The toughest assignment I ever had

It was a hot day and I remember being under the wall-unit air conditioner at my father’s house when the phone rang. It was my sports editor, letting me know the horrible news of the drowning of Joe Delaney.

Tough call to get, especially since I had played against Delaney in high school football. In fact, only four months earlier, we had played against each other in a Haughton vs. Media charity basketball game. Delaney was already an NFL star, but I specifically remember how “regular guy” he was that night.

I asked for a few details about Delaney’s drowning before I got these instructions: “We need you to go to his home tomorrow.”

A list of excuses ran through my head as to why I couldn’t go, but I knew that ultimately I was going to have to do it. I was only two years out of college, and I figured it would be a tough assignment.

I had no idea how tough.

I’ve spent more than 40 years in some form of media or journalism or whatever you want to call it, but June 30, 1983, was – and always will be – the toughest day of my professional life. (And this is from a guy who has been fired from four media jobs.)

I was in the driveway of Delaney’s house less than 24 hours after his wife Carolyn got the news that she was a widow. That’s uncomfortable even for a seasoned reporter, so you can imagine how it felt for a 23-year-old who was usually writing about youth tennis tournaments during that time of year.

Good luck.

I have long forgotten so many games and interviews and stories that I have written over the years. But I will never forget being in that driveway, wondering how I was going to pull this off.

Luckily, two angels appeared that day. One was Haughton football coach Bobby Ray McHalffey, who had agreed to meet me at the school and take me over to the Delaney house. If you don’t know Haughton demographics – especially in 1983 – the railroad tracks that run through town served as a cultural divide. But McHalffey was a man who had equal respect on both sides. Having him by my side meant something; otherwise, I would have looked like another news-hungry reporter.

Part of my instructions were to get an interview with Delaney’s widow and McHalffey, who died in 2000, tried to help the process along once we were led into the house. But there was nothing to say. What kind of questions could you possibly ask in that kind of situation? Carolyn Delaney gave a couple of inaudible answers and that was certainly nothing that I could build a story around. I got out of that house as soon as I could.

That’s when the second angel appeared in the form of Delaney’s mother, Eunice Kennon. She stood in the driveway and talked with an amazing combination of pride and sadness. She said the greatest moment of her life was when her son signed a letter-of-intent to go to Northwestern State. Her pride came just as much from Joe being an NFL star with the Kansas City Chiefs as it did from him being an usher at Galilee Baptist Church.

As relatives cried around her in a cloud of profound sadness, Eunice Kennon said “We can’t undo what God has done. We have to accept what is given to us. I understand. Understanding is the best thing.”

To say the least, I was inspired when I returned to write about the scene in the Shreveport Journal. It was a 2,000-word story that included this passage:

Joe Delaney is gone. Haughton is gone. It’ll brush itself off and get back on its feet but it won’t be easy. Not without Joe Delaney.

He’s one of the reasons it stood so proudly in the first place. You just can’t take that away. He is on everyone’s minds. His wife and family are in everyone’s prayers. You always remember where you were when you heard the news. The day Haughton lost Joe Delaney.

That day took me to a new place that I had never been before. Not just in journalism.

In life.

Contact J.J. at