Content warning: This story contains graphic details about violence, mental trauma, and self-harm that may be difficult to read and emotionally upsetting.
With a gun to his head, Odie Delaney was ready to pull the trigger to finally stop the pain.
A few years earlier, the former All-American wrestler from The Citadel thought his life was already mapped out after getting married and finding his calling in law enforcement with the police department in Charleston, S.C.
But that changed in an instant on a quiet Wednesday night in June 2015 when a call came across the radio that there was an active shooter situation developing nearby. Delaney and his partner responded immediately, tearing down the street with sirens blazing, and were among the first three officers to arrive on the scene at the Mother Emanuel AME Church.
Just minutes prior, 21-year-old white supremacist Dylann Roof opened fire on the parishioners with a Glock-41 handgun after sitting through a bible study group at the historic Black church first founded in 1816.
When Delaney entered through the front door with his gun drawn, he was walking into the unknown. But what he ultimately discovered was a tragedy that forever changed his life.
“He murdered nine people during a prayer meeting,” Delaney says. “A Wednesday night gathering. He went in, sat through the whole thing, stood up and killed everybody.
“I was one of the first responders on that scene. I helped get the survivors out of there. Watched a few people die. That sort of triggered something in me.”
At the time, Delaney did everything his training had taught him.
Roof had already fled, so Delaney swept through the church to ensure the shooter was gone, then began tending to the survivors and the victims of the mass shooting.
It wasn’t until a few weeks later that Delaney truly understood the impact of that harrowing night, and the kind of trauma he personally endured by witnessing such a horrific event.
Delaney’s chest seized up, his throat closed, and he was convinced that he was dying.
As it turns out, he was experiencing his first panic attack.
“It’s total dread,” Delaney recalls of experience. “It’s almost like drowning, and you’ll do anything to make it stop.”
The severe panic attacks continued to plague Delaney to the point where he could no longer effectively do his job as a police officer. When the department offered him help, the 6-foot-4 former college wrestler felt as if he could just handle everything on his own.
“I don’t know if you’d call it a macho reaction, where this can’t hurt me,” Delaney says. “I went through this, ‘I’m a man, I’m tough, I’m not going to let this affect me,’ but that’s not really how it works.
“It’s almost like a physical injury. You can’t just wish it away. If you’re injured, you’re injured. That was my initial reaction, and I paid for it.”
The tragic shooting at the church left Delaney in a fragile state, which was later diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder, more commonly known as PTSD.
It also rattled him in other profound ways.
“Growing up as a Christian, that challenged my faith a lot,” Delaney says. “Watching a bunch of Christian people get killed like that. But it also kind of showed me where hate leads to.
“I developed a panic attack disorder from that, some suicidal thoughts. I went through a really dark, hard time for several years after that. Panic attacks every week.”
Despite his obvious difficulties, Delaney still struggled to seek out actual help. He thought he could push through, and eventually, with enough medication, he’d come out on the other side.
But as time passed, his problems only compounded. He began thinking about all those people in the world who had it far worse than him, such as soldiers returning from war, which is one of the scenarios most commonly associated with PTSD.
“One thing that stopped me initially from speaking out and saying, ‘Hey, I’m suicidal, I’m depressed’ — I was thinking about soldiers in Afghanistan, and they’re seeing death all the time. I should be fine,” Delaney says. “People who responded to 9/11, they seem to be doing OK, I should be doing OK.
“That’s a really dangerous game to start playing. When you’re feeling these things, the depression, the self-harm, the hopelessness, it’s really important not to look out at other people’s experiences. Recognize what you’re feeling.”
Delaney left the Charleston police department and took other jobs away from law enforcement, before ultimately returning to his native Alaska in search of a fresh start.
By that point, plenty of time had passed since the tragedy at the Mother Emanuel AME Church, and Delaney felt confident he had moved beyond the worst of his struggles. Because of his experience as a police officer, Delaney opted to explore an adjacent career by joining the Alaska State Troopers.
Surrounded by a new location yet familiar scenery, he was ready to put his trauma behind him. But as a famous film once said, we may be through with the past, but the past isn’t through with us.
“I really thought I was over it,” Delaney says. “I was on heavy medication that kind of made it so I didn’t have the panic attacks, and I got a little cocky. I thought this was over — I can move on, no problem. I went and applied for the trooper academy in Alaska. Went through the training, no problem.
“[It was] one of the last weeks of the trooper academy and we have an active shooting class, and I went to the class. I felt good about it, but I kind of broke down inside. I had to leave the classroom.”
Delaney went home that night. When he woke up, he truly thought his life was ending.
“The next morning, I had the biggest panic attack of my life,” Delaney says. “It feels like you’re dying. Your throat shuts. You can feel your heart coming through your chest. I went to the emergency room. They said, ‘You’re fine. You’re having a massive panic attack.’”
With the panic attacks taking hold of him yet again, Delaney knew that any chance he had of a career in law enforcement was over.
“I had a couple of senior officers sit me down,” Delaney remembers, “and they said, ‘If you’re going to go into law enforcement without these issues being dealt with, it can be a danger to yourself and to others.’ And I agreed.”
His downward spiral worsened from there, eventually leading to contemplation over what Delaney’s future would look like if he continued to suffer from crippling panic attacks. How would it affect him? But more importantly, how much would it impact the people he loved?
That’s when Delaney decided, for at least a brief moment, that he was better off dead.
“I had a gun to my head,” Delaney says. “That’s when you have to ask yourself, it’s either death or I’ve got to be brave one more time and tell somebody I’m having trouble, I’m at the end. I think it’s worth it to be brave that one more time to get your voice out there.”
The suicidal thoughts didn’t necessarily subside, but Delaney finally began to realize that medicating himself was only numbing the pain, and that he never actually reckoned with the trauma he endured in the aftermath of the Charleston church shooting.
“I took a long time by myself to meditate and pray,” Delaney says. “I was just thinking to myself, what am I going to do? I had a new baby. I had a wife and a child to take care of, and it was like, ‘What can I do?’”
Delaney’s answer was to enter into therapy and finally address the depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts that had been haunting him ever since that fateful night in 2015.
After years of denial, he was able to face the reality of his own trauma, which in turn allowed him to learn coping mechanisms, as well as realize that he wasn’t alone in the world. There were people counting on him, but he could count on them just as much.
Nothing came easy, but Delaney took everything day by day, until the weight that felt as if it had been crushing down on him for so terribly long started to lift from his chest.
While the battle with mental health is really a never-ending war, Delaney started to see hope where despair once existed — and then he discovered a whole new calling.
“I found when I physically exerted myself in training, which obviously happens in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, wrestling, MMA, I almost felt like my body was too tired at that point to have those massive panic attacks and that huge level of anxiety,” Delaney says. “Training consistently everyday kind of helped me while I figured things out on the mental side.”
Because he had been a wrestler almost all his life, Delaney began to ponder whether MMA would be a great place to put his focus. But even more importantly, it could potentially give him a platform where he could use his past to help others struggling in the same way.
The stigma around mental health prevented him from seeking assistance when he desperately needed it. Delaney knew there were probably hundreds, if not thousands, more people who were facing the very same obstacles.
“It’s like you’re not allowed to talk about that. It’s weak,” Delaney says. “It’s weak if you say, ‘I’m struggling and I’m thinking about harming myself or somebody else.’ We suppress it and suppress it, and then you get these catastrophic events were people are hurting themselves. It’s horrible.
“I really want to meet that problem head on. For some reason, soldiers and young men pay attention to MMA fighters, especially in the U.S. I don’t see a lot of great role models. I’m trying to be that. I thought if I could build a platform through martial arts, then I will be able to reach people and help them. Help the people who are going through the same things I am.”
Delaney turned pro in 2019 and quickly picked up back-to-back victories to start his career.
He relocated to Mississippi, where he began training out of an American Top Team affiliate school alongside UFC veteran and current BKFC fighter Alan Belcher. Delaney also started making regular trips down to Coconut Creek, Fla., to work with the main ATT academy while training under coaches like Steve Mocco, Muhammed Lawal, and Mike Brown.
His aspirations to bring his message to an even wider audience received a boost several months ago when Delaney got a call join the roster at ONE Championship.
He’ll make his promotional debut this Friday in a fight against Thomas Narmo, but the magnitude of the moment pales in comparison to the overall impact he hopes to make now that he’s dedicated to becoming a serious advocate for mental health.
“Of course there’s selfish motivations,” Delaney says. “I want to be able to take care of my family. I want to provide for my family. I want to win titles. I want to tell my grandkids a long time from now that I was a pretty bad dude back in the day. But there is something way bigger to it.”
While he knows he can’t reach everyone, Delaney hopes his message will be shared on a much grander scale. He can’t say for certain if people will be listening, but if his story can manage to save even one person, the 32-year-old heavyweight will be ecstatic.
“If I could even get one soldier to not pull that trigger when he’s got the gun to his head, my whole career would be worth it,” Delaney says.
“If I could just get one person to keep going, one kid in school who’s being bullied to keep going, this whole career would be worth it to me. And ultimately that’s really what I care about.”
Checkpoint provides resources and support for mental health awareness around the world. Resources for residents in the United States can be found below.
Mental Health America: 1-800-273-8255
National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-6264
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255