Remembering A Football Hero Joe Delaney At the International Swimming Hall of Fame

Joe Delaney

Just a few miles east of Hard Rock Stadium, where the 54th Super Bowl will be played, is the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF). Among the world’s greatest collection of artifacts and memorabilia covering 20,000 years of swimming history – from Egypt’s Cave of the Swimmers to the modern Olympic games  hangs a framed Kansas City Chiefs’ football jersey that seems oddly out of place. But it is not. It is the number 37 jersey worn by the NFL’s 1981 Rookie of the Year, Joe Delaney – who will forever be remembered in the International Swimming Hall of Fame as a hero – and a reminder of the importance of every child learning how to swim.

The incident for which Joe Delaney is most remembered, took place June 29, 1983, at a Public Park now named after him in Monroe, Louisiana. On that beautiful summer day, Joe happened to be among hundreds of people attracted by a free admission promotion for the opening of a new water-slide attraction. He was with some friends when he noticed three young boys wading into a pond that was not open for swimming and warned them to be careful and not to wade too far. A short time later, he heard one of the boys screaming frantically for help – his friends were drowning. Without hesitation, Joe ran to the pond, fully clothed, like he was galloping for the goal-line and plunged in. He had had swimming lessons as a child and could swim, so the idea that he might drown probably never entered his mind. He was simply trying to help and it cost him his life. Joe and the two boys drowned as onlookers watched in horror.

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Shortly thereafter, a foundation was established in Kansas City, the “37ForeverFoundation.” Its purpose was to provide swimming lessons for “disadvantaged youths.” But didn’t last “forever.” In 2003, an attempt was made to revive it Monroe, Lousiana, but it breathed it’s last breath in 2006. Four years after that, in 2010 came the Red River Tragedy, an incident that took place 100 miles distant from the pond where Joe Delaney drowned. It’s where six teenagers lost their lives attempting to rescue a friend and then each other, as their parents stood by watching helplessly because none of them knew how to swim. Those who drowned trying to save their friends deserve to be remembered like Joe Delaney because they too risked their lives to save others. They were: Takeitha Warner, 13; and her brothers, JaMarcus, 14 and JaTavious, 17; and three brothers from the Stewart family: Litrelle, 18; LaDarius, 17; and Latevin, 15.

The Red River tragedy brought awareness to the fact that at least seventy percent of African American’s have very poor swimming skills or none at all. It brought to light the terrible history of racial segregation. But it also, brought to light the African swimming tradition and the fact that for most of human history – until the mid 1800’s – Africans excelled all other races, in the arts of swimming and diving.

Quite possibly, some of the boys who drowned in the Red River played football and had some swimming lessons like Joe Delaney. But having a few lessons and actually learning how to swim – to be able to move in deep water as comfortably and as easily on land – are two different things. Joe Delaney had swimming lessons as a child, but it wasn’t enough to same the children or himself.

Since 2010, organizations like USA Swimming, the Red Cross, YMCA and Boys and Girls Clubs have increased their efforts to educate minority communities about the importance of learning to swim – not as a sport – but as an essential lifeskill on a planet covered mostly with water, and make learning to swim attractive to minority youth. But the one organization that could make the greatest influence is the National Football League.

On the eve of the Super Bowl, I call on Roger Goodell and the owners of the teams that constitute the NFL to implement and incentivize a program for youth and Pee Wee football coaches to have their teams learn to swim. The ideal ages for beginning such a program would be for ages between 6 to 10, when children are most easily taught. I’m certain that the organizations I’ve mentioned above, including the International Swimming Hall of Fame, would jump at the opportunity to assist you. Again, this program would not emphasize learning to swim as a sport, but as an essential lifeskill that also provides a lifetime of benefits to health, for delightful recreation and occupational opportunities.

If the names of Joe Delaney, Takeitha Warner, JaMarcus Warner, JaTavious Warner, Litrelle Stewart, LaDarius Stewart, Latvian Stewart are not enough to memorialize with a Learn to swim program, here are a dozen more football players who drowned in 2019, after a not very exhaustive google search of the words “football and drown”. over the past year. (I might add that that there have been as many if not more of football players drowning for many years).


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Brandon Archer, 21, a former Middle Tennessee State University football player drowned in the Buffalo River, in Lobelville, Tennessee over the labor Day Weekend. He was on a canoe trip with friends when they stopped to swim.

Tyshon Dye, 25, a former running back for the Clemson football team, drowned Friday during a picnic with his family at a state park in Georgia. He went swimming at Richard B. Russell State Park with his two brothers when he started to tire in the water and couldn’t make it back to shore.  His two brothers saw him go under the water, but couldn’t help him.

Curtis Walton, Jr, a 14 year old freshman football player for Calumet, IN, was found unresponsive in the high school pool, When he read about it, Houston Texans Lonnie Johnson, Jr. paid for his funeral.

Eddie Cruz, 18 a freshman football player at Western New Mexico University died in a drowning accident at Bill Evans Lake near Silver City. Cruz went into the Lake, disappeared under the water and never resurfaced.

The body of Naphtali Moi Moi, a star football player at Hayward (Calif.) High School was discovered in the ocean after he apparently drowned while boogie boarding at Poplar State Beach in Northern California.

Marquise Maurice Dukes, 21 former North Iredell, NC, football player drowned after jumping off a fishing pier over the weekend. Shortly after jumping off the pier, officials report that the swimmer became distressed and called out for help, had gone under water and not resurfaced.

17-year-old Antonio Freeman, a football player at Midland Valley High School (GA), drowned Saturday night after jumping into the river along with several of friends. Freeman reportedly started struggling to swim and went under and never came back up.

Orahnde M. Askew, 19, A former student and member of the High School Football Team accidentally drowned at a pond located inside the Sparrow Family Campground. Askew was swimming in the pond when he became “distressed” and went under water. People there did try to help get him out of the water, but those efforts were unsuccessful.

Gody Marcelin, a 15-year-old member of the Port Charlotte (FL) football team, ventured into the Gulf of Mexico waters, got trapped in a powerful rip current, and despite the efforts of people who were there, including fellow Pirate players, Marcelin was swept away to his death.

Franklin James Banks II, a 20-year-old sophomore football player at Alabama A & M University was swimming with a group of college-age people at DeSoto Falls State Park (AL) when he went under the water and did not resurface.

Marcus Dwyer, 18 who was on the football, basketball and track teams of Pelion High School (S.C.), drowned while swimming with a group of friends some of whom jumped from a bridge. After encouragement from friends, Dwyer jumped too. When he surfaced he tried to grab onto his friends, but they thought he was “playing around” and pushed him away. His girlfriend saw him go underwater and never come back up.

Je’Sani Smith, 18, Smith, a senior at King High School (Corpus Christi, TX) and a well known athlete who played football and basketball was caught in a rip current near Whitecap Beach and never resurfaced. His body was recovered by fishermen.