Joe Delaney only wore number 37 for two seasons, but nobody else has worn it for the Kansas City Chiefs since he died attempting to rescue two children from drowning in a Louisiana pond. Now, 37 years later, a police diver who responded to the heartrending scene at a city park has ensured that a permanent memorial to the star running back is in place there.
For that diver, Marvin Dearman, an idea to honor Delaney in Monroe, Louisiana, gained momentum when the Chiefs won Super Bowl LIV in February – fewer than five months before the 37th anniversary of when Delaney drowned trying to save two male cousins, who also died. As Dearman describes it, knowing Delaney’s jersey number, “I said, ‘That’s an omen.’”
Dearman, who embarked on the project with the blessing of Delaney’s family, was in a unique position to facilitate a proper memorial: He now manages two cemeteries for a funeral home. While Delaney left behind a wife and three girls, his death and the date – June 29, 1983 – also has remained foremost in Dearman’s thoughts.
“It’s never left my mind,” said Dearman, who retired from the Monroe Police Department in 2002. “Basically, he died
in my arms, and it’s something I’ve never
Delaney was only 24 when he ran into a manmade pond at Chennault Park to help two cousins who were struggling to swim in about 6 feet of water about 50 feet from the nearest bank. He was a poor swimmer, but that didn’t stop the 6-foot-tall football player, who weighed 185 pounds, from swimming toward the two boys, who were 11 and 10; another boy had returned safely to the bank. Ultimately, divers recovered Delaney and the 11-year-old, who died at the scene, while the 10-year-old boy died the following day.
A park already had been named for Delaney in his hometown of Haughton, Louisiana, about 85 miles away, but there was nothing marking his heroism at Chennault Park. After Dearman lobbied Monroe City Council to accept a donated memorial, he struck up a conversation with a reporter for The Kansas City Star. That generated a campaign in which donors pledged $37 apiece toward the purchase of a memorial stone.
Soon, those donations – totaling about $8,000 – were no longer needed for the project. The CEO of a Kansas City company donated a monument and a Monroe contractor then set the memorial’s foundation for free, with concrete donated by another business.
“Personally, it means a lot to me,” Dearman said of the memorial, which formally was dedicated in late June. “It’s something that needed to be done and should have been done a long time ago.”
Because of the donated labor and materials, Dearman directed the entire $8,000 in contributions to the family’s Delaney 37 Foundation, which arranges youth swimming lessons and distributes backpacks and school supplies.
“We are so appreciative and excited about the number of children we’ll be able to send out (to swim),” said Delaney’s youngest daughter, Joanna Delaney Noel.
For Delaney’s widow, Carolyn, it’s “overwhelming” that so many people continue to remember and honor him nearly 40 years later. Every year, around the time of the anniversary, her family organizes a “Joe Delaney Fun Day” at Joe Delaney Memorial Park in Haughton. She anticipates they will coordinate occasional events at Chennault Park, too.
“I think it’s somewhere we’ll be going every chance we can get.”
For more information about the Delaney 37 Foundation, visit delaney37foundation.org.
—Chris Foreman, case investigator