Salute to Rafer Johnson (1935-2020)

Photo: Southern California Special Olympics.

In the 40-plus years of following and covering California high school sports, we’ve met a lot of great people. The greatest athlete we’ve ever met so far (including late Uncle Nelson in that statement) would be Olympic legend Rafer Johnson, who died this week at age 86.

There’s a good reason why the only two Olympic decathlon Gold Medal winners from California are from the Central Valley towns of Tulare and Kingsburg. One was an inspiration to the other.

The first was Tulare High graduate Bob Mathias, who won the gold medal at the London Olympics in 1948 (the first one held after World War II). Mathias wasn’t just a grad of Tulare High, but literally went from high school to Olympic champion in a matter of months.

Mathias then went to Stanford and four years later in 1952 he repeated as Olympic gold medal champion in the decathlon at Helsinki, Finland.

Johnson was growing up in Kingsburg not far away from Mathias’ hometown and went to at least one of Mathias’ victory parades in Tulare. Johnson, like his brother Jimmy (an NFL Hall of Fame defensive back), was a multi-sport standout at Kingsburg High.

Johnson began to gain notice for his own decathlon potential in just his fourth competition in the event as a freshman at UCLA in 1954. By the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, Rafer had earned spots on the U.S. team the decathlon and long jump. An injury knocked him out of the long jump, but he still finished second in the decathlon for a silver medal.

At the 1960 Olympics in Rome (which also featured boxer Cassius Clay and basketball player Bill Russell), Johnson achieved his greatest athletic victory with a close gold medal win over his UCLA training partner and great friend C.K. Yang of Taiwan. Their mutual respect after that competition should go down as the definition of great sportsmanship.

Johnson’s Olympic connection wasn’t done, either. He was selected to light the Olympic torch at the L.A. Coliseum to start the 1984 games.

Later, off the track, Johnson had some minor success in movie acting, but his most lasting legacy was being one of the founders of Special Olympics and he remained heavily involved in Special Olympics for many years.

Special Olympics founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver was the sister of President John F. Kennedy and U.S. Senator Bobby Kennedy. Johnson was working with the presidential campaign of Bobby Kennedy in 1968 and was shuffling through a crowd at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles after the California primary when Kennedy was shot. Johnson helped wrestle the shooter, Sirhan Sirhan, immediately after seeing his friend fall. He later found the gun used in the shooting in his jacket pocket.

Details of the Bobby Kennedy assassination (he died the following day) were recounted by Johnson in his 1998 autobiography “The Best That I Can Be: An Autobiography.”

We at Cal-Hi Sports were sent a copy of that book with a note from Rafer since I was able to meet him several times in the early 1990s. That was when he was working for the Reebok shoe company and would come to CIF state championship events as part of Reebok’s sponsorship of those events.

Each meeting with Rafer was a thrill not just because of who he was, but because he always asked at least one question about how we were doing. I saw him at the Oakland airport once for CIF basketball and shared a cab ride with him to the hotel. I introduced him to my wife, Kathleen Moody, once at CIF wrestling in Stockton, and at least two CIF cross country meets, Rafer, CIF Central Section historian Bob Barnett and my uncle Nelson Tennis were able to visit for several minutes. Nelson was genuinely thrilled to be able to meet someone like Rafer Johnson through the state record book he began. He told me once he never thought something like that could happen.

Johnson is survived by his wife Betsy and his children, Jennifer Johnson and Josh Johnson.

For anyone wishing to make a donation to Special Olympics in honor of Rafer’s life, CLICK HERE.

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