and realize just how big a heart he had.
He would always help others,
whether good or bad.
Some people said he couldn't,
but Joe said,
can! I can!'
Oh, how grand, and he did...
Joe earned the right to have capital MR. in front of his name,
But because of his love and not just his fame...

There are more tears, and it's now time to conclude the service. The Rev. James says, "I don't know anybody who had a spot on their heart about Joe. People ask me, 'Reverend James, why would God take him away?' and I say, 'God wants something good, too. Amen.' "

From the earliest, Eunice says, "He told me he was goin' to make the pros and make me happy." Joe didn't get any encouragement at home, though. Eunice and Woodrow, a hardworking truck driver till the day he died in 1977, thought football was stuff and nonsense. That may be why there haven't been any other athletes in the family. But then, Joe was also the only one ever to make college.

Joe was born four years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in the schools, but he was nine years old before this message, with deliberate speed, came to Louisiana. School integration there was called "the crossover," a term borrowed from the music business, and there isn't anybody around Haughton who doesn't profess that athletics helped ease the transition. As a star black player who was as impeccable of character as he was celebrated, Joe had an impact on his community.

In Haughton, everybody knew Joe D. The tracks of the Illinois Central Gulf line cut smack through town, but that doesn't mean the white folks are all here and the black ones over yonder. Instead, there is a crazy quilt pattern. The Galilee Baptist Church, for example, is in a white enclave. "We have some worldly peoples around here," the Rev. James says. Still, Baptists and fishermen predominate—both creatures of abiding faith.

Joe was a fisherman, was he? "Called hisself one," Eunice says, chortling.

She's in her house, the old sagging place where Joe grew up, where eight people live now, where Joe's trophies are all over and the television set is on all the time. This afternoon she's caring for Joe's children. After he signed his first contract Joe made his mother stop working as a cleaning lady, and he was going to get her a better place to live.

"Muh," he said. He called her Muh. "Muh, I'm going to buy you a house in Kansas City."

"No you ain't," she said. She didn't want to leave Haughton and her family.

What Joe did instead was build a house down the street for himself and Carolyn and the girls. Carolyn had lived in an old house on that plot. She was the girl down the street all the time Joe was growing up. The new house isn't large, but it's trim and immaculate, with plastic covers on the chairs, Joe's trophies all over and the television set on all the time. "Joe wanted to build here," Carolyn says. "We wanted to feel in place." In Kansas City, he always introduced Carolyn as a home girl, but he was a home boy, too.

If Joe had lived, there would have been a star's contract, lots more money, and then he could have moved his family into a subdivision. In that neck of the woods in Louisiana, and in a lot of places in the U.S., subdivision has come to mean what uptown once did. There may be all sorts of neighborhoods, but there are no bad subdivisions. You can be sure of one thing, though. No matter how much money Joe might have made, and no matter where he might have gone to live, his '81 baby blue Cougar would always have been parked outside.

Joe spent a lot of time over at his mother's house. Carolyn has to devote a great deal of time to her own mother, who is blind. She says she really isn't a home girl; foremost she's a family girl. She lost her father in March and her grandfather in June, just two weeks before Joe died. "Joe, all I got now is you," she had said then.

"You'll always have me," he had replied.

In the mornings, Joe would bring JoJo over to Muh's, sometimes not much past six o'clock. Then he would roust everybody, get the music going. He was almost never still. "Sit down and rest awhile, Honey," Eunice would say.

On Independence Day Joe was lowered into the earth at Hawkins Cemetery. There was a two-mile-long procession of cars from the gym to the burial ground and then a long walk down a dirt road under the worst of a July midday sun. People can remember a little black girl running after Norma Hunt and asking her about the pretty bracelet she had on.

Joe, like Uncle Frankie Joe, hated that cemetery, and far as anybody knew, he'd never been back there since his father's burial in '77. Hawkins Cemetery isn't like the white people's graveyard down in Haughton proper, which is all green and manicured. It's up in Belleview and really no more than a clearing back in the woods, where the sandy earth is still piled up from graves dug years ago. It's so far out of the way that there isn't much use putting flowers on the graves; they get stolen and given to girl friends.

Joe is amid ancient company there. Only three down from him is a great-great uncle, Moses Kennon, born in 1848, 15 years before emancipation. On a lot of the stones it says GONE BUT NOT FORGOTTEN or OVER IN THE GLORYLAND or just plain ASLEEP. Rest awhile, Honey.

"The sky was the limit for him," Coach Williams said the other day. "We never got to see what Joe D would be."

After Joe signed his contract with the Chiefs, Joe Ferguson, the Buffalo quarterback, who was raised in Shreveport and knew Joe D., showed Joe how to write checks. How would Joe D. know about things like that? The first big purchase he made then was a car. He was very careful about it because he didn't want to be ostentatious and spend too much of his money on one item when there was so much the family needed.

Finally, Joe came to Coach Williams and told him he'd thought about it and had settled on a Cougar. What did Coach think of that? Well, Coach Williams thought that was a fine choice, and so straightaway he picked up the phone and called Harry Friedman, the Lincoln-Mercury dealer in Natchitoches. Friedman told Coach Williams he was delighted that Joe had selected a Cougar and he would make sure to give Joe the best possible deal because everyone loved Joe D. and he had meant a great deal to Northwestern and Natchitoches.

Truth to tell, Joe did splurge a little. He sprung for just about every option available on the '81 Cougar. When he brought the car home, he told Carolyn that he would never get rid of it, no matter how good he became or how much he made or where he lived, because it was the first fine thing he had ever been able to buy in his life. He was going to keep it and tend to it and give it to his girls many years from now, when they were old enough to drive.

Since Joe didn't live to see that faraway day, Carolyn says she will honor his intention. The baby blue Cougar is parked outside the house now, in the driveway. It has two stickers on the back, one for the NFL Players Association, the other for the Chiefs.

Crystal is playing on the front lawn by the car. JoJo is napping. Tamika is still at school. Carolyn comes out and calls for Crystal to come in, and she does, because the grown-ups inside are through talking about her daddy, a man who died a hero one hot summer's day and, before that, had never put a spot on a human heart.

Happy birthday, Joe D.



Joe introduced Carolyn as a home girl in K.C., where he won the '82 Mackey Award.



Carolyn will safeguard Joe's Cougar for daughters Tamika (left), JoJo and Crystal.



Muh and Uncle Frankie Joe flank Joe's five sisters, here with their children outside of Muh's house.



Joe's folded chair still sits in the back of the Galilee church, where he ushered.



Joe is in ancient and familial company in the sandy earth of the Hawkins Cemetery.