At 7:17 p.m. Tuesday, the lights dimmed at Magale Recital Hall on the Northwestern State campus, beginning a roller-coaster ride of emotions.
Although the ESPN 30 for 30 short film “Delaney” – which was shown in an advanced screening – lasted approximately 20 minutes, it segued into what seemed like a lifetime of emotions from a panel of Delaney’s Northwestern State contemporaries.
“When the film first started and I heard Joe Delaney talk, there were tears in my eyes,” said Mark Duper, who was a teammate of Delaney’s on the gridiron and on the 1981 NCAA champion 4×100-meter relay team.
“My wife said, ‘Do you want me to get you a tissue?’ I said, ‘No, I’m going to be OK. Just to hear his voice, it felt like he was still here.”
Echoing the 30 for 30 series’ tagline of “What if I told you …,” Northwestern State director of marketing Josh McDaniel posted a teaser for the event with the caption: “What if I told you that one man’s death was a perfect reflection of his life?”
In the 32 years since Delaney drowned trying to save three children in a pond near Monroe’s Chennault Park, his story has been told and retold. In those three decades, three words have come to embody Delaney’s story.
“Love, sacrifice and heroism,” said Northwestern State President Dr. Jim Henderson. “That’s Joe Delaney.”
Delaney was universally loved throughout his NSU career and his all-too-brief two-year stint with the Kansas City Chiefs.
That love was evident Tuesday night, as a crowd of approximately 350 that ranged from elementary school-age children to octogenarians celebrated director Grant Curtis’ entry into the 30 for 30 series of documentaries.
Curtis was on hand to introduce the film and its genesis. As an 11-year-old Chiefs fan in Warrensburg, Mo., Curtis said he was one of the children who would pester players like Art Still for a wristband during training camp.
Watching Delaney play gave Curtis one of his first tastes of a sporting hero. Making the movie gave him a glimpse into the man who was feted during a bittersweet evening.
“This movie doesn’t exist without a great man who many of you in the audience were able to meet that I never did,” Curtis said. “I’m not able to tell this story without the selfless sacrifice he made. When I made this story, what I really tried to do was to get out of the way of Joe’s story and let Joe tell it himself through the eyes of the people who loved him, knew him and played with him and against him.”
The film, which premieres on Grantland.com and ESPN.com at 11 a.m. on Aug. 19, is split nearly evenly between Delaney’s days in Haughton and at Northwestern State and the events of June 29, 1983, when Delaney — who could not swim — raced into a man-made pond to try to rescue three children.
Thirty-two years after that day, Delaney’s act resonates just as much with his former teammates as with anyone.
“One thing I want to say to everyone here, ‘How many of us would have taken off running, knowing you can’t swim, and go and try to save three kids?” said Delaney’s lead blocker, Brett Knecht. “Think about that when you leave tonight.”
The expected emotions that came with the film’s climax were palpable. As the lights rose, there were audible sniffles from the audience.
The night, however, was equal parts bitter and sweet – bitter for a life that ended heroically but before its time and sweet for what Delaney brought to the world in his 24 years and the legacy that he left behind.
Part of that legacy, his son Carlos, was in attendance Tuesday night, dressed in a red Chiefs jersey that carried his father’s No. 37 and name in white block letters across the back shoulders.
Another part – a little further removed – sat in the chairback seats and watched as a piece of his hometown’s history was brought to light.
“I was actually up at (Haughton High School) the other day with my mom,” said NSU sophomore quarterback J.D. Almond, like Delaney a Haughton Buccaneer. “I just stopped and there was a little shrine (to Delaney) with his picture and his awards and achievements.
“I stopped and I looked. I knew the premiere was coming out. That’s awesome. I’ve been through Haughton. My dad went to Haughton. I know Mr. (David) Causey (a Delaney teammate at Haughton and NSU). Just thinking of his achievements, he came to Northwestern when he had all those big offers. Getting to watch and listen and learn a lot more about his character, I thought, ‘I’m in a spot where that hard work can help me out.’ I learned a lot from him and about him. It was a neat experience.”
Causey was one of the panelists, joined by Duper, Knecht, Van Kyzar, David Wright, Petey Perot and Sonny Louis. Another former Delaney teammate, Jack Brittain, served as moderator and panelist.
Causey and Louis were teammates with Delaney at Haughton, and Causey recalled a pact the three made to attend the same college – if possible. Once Delaney became a household name among major college football programs, it seemed the trio would become a duo at the next level.
However, much to A.L. Williams’ delight, Delaney chose to attend Northwestern State alongside Causey and Louis.
“Someone looking out for his teammates and friends like that instead of going to a bigger school, you don’t see that very often,” Brittain said.
Upon taking the stage to close out the night’s festivities, Williams told the story of recruiting Delaney, which included signing him during a break from gym class at Haughton.
Later that night, Williams returned to the Delaney home to meet Joe’s mother and to make sure she was satisfied with what Northwestern State had to offer.
“I pull up and there’s this brand-new Mark IV, red and white,” Williams said. “I thought I had lost him. I came in and the coach, who I knew, just said, ‘You’ve got yourself a really good one.’ I said, ‘You don’t even know.’”
In its 20-minute duration, Curtis’ film ran the emotional gamut from one-liners from Delaney’s widow, Carolyn, and former Chiefs teammate Deron Cherry to the audible sadness in clips of Dan Rather reporting on Delaney’s death on the CBS Evening News.
It brought back to life an athlete who many in the audience – which included the current NSU football team and coaching staff – had only heard or read about. It also transported back in time 15-20 of Delaney’s teammates from his college days.
“To see all the stuff on the film, it takes you back to your childhood memories,” Causey said. “That was one of Joe’s dreams, to be able to play professionally. For every coach he had, that was one of the big questions – ‘Coach, do you think I’m good enough?’
“That was always the thing. We all knew Joe was good enough. It was just a matter of him believing in himself.”
Though careers and life separated Delaney’s teammates after their time in Natchitoches, Tuesday’s screening helped them to reconnect with their friend.
“Just watching the movie and seeing him on the sideline with the Kansas City Chiefs and guys getting around him, it looked like O-linemen and, maybe a tight end, that one part brought back to me Joe Delaney,” said Petey Perot, an NSU offensive linemen who, like Delaney, was a second-round draft pick. “Just the way he was, you wanted him to be on your team. If he was on your team, he made you as a person better.”
In the reaction to hearing about Delaney’s death, his Kansas City teammate, Ken Kremer, said Delaney was “Kansas City’s Joe.”
There are at least three cities or towns that can make that argument – Haughton, Natchitoches and Kansas City.
And after the road to Tuesday night’s screening, there may be another person that can make that claim as well.
“You see it in these guys when they talk about Joe just how much reverence they have for him,” Curtis said. “He’s Haughton’s Joe. He’s Louisiana’s Joe. He’s Natchitoches’ Joe.
“I was interviewing Ken in the Chiefs locker room. He was giving me that sound bite, and I literally started holding my breath because it was such a perfect sound bite that embodied Joe, his teammates, his family. Now, I think he’s my Joe as well, as weird as that sounds. I was 11 when it happened, and I feel like, by making this movie, I got to know a guy I never met. I was humbled and honored to be able to do so.”