Emotional ESPN film profiles heroic death, legacy of NFL great Joe Delaney

This month, the heroic story of NFL legend Joe Delaney will be shared with millions of people around the world in ESPN’s latest ’30 For 30′ film. Wednesday night, I got the chance to attend an advance screening of ‘Delaney,’ the short film profiling the life and legacy of the Kansas City Chiefs running back who died in 1983 while trying to rescue three children from drowning in a pond.

The 20-minute documentary, screened at the Robinson Film Center in Shreveport, Louisiana, beautifully captures an emotional account of Delaney’s tragically short 24-year life and legacy.

The running back from Haughton had an extraordinary collegiate career in both football and track at Northwestern State University. Chosen by the Kansas City Chiefs in the second round of the 1981 NFL draft, Delaney exploded on the field and was selected AFC Rookie of the Year in 1981 and played in the Pro Bowl.

Just days before suiting up for his third season in the pros, on June 29, 1983 Delaney died trying to save three children from drowning near an amusement park in Monroe. He and two of the boys never made it out of that pond. Delaney left behind a wife and their three young daughters, who are also featured in the film.

Producer and director Grant Curtis introduces ‘Delaney’ in a private advance screening of the ’30 For 30′ film in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Since his death, no player at NSU has worn his No. 44 Demon football jersey, nor has a Kansas City player has worn No. 37.

Delaney is immortalized in several ways at Northwestern, including plaques at Turpin Stadium and the Ledet Complex, and with the permanent football team captains receiving Joe Delaney Memorial Leadership Awards annually, according to an NSU news release. The Demons’ spring football game is known as the Delaney Bowl and an award in his name goes each year to an outstanding supporter of NSU Athletics.

Weeks after his passing, Delaney was awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal by President Ronald Reagan. He has since been enshrined in both the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame, as well as the Chiefs Ring of Honor at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium.

The film also profiles the accounts of former teammates, coaches, and sports journalists, painting a picture of the player’s infectious personality and humility. Many of them were on hand for a private Q&A reception prior to the screening.

Curtis and his production team answer questions about the making of ‘Delaney.’

Former NSU football teammate Jack “Britt” Brittain said Delaney’s success never changed him, recalling a Chiefs player’s memory of Joe’s time in Kansas City. “Everybody came driving in their brand new cars, their Mercedes and Porches. Joe came in his (Mercury) Cougar — a second round draft choice. At that moment, they had the respect of a man who didn’t need, necessarily, certain things to feel good,” he said. “Joe was more concerned about that money going to his family than he was about whether he was driving a nice car. I think if that tells the story of what kind of person he is, then just look at what he did when he lost his life. That tells it more.”

Those at the reception also got an inside look at the making of the documentary. Grant Curtis directed and produced the feature, having most recently served as executive producer on other projects like “Ninja Turtles 2” and “Oz the Great and Powerful.” He previously worked as a producer on  the “Spiderman” movies and “The Gift.”

A lifelong Chiefs fan, Grant said he was honored by the opportunity to work with dozens of people who knew and loved Joe. “The movie is made by the crew, but it’s made by the hearts and minds of the people who were bold enough to open up that chapter of their own personal lives one more time.”

Spent some time chatting with the production team behind ‘Delaney.’ I first learned of the Joe Delaney story during my time as a student at Northwestern State.

Curtis also gave thanks to Joe Delaney for living the life that he sacrificed so selflessly. “I’m humbled and honored that I was able to shine a little bit of a light on it and hopefully introduce Joe’s story to a new generation, to a new football fan, to a new fan of the human race,” he said. “I think if Joe was here, I think that he would tell you what he did on the football field is not that big of a deal. What he did as a person, and his family and his kids — that’s his legacy.”

The town of Haughton is also working on a permanent way to memorialize their hometown hero with plans for a park named in Delaney’s honor. The park will be a shared green space for community gatherings. As local radio host Tim Fletcher described the effort, he choked up as he mentioned that Delaney’s widow Carolyn had mentioned her only wish was for the park to have a bench, one where she could sit and watch children play and laugh.

‘Delaney’ will make its debut August 19 on ESPN.com and Grantland.com. The short is viewable here: http://grantland.com/features/30-for-30-shorts-delaney/

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect the views of KLTV/KTRE-TV or Raycom Media.  They are solely the opinion of the author. All content © Copyright 2015 Lane Luckie

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