Joe Delaney’s heroic rescue attempt in 1983 helped save a child’s life, but resulted in the tragic loss of the Kansas City Chiefs’ Pro Bowl running back.
Thursday, his alma mater took a particularly poignant step further in commemorating Delaney’s life and ultimate sacrifice, unveiling a portrait of the two-sport Northwestern State All-American that will go on display in the Friedman Student Union on campus.
NSU’s Student Government Association commissioned the Delaney artwork and portraits of two other iconic figures, longtime state legislator and education advocate Jimmy Long and revered librarian Scharlie Russell, in a ceremony at the Steve and Lori Stroud Room in the NSU Athletic Fieldhouse.
The 4-foot by 6-foot Delaney portrait was done by former Demons pitcher (1997-98) Chris Brown, a Northwestern State graduate who teaches art at a Fort Worth high school. He has been the official artist for the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame for the last 11 years.
“Being a former Northwestern athlete myself, we always knew who Joe was. When you came on campus, that was something you learned right away,” said Brown, who later pitched in the Chicago Cubs minor league system. “After all these years, to be able to do a painting of Joe, for me was special, because I know his story and the kind of person he was. It had a lot of meaning right away.”
The opportunity to do the Delaney artwork brought Brown full circle from his time as a student-athlete.
“In those days, I was struggling to find my identity as an artist. Through the years, with the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame and on other projects, I’ve found my identity,” he said. “For one of my pieces to be on campus permanently, I have a lot of pride in that, being chosen to do this at my university.”
The mission of the portraits unveiled Thursday, along with those already on display and more to be created soon, is valuable, said Brown.
“Joe’s story needs to be told for generations to come,” he said. “These days, everybody is so visually oriented. For students and visitors to walk into our student union and right away see Joe, that will keep his story going. They may not know before, but they’ll find out.”
Delaney was at a Monroe water park on June 29, 1983, when he heard screams coming from a nearby pond. Three boys had gotten into the water trying to cool off, but couldn’t get out. Delaney, part of the Demons’ NCAA champion 4×100 meter relay team in 1981, raced to the scene and dove in.
That was heroic enough. But as his NSU football teammate Jack “Britt” Brittain Jr. explained to the audience, it was just half the story.
“He jumped in that pond trying to save those three kids, knowing he couldn’t swim. How many of us would do that?
“Joe never hesitated to help anybody, or to do his job. He didn’t think about what was good for Joe. He thought about what he needed to do to make things happen, as an athlete, and as a man. In his defining moment, he made the ultimate sacrifice and showed us what courage and unselfishness truly is.”
Delaney’s No. 44 Demon football jersey was retired that fall, after President Ronald Reagan sent Vice President George H.W. Bush to the funeral in Delaney’s hometown of Haughton to present his widow, Carolyn, the Presidential Citizen’s Medal.
Northwestern unveiled a shrine to Delaney underneath the west side of Turpin Stadium in 1983, and put his name on its permanent team captains awards for football: The Joe Delaney Memorial Leadership Awards. In 1989, NSU renamed its annual spring football game The Joe Delaney Bowl.
“We can never do enough to celebrate Joe’s life and his legacy,” said Brittain, “and this is a beautiful gesture by our student body.
“Recognizing Joe, along with these other prestigious people, makes us feel good that we had a chance to have him in our lives and set an example for us to follow.”
Delaney’s final act mirrored a decision he made to help the NSU football team midway through his freshman season, recalled Brittain.
“We needed help at our tailback position. Joe was a five-star high school recruit as a receiver because of his skills and speed. But he went to Coach (A.L.) Williams and volunteered to move to tailback. He said he hadn’t played there much, but he was willing to try. Not many players would do that.
“His effort was relentless and he was blessed with incredible speed and talent,” said Brittain. “He became an All-American and set national records, and became a high NFL Draft pick and a star as a pro. But that day in 1983, none of that mattered. He was trying to help save those kids.”
Former Northwestern State football player and Joe Delaney teammate Jack Brittain Jr. (left) and artist Chris Brown (right), a former Demon baseball pitcher, flank Brown’s portrait of Delaney that will hang in the university’s Student Union. (photo by Chris Reich/Northwestern State)