It was a hot summer day at Chennault Park in Monroe, Louisiana. Three young boys wanted to take a break from the heat with a swim in the park’s pond. Minutes later, two of them — 11-year-old Lancer Perkins and 11-year-old Harry Holland, Jr. — would be dead. Lying with them was 24-year-old Kansas City Chiefs running back Joe Delaney, who gave his life trying to save them.
Monday marks the 37th anniversary of that tragic day. On Saturday, a monument to Delaney’s sacrifice was dedicated in the park.
“He didn’t worry about himself, he just worried about making the people around him happy. That’s just the type of person Joe was,” Delaney’s widow Carolyn told reporters after the ceremony.
A natural athlete, Delaney had made a huge impact at tiny Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana, accumulating 3,047 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns — including a breathtaking performance against Nicholls State University on Oct. 28, 1978, in which he gained 299 yards and scored four touchdowns on just 28 carries.
Even though NSU was a small school, the two-time All-American attracted the attention of NFL scouts. In 1981, the Chiefs selected him in the second round (41st overall) of the NFL draft.
Delaney didn’t disappoint, gaining 1,367 yards and three touchdowns from scrimmage during his rookie season, in which he made the Pro Bowl and was named United Press International’s AFC rookie of the year. The Chiefs finished the season 9-7 — their first winning season since 1973.
Eye surgery — and the strike-shortened 1982 season — held Delaney to just 433 scrimmage yards the following year. But as far as the Chiefs were concerned, Delaney was the man. In a brilliant 1983 Sports Illustrated article written by the great Frank Deford, NSU coach A.L. Williams recalled a call he got from the Chiefs.
“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.’”
But in the summer break before the 1983 season, Delaney was back home in Louisiana with Carolyn and their three children. Deford set the scene for the fateful day.
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.
At the memorial service that fall, coach Williams brought up the question any of us would ask.
“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.’ “
Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt also spoke.
“In a league often dominated by veteran players and inflated egos, Joe displayed his skills with a grace and humility far beyond his years.
“While Joe Delaney’s athletic accomplishments are many, it will be the character, the dedication, and the genuine good nature of this man which we will always treasure in mid-America.”
Just two weeks after his death, President Ronald Reagan announced Delaney would receive the Presidential Citizens Medal.
“Born with God-given physical talent, Joe Delaney brought distinction to himself and pride to his family and friends by exemplifying the best in sportsmanship as an outstanding high school, college and professional football player. Even more important, he set an example of citizenship off the playing field, as a caring, involved member of his community of Haughton, Louisiana.”
The Chiefs reiterated Delaney’s kindness by setting up a trust fund to provide for Carolyn and their children. In the 1984 season, his teammates wore a memorial patch in his memory. He was inducted into the Chiefs Ring of Honor in 2004 — and ever since his death, no Chiefs player has worn Delaney’s number 37.
And now — 37 years after the heroic act that led to his death — a simple memorial stands by the pond in Monroe.
“Right now, I am just so overwhelmed,” said Carolyn Delaney on Saturday. “I mean it just makes me feel so proud of Joe and the person he was. I just can’t explain how happy I am today.”