Rafer Johnson is a ground-breaker.
An extraordinary athlete and consummate gentleman, Johnson set three world records in track and field’s most demanding sport – the decathlon. A two-time Olympic medalist, Johnson was an All-State high school running back who, despite not playing college football, was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in 1961. Johnson helped UCLA to the first track and field title in school history, then walked onto the Bruins basketball team to play for coach John Wooden. A black man, Johnson was class president at his all-white high school and later served as class president at UCLA. Johnson was the first African-American flag bearer at an Olympics, first black recipient of the Sullivan Award as best amateur athlete in America, and was the first African-American to be named Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year.”
After winning the decathlon gold medal in the 1960 Rome Olympics, Johnson served in the Peace Corps. He worked on Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968 and, along with former Rams’ tackle Rosey Grier, subdued Sirhan Sirhan after he fatally shot Senator Kennedy in Los Angeles in June 1968. Along with Eunice Shriver Kennedy [Kennedy’s sister], Johnson founded the California Special Olympics, an organization that enriches the lives of thousands of athletes with intellectual disabilities. Following his retirement from athletics in 1960, Johnson took up acting. He appeared in television’s Dragnet, Lassie, Roots and The Six Million Dollar Man. Mr. Johnson worked as a weekend sports anchor in his adopted hometown of Los Angeles and color commentator for track and field events. In 1984, he lit the Olympic Flame at the Los Angeles Games.
Born in the central Texas town of Hillsboro on this date in 1935, Rafer Lewis Johnson moved with his family several times as a child. In 1938, the Johnsons lived in Dallas. Six years later, they migrated to California, living first in Oakland before settling in Kingsburg, a dusty agricultural town in the central valley near Fresno. For a time, the Johnsons were the only African-American family in town. Johnson attended Kingsburg Union High School, where he was an honors student. An exceptional athlete, he starred for the Vikings in baseball, football, basketball and track. A natural leader, he served as president of his sophomore class and student body president as a senior. Johnson declined a football scholarship and accepted a less restrictive academic scholarship to UCLA.
Johnson was introduced to decathlon after watching double Olympic champion Bob Mathias, a local hero from nearby Tulare, California, compete at a local meet. He entered his first competition as a UCLA freshman and enjoyed immediate success. In March 1955, he took the decathlon gold medal at the Pan Am Games in Mexico City. In just his fourth meet three months later, he broke the world record Mathias had set in 1952. Johnson qualified for the 1956 U.S. Olympic team in both decathlon and long jump, but knee and stomach muscle injuries forced him to withdraw from the latter event. The heavily-favored Johnson was not at his best, finishing second to the little-known Milt Campbell, who set a new Olympic record. It was the last time Rafer Johnson would lose a decathlon competition.
On July 5, 1958, Johnson won the AAU decathlon in Palmyra, New York. Three weeks later, he bettered his own world record, at the inaugural U.S. – U.S.S.R. meet in Moscow, and would go on to be named Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year.”
In 1959, a serious auto accident damaged Johnson’s spinal cord and lower back, forcing him to miss the that season’s AAU Championships and Pan Am Games. Although his last year of college track eligibility ended in the spring of 1958, he remained in Westwood. In the summer of 1958, C.K. Yang, a superb decathlete from Taiwan, enrolled at UCLA. Johnson and Yang became training partners under Bruins coach Elvin “Ducky” Drake. “From the first day we met,” said Johnson, “we were friends.”
Johnson returned to form in 1960, setting a new world record [and third of his career] at the Olympic Trials in July. Two months later in Rome, he and Yang, the son of a rice farmer, battled in one of the most epic duals in Olympic decathlon history. As world record holder, flag-bearer and captain of the U.S. Olympic Team, Johnson came into the 1960 Rome Games as the heavy favorite.
The Olympic decathlon is held over two days, with five events each day. The 1960 decathlon quickly became a two-man competition, with the lead see-sawing between Johnson and Yang – dubbed the “Iron Asian.” The closest of friends and keenest of rivals, the gold medal came down to the last event — the 1,500 meters. With a personal-best time of 4:36, Yang appeared to be the favorite, as Johnson had never run faster than 4:54. Behind by only 67 points, Yang needed to win by ten seconds to capture the gold medal. Despite the blistering pace set by Yang, Johnson held close, running a personal-best 4:49.7, only 1.2 seconds behind his rival. Johnson took gold, setting a new Olympic record of 8,392 points in the process.
Johnson retired following the Games and returned home an Olympic hero. He was named AP Athlete of the Year and won the 1960 AAU Sullivan Award. In 1974, he was inducted into the USA Track and Field Hall of Fame and, in 1990, was elected to the National High School Hall of Fame. In May 2017 – more than five-and-a-half decades after achieving Olympic stardom – Rafer Johnson was awarded the UCLA Medal, the highest honor the university can bestow, in recognition of his decades of leadership in the Special Olympics and unwavering efforts supporting equality for all.
Athleticism runs in the Johnson family. Rafer’s younger brother, Jimmy, was an NCAA 110-meter hurdle champion at UCLA and first pick of the 1961 NFL Draft by the San Francisco 49ers. He played 16 years in the NFL and was named as a starting cornerback on the league’s 1970s All-Decade Team. One of the best man-to-man defenders in NFL history, San Francisco retired his number 37 in 1977. Seventeen years later, Jimmy Johnson was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Rafer’s daughter, Jennifer, played volleyball at UCLA and won a silver medal at the 1999 Beach Volleyball World Championships. Alongside Annett Davis, she competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, finishing fifth. Jennifer married Kevin Jordan, a former All-American wide receiver for UCLA. After finishing his career as the Bruins’ all-time leader in catches and receiving yards, Jordan had stints with three NFL teams. Kevin and Jennifer Jordan later served as chaplains for the UCLA women’s basketball team.
Happy 82nd birthday to one of America’s greatest Olympians.