Commentary

Leonard Pope to the rescue

Updated: August 2, 2011, 1:30 PM ET
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Leonard PopeJamie Squire/Getty ImagesWere it not for the NFL lockout, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Leonard Pope might not have been where he was needed most on June 11.

You might have not liked the NFL lockout, but Anne Moore did. The lockout saved her little boy's life.

On the afternoon of June 11, 6-year-old Bryson Moore wandered too far into the deep end of a pool at his cousin's birthday party in Americus, Ga. Soon he was sinking, face down.

Anne began to scream, "Get him! Get him! He's drowning!" But she didn't know how to swim. Neither did anybody else standing around the pool. All they could do was watch Bryson go under.

Inside, though, 6-foot-7 Kansas City Chiefs tight end Leonard "Champ" Pope heard the screaming and ran out.

A father of two girls himself, he was bent on doing something, but he couldn't see anything. Finally, he saw two little hands barely above the water. He dove in -- cellphone, wallet, keys, everything.

Pope went deep, brought Bryson up by his waist and handed him to his mother.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Pope
C.H.A.M.P. Foundation/Nadine PopeBryson Moore with his favorite football player, TE Leonard Pope of the Kansas City Chiefs.

Bryson's mom didn't get a chance to thank Pope. She was too busy rushing Bryson to the hospital, where he would check out fine. By the time she got back, Pope was gone. She was so overcome that she stayed up all night staring at Bryson while he slept and thanking God for sending a man like Leonard Pope.

"If I'd had a million dollars," she later told Pope on the phone, "I'd have given it to you right there and then."

But here's the thing: Without the lockout, Pope wouldn't have been at the birthday party for his fiancée's 3-year-old cousin. He'd have been in Kansas City at a minicamp.

Thank you, greedy NFL owners everywhere.

Here's the other thing: According to a study conducted by the USA Swimming Foundation in 2009, nearly 70 percent of African-American kids and nearly 60 percent of Hispanic-American kids have "low or no ability" to swim, as opposed to 42 percent of white children. It doesn't get much better among African-American adults, either.

"It's amazing how many people have come up to me since this all happened and admitted they can't swim, either," says Pope, who learned at 9. "Fully grown people! It's crazy. There have been two drownings here in Kansas City since it happened."

What Pope didn't know when he dove in is that another Kansas City Chief never learned to swim and it cost him his life.

On June 29, 1983, Chiefs star running back Joe Delaney heard the screams of three young boys sinking fast in a Monroe, La., pond. Delaney couldn't swim, but he dove in anyway. He was able to save one of the boys, but not himself. Delaney died that day with the other two boys.

Pope is very much like Delaney was. Delaney would cut the lawns of old people in his neighborhood just because he knew they couldn't do it. Pope is like that. He checks in on old people he knows, just to make sure they're OK. When the hospital in Americus was smashed by a tornado, Pope jumped in head-first and helped raise $35,000 to fix it.

Pope didn't know Delaney's story, but he did know about Cullen Jones, only the third African-American to make an Olympic swimming team. Jones, who won gold in the 4x100m relay in the 2008 Beijing Games, didn't take up swimming until after he nearly drowned at a water park at 5 years old and had to be resuscitated by lifeguards. His mom made him take lessons the next week.

And young Bryson?

"No, he hasn't wanted to go back near the water since," Pope says. "But he'll learn to swim, once he gets over the shock."

His mom says Bryson gets panicky when she even drives in the direction of that swimming pool. But so many people have come up to her and said, "Because of you, I'm taking my child for swimming lessons" that she has decided to offer Bryson a deal. "If you take lessons, I'll take them with you," she told him.

Maybe that's why Pope is now giving free swimming lessons to kids through his foundation -- C.H.A.M.P. Jones is doing the same, as part of USA Swimming's "Make a Splash" program.

[+] EnlargeJoe Delaney
US PresswireChiefs' RB Joe Delaney died in 1983 while trying to save three young boys from drowning in a pond.

After his dive, Pope became a hero in this country, only he didn't know it. His phone was ruined, and he didn't get a new one for a week.

"I was having to borrow people's phones at the airport," he says. "Perfect strangers. I finally called my girl, and she said, 'Where have you been! Call your agent! Call your auntie! Everybody wants to talk to you!'"

Funny about Chiefs players. Remember three summers ago, in Huntington Beach, Calif., when another Chiefs tight end -- Tony Gonzalez -- saved a man who was choking to death on a piece of steak by applying the Heimlich maneuver?

"[His girlfriend] was screaming, 'He can't breathe, he can't breathe!'" Gonzalez, now on the Atlanta Falcons, said at the time. "The whole restaurant was quiet. Nobody was doing anything. Then I saw he was turning blue. Everybody in the restaurant was just kind of sitting there wide-eyed."

Say what you want about pro athletes, but if you're in trouble, they're very handy to have around. Not only are they genetic superhumans but they've been trained to react in an instant, to jump in where others fear to go and to execute flawlessly in chaos, whether it's a double-reverse handoff or a mother screaming for her drowning child.

Anne Moore knows it. She says Leonard Pope was born to be a hero.

After all, she says, "his name is Champ."


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Rick Reilly is the 11-time National Sportswriter of the Year. He contributes essays and commentary to "SportsCenter" and ESPN/ABC golf and tennis coverage. He's also the host of "Homecoming," ESPN's unique, one-hour interview show set in the hometowns of legendary athletes. For more Rick, check out the archive.


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