They grew up blocks away from each other, and then a friendship morphed into a romance. Joe Delaney seemed to always be running laps around her block and Carolyn Dudley just as coincidentally would be sitting on her porch just about every time he passed.
Next thing you know, they date a couple years and get married in secret on Dec. 30, 1978 … only to be outed a few weeks later.
Her ring was modest but precious, because Joe came from such poverty — one of eight children, sharing clothes, rarely able to eat much but beans and rice — but worked so hard hauling hay and doing any number of other jobs to pay for it.
“The smaller things and the hard thing that you worked for, that’s the best thing in the world, you understand?” Carolyn Delaney said Friday as she stood in the 100-degree heat in Joe Delaney Memorial Park.
As their fifth anniversary neared and they planned to finally have the big wedding they deserved, Carolyn rejected Joe’s inclination to buy her a gaudy, expensive new ring to mark the occasion — something he could afford after he’d had a stellar start to his NFL career by rushing for 1,121 yards as rookie with the Chiefs in 1981.
Instead, she asked just that he have more stones put in the original.
To remind himself to do it, he kept the ring on a gold chain he wore around his neck.
When she got the call that her husband had been in an accident and arrived distraught at the hospital 35 years ago Friday, a police officer held up that chain and ring and asked her if it belonged to her husband.
Moments later, she was told he had drowned. The man who could barely swim had died trying to save children.
In shock and despair, she collapsed and awoke in a hospital bed. She was on such a heavy dose of sedatives the next few weeks that she remembers little of the funeral and the later memorial service, where U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush presented her and Joe’s mother with the Presidential Citizens Medal and a letter from President Ronald Reagan.
“He was a true hero and has surely earned a place in heaven for having sacrificed his life for those three boys,” the letter read in part.
He’s also earned a place in the hearts of anyone who’s ever heard the story, at once shattering and stirring and forever to be honored.
Which is different than living with it — and the repercussions for three young girls.
Carolyn, as she put it, “couldn’t deal with it.”
What happened next is a story she rarely tells, perhaps never before publicly. Because she knows people will scoff and say “she’s just pretending” and “there’s no such things as ghosts coming up to see you.”
But it changed everything.
And it speaks to how a lot of us cope with loss and grief by channeling memories and connections to our loved ones and learning how to feel them inside us going forward.
Having twice been to the emergency room and otherwise in a daze most of three weeks or so, at about 5 o’clock one morning Carolyn was sitting on the porch in this “big, pretty rocker” Joe bought her to lull 4-month-old Joanna.
Out of nowhere, Joe materialized, walked up and sat right at the bottom of the step.
Not a vision of Joe. Joe himself, she swears.
“ ‘You’re not going to see me, but I’m always going to be there for you and the girls no matter what, whether you see me or not,’ ” he said. “ ‘But I want you to be able to take care of them. I don’t want you taking pills and stuff and having to have someone else seeing after the kids.’ ”
In an instant, he was gone. Or at least out of sight.
She got up out of the chair and went and found the sedatives. She dumped them in the toilet and flushed it and started to regain her sense of purpose.
A few hours later, she remembers getting back to just doing and family members marveling, “You’re the old Carolyn now.”
A lot of nights when she went to bed, she’d hold her right hand up behind her head like she usually did and felt Joe holding it the way he always had in their sleep.
Something about that felt uncomfortable, though. So did waking up in the night and feeling like things had been moved around or that she’d hear him come and kiss the kids, enough stuff like that she wondered if she actually was going crazy.
She came to feel she had to move to another house, figuring it was Joe’s way of saying she needed to look more forward than back — something he lived on the field, where he was always determined to get right back up when he was hit hard so no one could see his pain.
So she found her way, with some help from family raising girls who would all go to college on money provided by the NFL — “we didn’t pay a penny,” she said — and gravitated to the medical field.
Tamika, the eldest, is a dialysis technician. Crystal, who walks and talks like Joe, is a registered nurse and lab technician. JoAnna works in health and information at a medical center.
“They’re like their dad,” she said. “They like to care for people.”
There are six grandchildren now, one of whom, Jayce, is apt to run all over Joe Delaney Memorial Park and tell other kids things like, “This is my PawPaw’s water slide.”
Nine years after Joe died, Carolyn, now 60, actually went on a date. But she laughs as she remembers probably running the guy off by directly comparing him to Joe.
She has a gentleman companion now, a fine man the girls like, who keeps her company.
But she’ll never marry again, and the reasons why are evident in virtually everything she says about Joe.
She smiles as she talks about how he lived as he died — always giving.
Maybe it would be by buying uniforms and weights for the kids at Haughton High. Or paying electric bills for people who had limited means. Or, even after making it in the NFL, coming home to Haughton and mowing lawns for elderly people or getting them groceries or taking kids in the neighborhood out for haircuts.
She laughs as she thinks about how he never cashed a check in his life, always turning money right over to her.
“Now I would never, ever find another man like that, long as I live, now would I?” she said.
Not that she doesn’t feel pangs or pain. Sometimes, she said, “It just kind of gets to me.”
She’s cried at family graduations and weddings wishing he was sitting next to her, and she dearly wishes there were a happier story to be told about LeMarkits Holland, the then-10-year-old who was saved that day as his brother, Harry, and cousin Lancer Perkins died along with Delaney.
Alas, Holland has been in and out of jail, something Carolyn speculates stems from survivor’s guilt that her husband died trying to save him and that “he could never get over the fact that he was there with his brother and couldn’t help him get out.”
She believes people in the past misused funds intended for the park that finally opened in 2016 after years of fits and starts, and she knows of people trying to use Joe’s name in vain, and without her permission, for their own purposes.
Most recently, she was astonished to learn that an event dubbed the Joe Delaney Friends and Family Day was to take place where he drowned — at Chennault Park in Monroe.
She wonders what life with Joe would be like now and likes the image that they’d have a ranch with a lot of horses and cows, one of Joe’s dreams as the son of a cattleman.
Most of the time, though, she basks in what her life is — a life made with Joe.
Mostly, she appreciates things.
Like the police diver who tried to save him, Marvin Dearman, who she considers part of the family for doing all he could — a sentiment that makes Dearman choke up.
Like the NFL, which supports her financially enough that she no longer has to work, as she did to make ends meet before the girls were of age.
Like knowing the park finally has been built, with more phases to come, and that it would be packed Saturday for “Joe Delaney Fun Day.”
Like knowing the reverence that the mere mention of Joe’s name still inspires in so many — including the grandchildren who try to emulate his running style, and the many who take heart in knowing the truth in the Biblical passage on his tombstone in Hawkins Memorial Cemetery:
“Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another."
She thinks about how full her life is because of the marriage they initially tried to keep secret, in part because her father was skeptical of Joe because he came from so little that he couldn’t possibly take care of her.
“My daddy apologized many days for thinking that way,” she said.
He didn’t apologize just because Joe made money none of them ever dreamed of when he broke through with the Chiefs — a career even Carolyn had doubted he could achieve — and his best years seemed ahead of him.
It was because of the heart of gold that came to define Joe — and that made it so he could look after Carolyn all of her life even after his death.
“I love y’all” were the last words she heard him say that day 35 years ago, leaving only after he’d repeatedly come back into the house to kiss the girls goodbye.
She still feels that loving presence in so many ways that he’s not really gone, either — whether she sees him or not, whether in symbols like the modest ring she keeps on the gold chain in her jewelry box, or the living legacy of their children and grandchildren, and knowing that he was a hero we all need.