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On This Date in Sports June 29, 1983: A Tragic Loss

Joe Delaney, a rising star running back with the Kansas City Chiefs, dies at the age of 24 while attempting to save three young boys from drowning. Delaney was out in a park near his hometown of Ruston, Louisiana was unable to swim but jumped in a manmade pond when he heard the cries for help. Sadly only one of the three survived boys, as two drowned along with Delaney.

Joe Delaney was born in Henderson, Texas, on October 30, 1958. Raised in Haughton, Louisiana, Delaney became a football star over his father’s objection. Recruited by several major Division 1 schools, Delaney chose to stay close to home and play at Northwestern State. In four years at school from the Southland Conference, Delaney ran for 3,047 yards with 31 touchdowns. His finest moment came when he set an NCAA record of 263 yards against Nichols State in 1978.

In 1981, Joe Delaney was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round of the NFL Draft. After rushing for over 100 yards coming off the bench in a game against the New England Patriots, Delaney became a starter for the Chiefs. In his first season, Delaney ran for 1,121 yards and was named the top rookie in the AFC while earning a spot in the Pro Bowl. Thanks to Joe Delaney’s big rookie season, the Chiefs posted their first winning season since 1973 at 9-7. Delaney would fall victim to the sophomore jinx in 1982, as a strike and eye injury contributed to him rushing for just 380 yards as the Chiefs finished 3-6. Despite the struggles, Joe Delaney was key to the Chiefs' future plans as they were looking to end a decade-long playoff drought.

It was a warm, humid day in Louisiana when Joe Delaney was out with friends and family at an amusement park in Monroe, Louisiana. The park had a manmade pond, which was 20 feet deep and covered two acres, which was created by construction workers as an aesthetic and not meant for swimming. Joe Delaney, who did not know how to swim and discouraged children playing in the park to not go in the water. However, when he heard three kids screaming for help, Delaney did not hesitate and attempted to save the drowning children. One of the kids was able to make it back to land with Delaney’s assistance, but the other two could not be saved as neither were aware of a steep drop-off inside the spacious pond.  As Delaney and the children were drowning, confusion reigned, hampering any rescue effort. The park was closed a short time later, with a sign warning against swimming only placed after the lives were lost.

The news of Joe Delaney’s death shook the Kanas City Chiefs to its core, as no player has worn #37 since. Less than a month after his shocking death, Delaney was honored by President Ronald Reagan with the Presidential Citizen’s Medal for his act of bravery and sacrifice. The Chiefs took the design of the medal and incorporated it into a memorial patch they wore in the 1983 season.