It’s been 32 years now, but the man whose particular burden it was to have found Joe Delaney, to have given him CPR, and to have still been holding Delaney’s wallet and driver’s license as the NFL standout was rushed to the hospital that afternoon always understood why people never seemed to forget Delaney’s story: “There’s been famous people that have died before, OK?” said police diver Marvin Dearman a decade ago. “But how many famous people have given their life trying to save somebody they didn’t even know?”
The pond in which they drowned had no name. But they had names — Lancer Perkins, 11, who wouldn’t be pronounced dead until the morning after, and his cousin, Harry Holland Jr., also 11. Along with Harry’s 10-year-old sibling, LeMarkits Holland, they had waded into the water around 2 p.m. on that hot, humid day: June 29, 1983. When the bottom of the man-made pond dropped off, the water went from shallow to deep in an instant. The boys were helpless. “I wasn’t down there too long,” LeMarkits would say. “But my brother and them, they was down there for a while.”
There at the south end of Chennault Park in Monroe, Louisiana, in the shade of a tree along the bank, sat Joe Delaney, 24-year-old running back for the Kansas City Chiefs, just two days away from moving with his wife and three daughters back up to Missouri for his third NFL season. He heard cries for help and, still wearing his flip-flops, he handed his wallet to the woman next to him, ran into the water … and disappeared. Later, at the scene, Dearman would see those flip-flops, floating on the surface. He would find Joe Delaney’s body in just six feet of water. “You know,” Dearman would say, “we’ve often wondered how he drowned.” One of Joe’s sisters would say back then that an autopsy had shown that Joe had broken his ankle.
Twenty years after the tragedy, following a young adulthood fraught with trouble, LeMarkits Holland could still remember when his mother told him that Harry had died: “I just started crying, because I didn’t want that to happen to my brother. Because he was kind of like the good kid and I was like the bad kid.” LeMarkits, however, had survived: pulled out of the water, he would remember, by someone … someone he thought might have been Joe Delaney. “I was under the water, and I was drowning,” he’d recall. “Whoever saved me, they must have just threw me back on the shallow part, and tried to save somebody else.” That tale would attach itself to the story of Delaney’s heroic act, giving the darkest of days a small shaft of sunlight, becoming a kind of rural legend. But efforts to verify it would fall short.
Delaney would be buried with a football from one of his greatest games; on his tombstone would be engraved that famous verse from the Gospel of John: “Greater love hath no man than to lay down his life for another.” I remember a photograph of him as a Chief taped to the stone — a splash of red in a small graveyard rich with greens and browns.
Two weeks before Joe Delaney’s last run, “we had a conversation,” recalled Joe’s sister Lucille. “He wanted to know how we were and he said ‘Y’all getting old. I’m never getting old. I’m going to stay 24.’ We said, ‘Yeah, right.’ But I guess he stayed 24, you know?” There was a long pause. “I just got so much love for my brother,” she said. “We all do.”