Before Grant Curtis helped produce the “Spiderman” trilogy and “Oz: The Great and Powerful” and more recently began working on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2,” before he was just about anything else, he remembers being “a card-carrying member of the Chiefs Huddle Club.”
As such, the Warrensburg, Mo., native was one of the kids who’d be pestering Chiefs players for wrist bands or towels or autographs after scrimmages or games.
Then when Curtis was 11, Chiefs running back Joe Delaney died trying to save three drowning boys in his home state of Louisiana — a shocking death made all the more piercing by the fact that Delaney couldn’t swim.
Suddenly, Curtis realized the icons “don’t wear Teflon and bullet-proof vests. They are humans, and they have accidents and they pass away unexpectedly.
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“I think when you’re 11 and you realize that for the first time,” he continued, “it’s one of those narratives that never goes away. … It’s one of those stories that kept popping in my mind.”
So when Curtis, 42, had occasion to meet with ESPN about some story possibilities two years ago, Delaney’s story was among the handful of ideas he broached.
Almost instantly, he said, ESPN responded, “That’s the one.”
The result is “Delaney,” a 30-for-30 Short (19 minutes) that brims with emotions but will leave you wanting more when it debuts Aug. 19 on Grantland.com.
That’s both because the format simply isn’t long enough to convey all the intricacies of Delaney’s story and also because it still seizes the spirit of it in a way that moved a group of Chiefs guests at an exclusive advanced screening of it Monday night at the training complex near Arrowhead Stadium.
One woman was compelled to raise her hand afterward to tell Curtis that she felt she knew Delaney personally by the end. Another thanked Curtis for doing the important work of spreading the word about someone who has long inspired her.
Sniffles could be heard in various parts of the room throughout the showing.
“A selfless love story … His character was love,” said Bill Chapin, the Chiefs vice president of business operations. “He loved his teammates. He loved his family. He loved his wife. He loved his daughters.
“He loved those boys (in the water) even though he didn’t know them.”
That much is certain despite circumstances on the scene that remain unclear to this day — even now after months of work on the project by Curtis and his colleagues.
“What the human mind remembers during a time of panic is very unique: it’s a case study” of that, said Curtis, who earned a business degree at the University of Missouri and a master’s in mass communication at Central Missouri. “Some people have laser focus. Some people forget everything.
“Some people have snapshots. And, quite honestly, some people remember the wrong thing but they are positive that is what happened.”
This, though, we know:
The essence of Delaney’s 24-year-old life could be understood in his 1983 death, which many who knew him have long said reflected how he lived.
That fateful final act also informed Curtis’ passion about the project.
“That’s one of the things I questioned myself making this movie: What would I do?” said Curtis, who last year produced a short film about baseball and the origins of the Star-Spangled Banner that debuted during National World War I Museum night at Kauffman Stadium. “I don’t know, if I couldn’t swim, if I would jump in a pond and try to save three people I don’t know when I have my high-school sweetheart and three daughters at home.
“Honestly, I don’t think so, and I don’t think I’m alone with that. And I think that hit everybody who worked on the film: am I the man or woman who would do that?”
There is a lot to consider in that notion, including the sad likelihood of its futility.
But what can’t be debated, and what forms the enduring legacy Delaney left, is the spirit with which he acted: pure, reflexive selflessness.
Celebrating that noble deed and keeping Delaney’s name alive is the reason Curtis asked the crowd, and anyone else who may be so moved, to consider helping a Joe Delaney Memorial Park become a reality in Delaney’s hometown of Haughton, La.
That’s why Curtis wanted to tell Delaney’s story, even though he acknowledges it’s been well-documented many times in print and film, including in a Chiefs Kingdom production in 2014.
“Even though there’s been legitimacy in the past narratives, ESPN has a platform that quite frankly nobody else has,” said Curtis, who repeatedly expressed his gratitude to his co-workers, the Chiefs and Delaney’s widow, Carolyn, among others. “So hopefully I was able to add to the Joe Delaney library, legacy, whatever you want to call it, with another chapter that hopefully will be viewed by a few more people.
“Because let’s be honest: Unless you’re my age or older, and unless you’re a Kansas City Chiefs fan, it’s a story that can slip by.
“So, hopefully, with the 30-for-30 platform, it’s going to slip by less and less people.”
And leave more and more people to ponder the mindset that Delaney lived and died by.