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Gone too soon

Posted by Jason Lisk on June 29, 2009

My first strong memory of the Kansas City Chiefs growing up had nothing to do with a play, or a game, or a season. It came twenty-six years ago today. It was a hot late June weekday and we were heading out to go play baseball when the news trickled in. Joe Delaney had drowned while trying to rescue three boys down in Monroe, Louisiana, near his hometown of Haughton. Didn't know how to swim, the reports said. But he went in anyway to try to save those three boys-complete strangers-who were drowning.

Death comes in threes, you often hear. Many times the connections between the three are forced and tenuous. Not so here. Joe Delaney was the third young Chiefs running back, all from Louisiana, who died too soon.

Most of you have probably never heard of Stonewall Edward "Stone" Johnson. You won't find a player page for him here at pro-football-reference, because he never played in a regular season game. You will however, find his page at our companion Olympics reference site. Stone Johnson was a finalist in both the 200 meter and as a member of the 4x100 relay at the 1960 Rome Olympics at age 20. Three years later, Lamar Hunt had moved the Dallas Texans to Kansas City, and Stone Johnson was a rookie running back from Grambling trying to make the roster. In a preseason game against the Raiders played in Wichita, Kansas, Johnson broke his neck. He died a few days later, on September 8, 1963.

A year after that tragedy, a young running back from Southern University joined the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent. Mack Lee Hill was an instant success. Hill led the AFL in yards per carry in both of his seasons with the Chiefs, in 1964 and 1965. He was a pro bowl selection in 1964 as a rookie. He may very well have been a pro bowl selection again in 1965 (he was second team all-AFL). On December 12, 1965, though, Hill suffered a knee injury in the next to last game of the regular season, and died during knee surgery. The Chiefs began their team Hall of Fame in 1970, and Mack Lee Hill was the first player enshrined. The Chiefs' rookie of the year award was also instituted in 1966, and named the Mack Lee Hill award.

Joe Delaney, as it turns out, did not receive the Mack Lee Hill award in 1981--that honor went to Lloyd Burruss. That's because Delaney was selected as the team MVP for the 1981 season. He also was selected as the AFC Rookie of the Year, and represented the AFC in the Pro Bowl.

If you want to get a vision of what Delaney, the player, was like, I think there are two guys that entered the league last season that have a lot of similarities--Chris Johnson, and to a lesser extent, though still similar sizewise, Steve Slaton. Delaney was considered undersized for a running back, at 5'10" and between 180 and 190 pounds, but he was blazing fast. He had initially gone to Northwestern State as a wide receiver, but converted to running back when the team had injuries at the position. The Chiefs drafted him in the second round in 1981 thinking that he would be a change of pace type back, but he turned into so much more in his rookie season.

He started the season as a backup to Ted McKnight, and had some solid performances in limited action. In the season's fifth game, McKnight suffered a season-ending injury on his first carry in a game against the New England Patriots, and Delaney finished that game with his first 100 yard rushing performance. The next week, in his first career start, Delaney had both 100 yards rushing and 100 yards receiving in a 27-0 victory against the hated rival and defending Super Bowl Champion Oakland Raiders. A week later, Delaney finished with 149 rushing yards, including an 82 yard touchdown run that would stand as the longest run from scrimmage in the NFL that season, as the Chiefs beat the Broncos at Arrowhead. Later that season, Delaney would rush for 193 yards in a game against the Houston Oilers. He finished the year with a Chiefs' rookie record of 1,121 rushing yards.

The following year, Delaney had an eye injury that limited him, and the season was disjointed and shortened due to the 1982 player strike. He was only 24 years old, though, as the 1983 season approached, and he was poised to continue his success as a star running back, until that sad day twenty-six years ago.

If you want a vision of what Delaney the person was like, well, I'm probably not the person to provide that perspective. I just know that when I was a child, his loss was mourned throughout Kansas City, and I think in a way far beyond just losing a young athlete. The way that he died, trying to save three children, when he didn't know how to swim very well, says a lot about the man. The great Sports Illustrated writer Frank DeFord wrote a piece entitled "Sometimes the Good Die Young" that ran in the November 7, 1983 issue. I would highly encourage you to click through and read that great tribute if you have the time.

We've seen numerous players gone too soon, reminding us that tomorrow is promised to no one, not even young athletes who appear to be at the peak physically. The tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico involving Marquis Cooper and Corey Smith is the most recent case. Korey Stringer died from heat stroke complications at training camp. Sean Taylor, Darrent Williams and Fred Lane were homicide victims while playing in the NFL. We've had players die too young because of cancer or other disease, like Ernie Davis, Brian Piccolo, and Eric Turner. Heart attacks or other cardiac events have claimed numerous NFL players, both while playing and during the off-season, including Stan Mauldin, Chuck Hughes, Larry Gordon, J.V. Cain, Dave Waymer, and recently, Thomas Herrion and Damien Nash. Car accidents have probably claimed more active NFL players than any other cause. Derrick Thomas died from complications following a car accident. Jerome Brown died in the prime of a star career in 1992. Teammates Bo Farrington and Willie Galimore died in the same car accident in 1964, months after they had won an NFL Championship with the Chicago Bears. The list goes on and on.

These deaths were often sudden and unexpected, and universally tragic. Only a handful, though, involved a conscious choice to put one's life at risk to help others. Pat Tillman left an active NFL career to join the military, and died in Afghanistan in 2004. Over thirty years earlier, Bob Kalsu made a similar choice when he left a career as a guard for the Buffalo Bills to go to Vietnam. I'm sure there were countless others who died on the battlefields of World War II, when they would have otherwise been on football fields. Then there is Joe Delaney, who in a moments' notice, had to make a decision, and decided to risk his life rather than do nothing.

God rest your soul, Joe.

This entry was posted on Monday, June 29th, 2009 at 6:21 am and is filed under History. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.