Vahe Gregorian

‘Joe The Great’: Family finds inspiration living as late Chiefs great Joe Delaney died

Joanna Delaney was 3 months old that horrific day when her father, Joe, a man who could barely swim, reflexively darted into a pond for the sake of saving drowning children and died trying.

Because of her age at the time of his death in 1983, the youngest of his three girls, the one the family calls “JoJo,” has no specific memory of him. But the late, great Chief whose name resonates between mystical and mythical is alive within her.

“Well, my father, he’s my hero,” she said last month after lunch with sister Crystal and mother Carolyn — who served as the drum honoree before the Chiefs played the 49ers in a preseason game Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium.

Most of all, she is proud to hear the stories of his generous soul and proud to be his daughter and proud to think of him as having “died the way he lived his life.”

So proud that, along with her mother and sisters Tamika and Crystal, she is intent on forever honoring his legacy and very name.

That helps explain why she has written two children’s books about “Joe The Great,” a caped crusader who along with his dog, King, saves the day and “in a non-violent way” protects children from bullies. The books, which she hopes to have illustrated and published, are inspired by the spirit of her father … with some help from his faithful childhood dog, King.

(At Haughton High School, Carolyn Delaney said, the big white dog with enough black sports to resemble a Dalmation often ran alongside Joe as he broke away down the sideline for touchdowns. Then the public-address announcer would say, “ ‘Joe Delaney and his dog, King, just scored a touchdown,’ ” she said, beaming. “That’s a true story.”)

That’s why they’ve trademarked his name itself, in part to fend off others appropriating it for their own purposes and pockets — including a group that initially applied it last year to an unauthorized “Joe Delaney Friends and Family Day” at the park where he drowned in Monroe, Louisiana.

It’s why they’ve appreciated the Town of Haughton’s ongoing efforts to build and enhance Joe Delaney Memorial Park, with splash pads, playgrounds and restrooms in place, pavilions being built and a walking trail soon to follow, according to town clerk Heather Feeback. But the family remains concerned about such questions as why the $100 personalized bricks offered as a fundraiser three years ago have yet to appear at the park; Feeback says the timeline is unsure.

And it’s why they started the Delaney 37 Foundation, now in its early stages as they cautiously set about getting everything in order. The mission ahead will include promoting water safety (which has already begun with some free swimming lessons), mentorship, leadership development and financial literacy. In time, Joanna said, she’d like to add a specific focus on girls who have lost their fathers.

So it seems no coincidence that all three of Delaney’s daughters are in the medical field: Tamika, the eldest, is a dialysis technician; Crystal, who is said to walk and talk like Joe, is a registered nurse and lab technician; Joanna is a medical coder.

Because they’re “all about helping others … and coming to the rescue, just as he did,” Joanna said. “We saw he had a genuine heart and a heart that cared for people, so we all kind of have his heart.”

That heart doubtless was part of the pulse on Saturday night at Arrowhead Stadium, where 13 members of the Delaney family arrived in a rented minivan to attend its first game since the patriarch was inducted in the Chiefs’ Ring of Honor in 2004.

“I’ll get out there, and I’ll beat the drums to get the crowd going,” Carolyn Delaney said, laughing, as she anticipated the moment a few weeks ago.

All this time later, you still can’t bang the drum enough about Joe Delaney, who was named UPI’s AFC rookie of the year when he rushed for 1,121 yards in 1981 and was 24 when he died after his second season.

While his No. 37 jersey hasn’t been retired, 37 years after he played his last game it never has been worn by another Chief. His example is so essential, his aura enduring in so many poignant ways.

The last time the Delaneys were here, for instance, Crystal and Joanna fondly remembered passing Mark and Kelly Neath on their way into Arrowhead.

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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 jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

The Delaney girls looked at the sign they were carrying, one bearing an image of Joe and the infant daughter the Neaths had named after him and the words “Gone but not forgotten … Our tribute to the legend …Delaney Nicole.” They were moved by Mark Neath’s tears upon hugging them. And they were truck anew after reading of Delaney Neath wearing No. 37 in sports to honor her namesake and in her expressed interest in becoming a veterinarian (She plans to study zoology).

On Saturday, they enjoyed another touching connection when the Neaths met up with the Delaney family at their hotel and introduced their daughter to them.

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Mark (left) and Kelly Neath named their daughter after Joe Delaney, a running back for the Chiefs who drowned trying to save three children in Louisiana in 1983. Delaney, now 15, in their Shawnee home with her dad and mom, wears Mark’s No. 37 Chiefs jersey. Jill Toyoshiba jtoyoshiba@kcstar.com

And on surges the impact of his life:

Years after he helped found the “37 Forever Foundation” that before dissolving worked to provide swimming lessons for inner-city children in Kansas City, thoughts of Joe’s selfless sacrifice still make Phil Kloster emotional.

At least in part as a way to honor “MY hero,” Mary Jo Klier, who founded the KC Swim Academy in 1984, is granting free swim lessons to children who wouldn’t otherwise have access and is contact with the Delaneys to further the cause.

“I think that would be a real good thing,” Carolyn Delaney said.

While Klier works with swimmers from 6 months to 3 years old, the club’s swim team also teaches young swimmers. She also has spoken with other local organizations interested in doing the same and has a goal to get in with the Kansas City Public Schools.

“All in memory of Joe,” Klier said in an email. “I try to save lives (through) education. It is important to have role models like Joe.”

Quincy Gardner, president of the Bossier City Optimist Club, is in regular contact with the Delaneys seeking to find the right ways to contribute to the foundation.

“Those things that Joe Delaney stands for are also in our (Optimist Club) creed,” he said.

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Harry Studna looked at Joe Delaney as his best friend in the early 1980s. Photo courtesy of Harry Studna

Delaney echoes in the life of Harry Studna, formerly a neighbor in apartments across the street from the Truman Sports Complex. Then a late teen, Studna considered Delaney a role model and best friend. He still cherishes playing DJ for Delaney and friends one New Year’s Eve … and that he was entrusted on game days with Delaney’s beloved Mercury Cougar.

Speaking of Delaney and cars, in 1985 Kevin Peterson of Blue Springs bought a 1981 Mazda RX7. A year or so later, he pulled out an item from the pocket in the driver’s visor. A note landed on his lap. He unfolded it to find Joe Delaney’s name and telephone number on it.

“It was an eerie feeling, knowing what had happened to Joe, and realizing that my vehicle must have been owned by someone that knew him during his short time in Kansas City,” he wrote. “Any time I see Joe Delaney’s name in print, I think back to that time and how selfless Joe was in trying to save those boys knowing he lacked the ability to swim.”

Delaney’s story, of course, is as at least piercing as it is stirring.

Outside the family, few know that better than Marvin Dearman, the police diver who tried to save Delaney. Even as the Delaneys embrace him and Carolyn considers him part of the family for what he tried to do, this kind man I’ve come to consider a friend over the last few years reiterated last month that he remains haunted by Delaney.

Then there’s the complicated matter of LeMarkits Holland, who was 10 when he was saved even as Joe and his brother and cousin drowned. Holland told The Star in 2008 that guilt about what happened had made him self-destructive. He spent time in prison but at least had straightened out his life the last Carolyn heard about him some years ago.

This much is sure, though: In the tragedy, the family found a calling.

To spread the gospel of Joe The Great, you might say.

The man whose tombstone says “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another,” the man who returned to Haughton in his NFL offseason and paid electric bills for people with limited means and mowed lawns and bought groceries for the elderly and took neighborhood kids out for haircuts.

The legacy now also is six grandchildren and a great grandchild, including Joanna’s 12-year-old son, Jayden. His first word was “ball,” and he watches all the video of his grandfather he can find on YouTube.

“He stands just like my father,” Joanna said, noting his hands on his hips.

He also has a certain penchant for breaking outside on the field, a trait that sometimes brings tears to her eyes as she remembers Joe hugging that sideline … with King streaking alongside.

Joe The Great, indeed.

“He lived up to what I heard, giving his life for others,” Joanna said. “And I want others to know, to be an example to others to help others. If you see your neighbor in need, help your neighbor.”

As Joanna knows too well, you didn’t have to remember him then to know that. Just remember him now.



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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.
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