Thirty years after his death, Delaney's legacy lives on

Remembering Joe Delaney, the ex-Chiefs Pro Bowl running back who died at the apex of his career

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Sedarrius has Grandpa's grace, Grandpa's fifth gear. Carolyn Delaney can scarcely believe it herself. Lord, there it is: Joe's gait. Joe's burst. It's like a ghost chasing a ghost.

"He holds the ball close to him," Carolyn gushes, proudly, as she describes her grandson.

Sedarrius is 13 now, part heat-seeking missile, part greyhound. He's a 5-foot-7 cornerback who plays like he's 6-2.

"He's so small," Carolyn says. "He tells us, ‘Mama, I can do it.' "

The more you doubt him, the more hellbent he is to prove you wrong. He got that from Grandpa, too.

This is the age when little boys grow up, when they get more selective about their football heroes. Sedarrius is a serious student of the game, and a student of Joe Delaney's game in particular.

"He watches his film, so he tries to run like (him) ... that's where he gets his pointers from," Carolyn says. "That's what he does, every time; after those games, he asks where those tapes are."

So he watches. Highlight after highlight. There's Joe, breaking ankles in college. There's Joe, as a rookie with the Kansas City Chiefs, scurrying to daylight against the Broncos. There's Joe, slicing up the Oilers.

"He wants to be like (grandpa) and go to the NFL," Carolyn's daughter Crystal says of Sedarrius. "There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think where I would be if he were still here, or where he would be in my kids' life."

But the next few days will be the hardest. They always are. Joe Delaney, Crystal's father, Carolyn's husband, drowned while trying to save three boys on June 29, 1983, 30 years ago this Saturday. He was 24, the pride of Haughton, La., a Pro Bowl running back taken at the apex of his career.

YouTube tries, but YouTube doesn't really do the man justice. Delaney was 5-foot-10, 184 pounds of granite, one of the few bright lights in the dark days in Chiefs history between the end of The Stram Era and the beginnings of MartyBall. An elite sprinter, Joe had Tony Dorsett's stride and Walter Payton's forearm shiver.

Think Emmitt Smith, only faster. Think Barry Sanders, only bigger.

"I think that he could've been kind of a Barry Sanders type," notes ex-NFL linebacker Gary Reasons, Delaney's former college teammate at Northwestern (La.) State. "He had that quickness and agility.  

"You look at his numbers and work in the NFL, and I think if he had maintained his health and progressed in his career, he would've had a career very much like (Sanders). I played against a lot of guys with similar abilities, but Joe just had the knack, just pure speed ... if he would've played eight or 10 years in the league, he would've put up some outstanding numbers."

Reasons was a freshman when Delaney was a senior blur. Joe ran on the Demons' NCAA-championship 4 x 100 relay team in 1981, a group that also included future Miami Dolphins wideout Mark Duper.

That spring, the Chiefs, then coached by Marv Levy, drafted Delaney in the second round. He came off the bench and ran for 101 yards in his NFL debut. In his first start, against Oakland, Joe rushed for 106 yards and racked up 104 more yards on pass receptions. His 82-yard touchdown against Denver's Orange Crush defense was the longest play from scrimmage in the 1981 NFL season, and his 193 rushing yards against Houston were a new single-game Kansas City record. Delaney ran for 1,121 yards, another new franchise best, and was selected to the AFC's Pro Bowl squad. A players strike and an eye injury derailed his second season, but he was looking forward to getting back on track in the fall of '83.

But after 23 games, the story ended. That's the tragedy in Delaney's tale, one of the many, the endless what-ifs and could've-beens. He might've been Priest Holmes. He might've been Larry Johnson. He might've been Ed Podolak. He might've been Jamaal Charles.

He might've been the greatest tailback ever to don a Chiefs uniform. We'll never know.

Joe had other plans. The Lord had other plans.

The pond wasn't meant for swimming. It had been scoped out in order to serve as the foundation for a water slide. A shallow base gave way to a steep drop.

As they splashed about, escaping the blistering heat in their own private Chennault Park watering hole, Harry Holland Jr., his brother LeMarkits, and their cousin Lancer Perkins knew nothing of this.

One by one, they went under. Quickly.

And there was Delaney, in the right place, at the right time, but the wrong man. For all of Joe's athletic gifts, he wasn't a strong swimmer.

He jumped in anyway.

The rest of the tale has been told, and retold, countless times: LeMarkits safely reached the surface. Delaney would be pronounced dead a few hours later. Harry died a few minutes after that. Lancer died the next morning.

A memorial service, attended by more than 3,000 was held in Haughton on July 4. President Ronald Reagan honored Joe with the Presidential Citizens medal on July 15.

Thirty years. And yet, every Independence Day weekend, old wounds become fresh again.

"The closer we get to it, the more I think about it," Carolyn says. "The Fourth (of July) is just a different day for me because that's the day we put him to rest. That's a day I never forget."

Too many people forget. That's one of the reasons Phil Kloster helped to found the "37 Forever Foundation" in 2000, dedicated to keeping the memory of Delaney -- and his sacrifice -- alive and in the public consciousness.

This was pre-Facebook, so the core of the foundation, scattered across the country, congregated and communicated mostly via message boards. At its peak, the group had roughly 200 members. There were banquets and golf tournaments, designed to keep the Delaney flame going and to fund swim lessons and scholarships for underprivileged youth.

"But the interest kind of fell off after Joe Delaney made the (Chiefs') Ring of Honor (in 2004)," Kloster says. "That wasn't what we were after, necessarily, but after he made the Ring, lots of people became disinterested."

The foundation dissolved in 2005, Kloster says, but not before making a donation earmarked to help Crystal's two sons, Anthony and Sedarrius, take formal swim lessons in Louisiana.

"It kind of went full circle," Kloster says.

And then some. Crystal recalls an afternoon last July in which her two boys came home completely soaked and covered head to toe in mud.

It turns out they'd seen a horse slip into one of those ponds, just like the one in Chennault Park. He was sinking, thrashing, panicking, crying out for help.

"They had to go in and get him out," Crystal says, "or the horse would not have made it."

They jumped in anyway.

"We're telling them how proud we know (Joe) would be," Carolyn says. "They want to follow in his footsteps so much."

And Grandma smiles. Somewhere, she knows Joe's smiling, too.

You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at

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