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"People ask me, 'How could Joe have gone in that water the way he did?' And I answer, 'Why, he never gave it a second thought, because helping people was a conditioned reflex to Joe Delaney.' "
Bobby Ray McHalffey, who coached Joe at Haughton High, stands up next. Coach McHalffey says he has had a number of better athletes down through the years, but Joe worked a whole lot harder than the other boys. Coach McHalffey finishes up: "You missed somethin' when you didn't know that young 'un—a fine American man."
That's it for the coaches. The next person to speak is Harold Harlan, principal of Haughton High. He says, "Joe was one of those who assumed responsibility. He was one of those who had goals. He was one of those you could always count on." He pauses then and scans the crowded church. "Joe Delaney was a cut above."
Carolyn Delaney, Joe's widow, sits in the front row. nodding. She brought their three girls to the church in the baby blue Cougar. There is Tamika, who's seven, Crystal, four, and JoJo (for Joanna), who wasn't even four months old when her daddy died. They all look up as Alma Jean rises. She's Joe's oldest sister, and she has been selected to read aloud the proclamation from President Reagan that Vice President Bush had personally delivered to the family back in July.
It finishes by saying, "By this supreme example of courage and compassion, this brilliantly gifted young man left a spiritual legacy for his fellow Americans, in recognition of which Joe Delaney is hereby awarded the Presidential Citizens Award."
A lot of people—even many of the football people—are crying now. Crystal wants to leave. Her father spoiled her something awful, and she can't bear to stay in any room when people talk about him. But Lucille is going to be the final speaker. She has brought her guitar, just to strum a couple of notes on, and then in the hush she reads MR. JOE D., the poem that she wrote about her brother two weeks after he died:
My brother Joe was a small man in size,
There are more tears, and it's now time to conclude the service. The Rev. James says, "I don't know anybody who had a spot on their heart about Joe. People ask me, 'Reverend James, why would God take him away?' and I say, 'God wants something good, too. Amen.' "
From the earliest, Eunice says, "He told me he was goin' to make the pros and make me happy." Joe didn't get any encouragement at home, though. Eunice and Woodrow, a hardworking truck driver till the day he died in 1977, thought football was stuff and nonsense. That may be why there haven't been any other athletes in the family. But then, Joe was also the only one ever to make college.
Joe was born four years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in the schools, but he was nine years old before this message, with deliberate speed, came to Louisiana. School integration there was called "the crossover," a term borrowed from the music business, and there isn't anybody around Haughton who doesn't profess that athletics helped ease the transition. As a star black player who was as impeccable of character as he was celebrated, Joe had an impact on his community.