on July 8, 2013 - 11:29 PM
, updated July 10, 2013 at 10:33 PM
The road from Orchard Park to Canton included 185 games, six Pro Bowls, 2,003 yards in a rookie season to remember with the Bills and five forgettable years with the Browns. For years, Joe DeLamielleure told anyone listening that he would walk to the Pro Football Hall of Fame if its doors were opened for him.
In 2003, when he was inducted, he also made a pledge to himself. He would use his place among the all-time greats as a platform for greater causes. He would speak for people who needed a voice. He would stand beside the weak and carry the wounded. He would serve others and never take his career for granted.
It sounds about right for DeLamielleure, who in football and life felt compelled to make roads easier traveled for those who followed. He did the dirty work while O.J. Simpson basked in the glory during their days with the Bills. He didn’t mind paving the way if it made the Bills a better team and, later in life, the world a better place.
And yet, he felt like a good man without a cause.
“Put me in a position to help as many people as I can,” DeLamielleure said by telephone Monday. “I want to help.”
About six months ago, Chrystal Funderburk and her 20-year-old son, Joey, walked into Zack’s Hamburgers, a takeout joint in Charlotte and DeLamielleure’s favorite lunch spot. Actually, she walked into the restaurant. Her son wobbled through the doors. The owner, a longtime friend of DeLamielleure, struck up a conversation with them.
She explained that she found Joey while visiting an orphanage in Romania, when he was 4½. He was born with legs that had not fully developed and was left there by his mother. Years later, after she adopted him, he had outgrown prosthetic legs that he had been wearing since he was 8 years old.
The restaurant owner grabbed a pen and scribbled Joe D’s cell phone number on a piece of paper.
“She never thought I would take the call,” DeLamielleure said.
In truth, he was practically waiting for the call.
“I could tell they were really sincere in what they were doing,” DeLamielleure said. “It was like a light went on. This is what I could walk for, to Canton. I said that it would be a couple of ordinary Joes doing something extraordinary. They laughed it off.”
Obviously, they didn’t know Joe D.
The next day, he called Hall of Fame executive and Buffalo native Joe Horrigan and told him he planned to walk 213 miles from Orchard Park to Canton. His journey will begin Wednesday morning at the 50-yard line of Ralph Wilson Stadium, where his NFL career began. It will end July 20 at the steps of the Hall of Fame, where his professional career will live forever.
DeLamielleure is walking for Grace’s LAMP Foundation, a Charlotte-based group that raises money for children who grow out of their prosthetics. The name of the group combined the grace of God with Love Adoption Missions of Prosthetics. He was a blessing for the organization, but the opposite is also true.
“One time, I had a little pebble in my shoe,” he said. “I don’t want to act like a philosopher or anything, but it was like life. If I take the pebble out of my shoe, which takes about 30 seconds, I wouldn’t have a problem. If I keep walking, I’m going to have a blister. If you stop and handle a problem right now, it goes away a lot quicker.”
Yes, this is his mission.
DeLamielleure’s primary goal was using his name to raise awareness, which will help raise money. Prosthetics have improved greatly over the years with technology, but they often cost well more than $100,000. The price is too high for many kids who are left with inferior devices as they grow taller.
“We know about breast cancer, diabetes, the March of Dimes,” he said. “Why can’t we make people around the country more aware with what’s going on when it comes to prosthetics? This is what I want to do.”
DeLamielleure is 62 years old. His wife, Gerri, described him to the Cleveland Plain Dealer last month as a “chipmunk on speed.” It might have been an insult to chipmunks.
He’s a grandfather with boundless energy and has remained in terrific shape since his career ended in 1985 with the Bills.
He is no ordinary Joe.
No matter how many times highlight reels show him leading with his head, he always led with his heart. Joe DeLamielleure, if nothing else, is a good soul.
He and Gerri, whom he has known since he can remember, have a soft spot for children and understandably so. He was one of 10 kids and the only one in his family who graduated from college, which he did after earning a football scholarship to Michigan State. She was one of eight children.
They had four kids before adopting two sons from Korea. Andy is 30 now while Matt is 28. In 2009, he biked 2,000 miles from Michigan to Mexico with two former Michigan State teammates to raise money for an orphanage. It wasn’t enough.
DeLamielleure figured it would take him 11 days to complete his trip to Canton if he walks about 20 miles per day, or about five hours. He planned to walk longer earlier in the trip and allow himself shorter distances as he moves along. He expected the final leg to be considerably shorter.
“My wife doesn’t want me all sweaty and stinky,” he said.
For the past four months, he has been making a 10-mile round trip to church to train for his journey to Canton. He will have several people walking legs with him, including former Bills quarterback and Erie County Executive Ed Rutkowski. Former Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar will join him in Cleveland.
It may seem like he’s giving to a cause, but really the cause has given to him. His daily routine has opened his eyes and ears wider than any time he could remember. He watched the sun rise and listened to the birds sing every morning. He realized how a good walk can stimulate his brain and clear his head at the same time.
Sometimes, he speaks to old teammates and opponents who passed, such as Bob Chandler and Lyle Alzado, and asks for their blessings from heaven. Often, he thinks about how he can share his fortunes in life. Ten years after he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, he’s intent on solving the world’s problems, one step at a time.
“I want to donate real sweat and real tears,” he said. “I want my feet to hurt, so I realize how lucky my whole family is that we can actually walk. I want to make this a lifetime deal. Then, you’ve contributed.
“Football is nothing. I want my kids to say, ‘My old man is crazy. He walked 213 miles because he wanted to make a difference.’ ”