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No Ordinary Joe

Why in creation did Joe Delaney jump into that pit full of water
that day?

Why in the world would the AFC's best young running back try to
save three drowning boys when he himself couldn't swim?

Nobody--not his wife, not his mother--had ever seen him so much
as dog-paddle. A year and a half earlier, when he went to the Pro
Bowl in Hawaii as the AFC's starting halfback and Rookie of the
Year, he never set even a pinkie toe in the ocean or the pool.
"Never had," says his wife, Carolyn, who'd known Joe since they
were both seven. "In all my years, I never had seen him swim."

So why? Why did the 24-year-old Kansas City Chief try to save
three boys he didn't know with a skill he didn't have?

He'd been sitting in the cool shade of a tree on a tar-bubbling
afternoon at Chennault Park, a public recreation area in Monroe,
La., when he heard voices calling, "Help! Help!" He popped up
like a Bobo doll and sprinted toward the pit.

What made Delaney that kind of person? Why did he mow that lonely
woman's lawn when he was back home in Haughton, La., rich as he
was? Why did he check in on that old man every day he was in
town? Why did he show up on the Haughton streets one day with a
bag full of new shoes and clothes for kids whose names he'd never
heard?

Why could he never think of anything that he wanted for himself?
Why didn't he even make a Christmas list? The man never cashed a
paycheck in his life. He would throw his checks on top of the TV
for his wife. "Don't you want nothing for yourself?" Carolyn
would ask Joe.

"Nah," he'd say. "You just take care of you and the girls."

"Nothing?"

"Well, if you could give me a little pocket change for the week,
I'd appreciate it."

Why didn't he ask somebody else to help those three kids that
day? After all, there were hundreds of people at the park, and
not another soul dived into that pit. Nobody but Delaney, one guy
who shouldn't have.

The boys in that pit were struggling to stay afloat. They were
two brothers--Harry and LeMarkits Holland, 11 and 10,
respectively--and a cousin, Lancer Perkins, 11. Of course,
LeMarkits was always with Harry. He idolized his big brother. A
water park adjacent to Chennault was staging a big promotion with
free admission that day, and the boys had wandered over to the
pit and waded into the water. Like Delaney, they couldn't swim.

So much of it doesn't make sense. Why hadn't the pit--a huge
rain-filled hole that was left after the dirt had been dug out
and used to build a water slide--been fenced off from the public?
Who knew that four feet from the edge of the water the hole
dropped off like a cliff to about 20 feet deep?

LeMarkits has said that he remembers the water filling his lungs,
the sensation of being pulled to the cold bottom, when all of a
sudden a huge hand grabbed his shoulder and heaved him out of the
deep water. Delaney dived for the other two boys, sinking below
the surface. Folks along the bank waited for him to come up, but
he never did. Harry and Lancer drowned with him.

As much as you might hope that LeMarkits has done something with
the gift Delaney gave him, so far he hasn't. In an interview with
the Philadelphia Daily News two years ago, LeMarkits said he has
been tortured by the thought that he got to live and Harry
didn't. He said he made his mom sell Harry's bike, bed and toys.
He even burned Harry's clothes, as if fire could burn his brother
from his heart. But it never did. Thirty years old now, LeMarkits
got out of jail in May after serving time for distribution of
cocaine. There's still time for him to do something wonderful
with the life Delaney gave him. After all, Delaney was doing
wonderful things with the one he gave up.

He was buried on the Fourth of July, 20 years ago. A telegram
from President Reagan was read at the memorial service. The
Presidential Citizens Medal was awarded posthumously. Three
thousand people came to his funeral. A park in Haughton was named
after him. No Chiefs player has worn number 37 since. The 37
Forever Foundation, a nonprofit group in Kansas City, honors him
to this day by providing free swimming lessons to inner-city
kids.

"I wish they'd had that for Joe and me when we were kids,"
Carolyn says glumly. She thinks of her Joe every day. She can't
help it. Their three daughters and four grandkids remind her of
him constantly. There is a pause. "I never thought we wouldn't
grow old together."

She's only been on two dates since Joe died. Twenty years, two
dates. "Why should I?" she says. "I just keep comparing them to
Joe, and they can't stand up. Nobody in the world is like my Joe."

Anyway, the point is, next time you're reading the sports section
and you're about half-sick of DUIs and beaten wives, put it down
for a second and remember Joe Delaney, who, in that splinter of a
moment, when a hero was needed, didn't stop to ask why.

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, sent it to
reilly@siletters.com

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