For two seasons, Joe Alton Delaney was the running back in the National Football League (NFL). Delaney set four franchise records during his two seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, which would stand for over 20 years. But did you know that Joe Delaney was actually a hero?
In 1983, NFL Chiefs running back Joe Delaney gave his life to save three children from drowning. The team has unofficially retired his number, and a statue has been erected in his hometown.
Joe Delaney: The Heroic Football Star
Joe Alton Delaney only wore number 37 for two seasons, but no one else has since he died while attempting to save two children from drowning in a Louisiana pond.
Delaney and a group of friends went to an amusement park on June 29, 1983. The park had recently added a six-foot-deep, two-acre water hole for aesthetic purposes rather than swimming. Delaney heard three children screaming for help in the water hole and dove in to try to save them despite his inability to swim. Delaney drowned while attempting to save others.
Delaney may not have been able to save all of the children or himself, but his bravery inspired people across the country. Three thousand people turned out for Joe Delaney’s funeral. President Ronald Reagan bestowed the Presidential Citizens Medal on Delaney, saying, “He made the ultimate sacrifice by putting the lives of three children ahead of his safety.” This brilliantly gifted young man left a spiritual legacy for his fellow Americans by setting the highest example of courage and compassion.
In Joe Delaney’s honor, the 37 Forever Foundation, based in Kansas City, collaborates with the American Red Cross to provide swimming lessons to underprivileged children. Delaney’s number has been unofficially retired by the Chiefs, and he was inducted into the Chiefs Hall of Fame in 2004. Joe Delaney’s name is inscribed on a plaque in the Chiefs Ring of Honor. (Source: Carnegie Hero)
Joe Delaney’s NFL Career
The Chiefs selected Joe Delaney in the second round of the 1981 NFL Draft. His influence on the Chiefs was immediate, as the team went on to win their first game since 1973.
Delaney gained 106 yards rushing and 104 yards receiving in his first NFL start. In his rookie season, he set four franchise records:
- Most rushing yards in a season
- Most rushing yards in a game
- Most 100-yard rushing games in a season
- Most consecutive 100-yard rushing games
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.Elvin Bethea, NFL Hall of Famer
Delaney’s second professional season was cut short. In addition to the 1982 NFL player’s strike, which cut the season short to nine games, Delaney needed eye surgery to repair a detached retina. In 1982, Delaney had only 95 rushing attempts and 380 rushing yards. (Source: Carnegie Hero)