Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: What’s in a name? Plenty if you’re Delaney Neath

Joe Delaney's heroism inspires Shawnee family to name daughter after him

Mark and Kelly Neath named their daughter after Joe Delaney, a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs who drowned trying to save three children in Louisiana in 1983. Delaney Neath is now 15 and wears the No. 37 in all her activities.
Up Next
Mark and Kelly Neath named their daughter after Joe Delaney, a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs who drowned trying to save three children in Louisiana in 1983. Delaney Neath is now 15 and wears the No. 37 in all her activities.

Before Joe Delaney was inducted in the Chiefs Ring of Honor on Sept. 26, 2004, Mark and Kelly Neath walked outside Arrowhead Stadium with their own homage — a homemade poster bearing an image of the late Chiefs running back and an image of their infant daughter in a Chiefs cheerleader uniform tethered by these words:

“Gone but not forgotten … Our tribute to the legend … Delaney Nicole.”

A young woman approached and asked about the girl on the placard.

“Is that your daughter?” she said.

When told yes, Crystal Delaney gestured to the picture of Joe Delaney and said, “That’s my dad.”

Mark Neath couldn’t resist the urge to hug her, and he and his wife almost instantly started crying. What the couple considers a surreal moment still nearly brings them to tears now.

The episode that would later include meeting Delaney’s widow, Carolyn, both affirmed the reason they so-named their daughter and reinforced a connection they have always wanted her to feel to a man who couldn’t swim and drowned trying to save others.

“I feel like it helps keep him alive,” Mark Neath said. “I mean, we all know he’s gone, but the more people who hear about him, the more it keeps his story and his spirit alive.”

The upbeat namesake whom Carolyn Delaney that day told the Neaths to take care of will turn 15 in August and always wears No. 37 in his honor and wants to be a veterinarian and an Olympic soccer player.

Carolyn Delaney was pleased to be reminded of this on Friday and said, “Every time I hear how he inspired people, that makes me feel real good.”

Chiefs running back Joe Delaney sacrificed his life trying to save three drowning youngsters. Star file photo

The piercing story of Joe Delaney’s death was national news 34 years ago this week, on June 29, 1983, and it remains haunting for about anyone who knows what happened — not the least of whom is Marvin Dearman, the Monroe, La., policeman and diver who tried to save Delaney.

“I still think about it every day,” Dearman said Friday, relating it to a form of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Crushing as the story is, though, the spirit of the 24-year-old budding star can’t be commemorated enough — especially in an attention-deficit world.

Plenty have sought to perpetuate his name, some more successfully and lastingly than others:

The “37 Forever Foundation” — thus dubbed in recognition of Delaney’s jersey number — lost momentum after Delaney went into the Ring of Honor and dissolved more than a decade ago after it fleetingly provided swimming lessons for inner-city children in Kansas City.

For many years, Delaney’s hometown of Haughton, La., couldn’t get financial traction for a park to be named in his honor.

That changed some last fall with the dedication of Joe Delaney Memorial Park, the entrance to which is adorned with an inscription that includes a slightly different interpretation of John 15:13 from the Bible than the version that appears on Delaney’s gravestone:


“I’m very excited about it,” said Carolyn Delaney, who spoke at the ceremony. “That’s something that Joe really wanted to do.”

Said Dearman: “It was a touching deal; I was glad to see it happen.”

The cause reportedly recently received a $250,000 grant, but those working to raise funds for the park note that its features are only able to be built as funds become available — and that you can still contribute by purchasing a personalized brick for the park for $100.

(As of Friday afternoon, the updated format for donation was unclear, but the phone number for the town of Haughton is 318-949-9401.)

Mark and Kelly Neath named their daughter after Joe Delaney, a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs who died trying to save three children in Louisiana in 1983. This is the sign Joe Delaney’s widow, Carolyn Delaney, spotted before taking a photo with Mark. Jill Toyoshiba

There’s another way to memorialize and honor Joe Delaney, of course, and that’s to try to live by the humility and selflessness that he was known for even before the ultimate sacrifice he made.

“Christians talk about giving testimony, sharing stories about how God has touched them in their lives,” Kelly Neath said. “For Mark and I, every time we get an opportunity to talk about how Delaney got her name, it’s a way to give testimony as to why Joe was important.”

Instilling a giving and generous nature is what Mark and Kelly Neath had in mind in naming the daughter they never thought they’d have.

“I wasn’t supposed to have babies,” Kelly Neath said. “So she’s kind of my miracle baby.”

Twice, she added, because complications with her pregnancy led to premature birth and an emergency C-section delivery during which she said she had been bleeding to death.

So along came Delaney, according to the naming-rights deal they had worked out:

If their child was to be a boy, Kelly would choose the name.

If it were a girl, though, Mark convinced his wife she would be Delaney, an uncommon name for a girl.

Mark, a quality-control supervisor at Woodhaven Furniture, had long been a Chiefs fan, and he remembers as a 13-year-old when Joe Delaney died.

But he didn’t come to fully appreciate his actions until years later.

There was a girl named Delaney in the class of his son from a previous marriage, Tanner, and she sparked him to think again about the football player and study all he could about him.

He became certain that this would be meaningful in every way and explained to Kelly why this mattered so much.

“When he told me the story, and knowing how (kind) Mark is when it comes to kids … the suggestion made perfect sense,” she said.

For the most part, anyway:

When they explained early on why she was named Delaney Nicole, Delaney said, “That doesn’t make any sense. Why didn’t you just name me Delaney Jo?”

“Because,” her mother said, laughing, “I wasn’t smart enough to think of that, that’s why.”

More seriously, Delaney remembers being puzzled about why she was named after someone who played football — a sport she doesn’t really like even if she relishes contact on the pitch.

“Why is he so significant?” she asked when she got old enough to understand better.

She smiled at how she remembered the answer, about how he died and commemorating him by trying to raise her to be that kind of person.

“Well, that may be significant,” she remembered saying. “My bad.”

That’s evidently not a term she has to use often.

Running back Joe Delaney played only the 1981 and ’82 seasons for the Chiefs before he drowned at the age of 24 while trying to save three youngsters, but he did enough on the field to make the team’s hall of fame. Star file photo .

Even if it’s a subconscious reflection of her name, her parents believe that that is part of a sense of herself that helped her flourish:

Someone who is sincere and sees the good in people and puts her heart into all she does — whether it’s in her classroom performance or painting elaborate birthday cards for friends or doting on her two dogs, four rabbits (and three baby bunnies), three gekkos, a salamander and a hedgehog …

Or in playing bigger than her size like the 5-foot-10 Joe Delaney did.

“She’s tiny but mighty,” Kelly Neath said. “Dynamite comes in small packages.”

A lot of the meaning of this still is taking shape in Delaney, who will be a freshman at De Soto High School.

She knows she feels connected to Joe Delaney and took pride in posing for a picture under his Ring of Honor display at Arrowhead, but she can’t really explain the way it makes her feel.

She knows, though, that 37 will always be her number. And when she had a school assignment to write about the story of her name, well …

“It was really simple for me,” she said, smiling about the 100 grade she got. “... So I was pretty happy with myself.”

Even when it seeps into her more, chances are she won’t name her own daughter “Delaney Jr.,” as her dad playfully suggested.

Still, she already figures she’d be inspired to name her children “after somebody just as selfless.”

Meanwhile, as Mark Neath put it, “She’ll be Delaney for the rest of her life, so it will always be there.”

A name to run alongside her even as she keeps creating an identity all her own — and a name to remind everyone of something that should never be forgotten.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian

Related stories from Kansas City Star