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The gold standard: Rafer Johnson’s extraordinary life ends at age 86

Those who knew Rafer Johnson tell their stories in sympathetic tones to those who didn’t, as if it were the lost opportunity of a lifetime.

Johnson was the 1960 Olympic champion in the decathlon. When his daughter Jenny began studying ancient Greece in elementary school, Johnson brought out his gold medal. For many years it was the only time she ever saw it.

“He was the guy folding up the chairs at the end of a concert, handing out drinks at our soccer games,” said Bill Shumard, who for 15 years was the head of Special Olympics Southern California, a cause that Johnson made his own.



“To be honest I never knew how to take him. He was so normal and understated. I don’t hesitate to say he’s the best person I’ve ever known.”

Johnson, 86, died Wednesday.

“The world has lost an incredible athlete,” said Bill Toomey, who won decathlon gold for the U.S. in the 1968 Olympics. “He broke through barriers because of his demeanor.”

Johnson’s final years were difficult, physically. Shumard remembers Johnson being helped onto a stage in October of 2019, at the Santa Monica Pier, to deliver an award at a Special Olympics function.

Johnson leaves behind his wife Betsy, and Jenny and son Josh, whom Rafer and Betsy watched compete in a U.S. Olympic Trials decathlon in Sacramento.

Jenny was an Olympian in beach volleyball. While at UCLA, she scheduled a summer trip to Kansas and Texas, for camps. Rafer came to the office of volleyball coach Al Scates and said he was concerned that there wouldn’t be adequate supervision for Jenny. He also said, “Don’t tell her I asked you that.”

“I watched Jenny play in a lot of club volleyball competitions when she was growing up,” Scates said, “and I saw Rafer at every one of them.”

But Johnson’s life was gloriously abnormal.

He was UCLA’s student body president five years before Congress passed civil rights legislation. In 1958, when the Soviet Union was forbidden territory and its leader promised to bury America, the U.S. sent a team to Moscow, and Johnson beat decathlon record-holder Vasily Kuznetsov.

The fans cheered Johnson through the javelin and the 1,500 meters, then surrounded him, picked him up and tossed him into the air. An interpreter told a U.S. AAU official, “I do not understand. Russian people are not often so emotional.”

That was the year Johnson won Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year award. An auto accident in 1959 shattered Johnson’s training schedule for the Olympics, but he already knew how to recuperate. At 12 he got his leg caught in a cannery belt and had to take 23 stitches, and walked with crutches for a time. He worked out anyway, and developed a powerful upper body that gave Johnson a huge advantage in the decathlon throwing events.

UCLA teammate C.K. Yang became the Olympic favorite in Rome. Both were coached by Elvin “Ducky” Drake, and Johnson remembers getting 1,500-meter advice from Drake in Rome, and then watching, bemused, to see Drake advising Yang as well.

Johnson stayed close enough to Yang in the 1,500 to win overall, and runnerup Yang became the first native of Taiwan, known as Nationalist China, to Americans back then, to win an Olympic medal. The two were friends until Yang died in 2007.

“Those two guy singlehandedly created the charisma for that event,” Toomey said. “I couldn’t read enough stories about what they did.”

Johnson helped bring the 1984 Olympics to Los Angeles, and he was chosen to carry the Olympic torch into the Coliseum. He held it as he jogged around the track, and he wore an all-white singlet and shorts, and looked for all the world like a contestant. As he drove downtown that day, he asked Jenny to guess who the torchbearer might be. She guessed Michael Jackson, and Johnson smiled.

Johnson was involved in movies and television, was Gloria Steinem’s boyfriend for a time, and joined Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. Kennedy won the California primary, and Johnson and former Rams’ defensive tackle Rosey Grier were in the corridor behind the podium at L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel. RFK was shot and killed by Sirhan Sirhan, and a numb TV audience heard someone yell, “Get the gun, Rafer.”

Johnson woke up the next morning and put on his sport coat from the night before. Inside the pocket was the revolver.

“He was in a deep funk after that,” Shumard said. “Bobby’s sister Eunice, who had founded the Special Olympics, told him Bobby wouldn’t have wanted him to react that way. That’s how Rafer got involved in the program. Years later, he and Betsy sold their house on Balboa Island, and that money saved us, kept us going.”

RELATED: Rafer Johnson helped something special grow from tragedy

Johnson preceded the day when money took over sports. Olympians were amateurs then.

“They started giving us $2 a day,” Toomey said. “I used to say you couldn’t even buy postcards for that.”

Johnson could have used the money. He was born in Hillsboro, Tex., and his father Lewis moved the family to Kingsburg, in the San Joaquin Valley, when Rafer was five. One brother, Jimmy, became a Pro Football Hall of Famer as a 49ers’ cornerback.

The Johnsons lived in a railroad boxcar for a while, and when they did get settled, it wasn’t unusual for them to lose their electricity.

When Johnson first came to UCLA, he looked west and saw a large hill near campus. “I’m going to live in a house on that hill,” he told himself, and later he did.

“I remember looking up to Bob Mathias and to Rafer,” Toomey said. “Rafer probably was the best ever. Back then, there was no fiberglass pole for the pole vault, and there was no Fosbury Flop in the high jump. C.K. won seven of the 10 events in Rome, but Rafer stayed close enough in that 1,500 to win it.”

“What drove me,” Johnson said later, “was the knowledge that this was the last decathlon for me. There was no reason to hold back.”

Today, Johnson might have been a prime candidate to run for President, although he said he enjoyed sports because athletes could freely exchange ideas, unlike politicians. Not even Twitter would have laid a glove on his image.

“He had a great sense of humor, too, and often he was his own target,” Shumard said. “We were playing golf at Trump National one day for a fund-raiser, and he often described himself as a great athlete but a terrible golfer. We were a foursome, and we’d agreed that Rafer didn’t have to get out of the cart unless the first two guys missed their drives. He got on the phone with the office, and we kept hitting it in the fairway, and they asked how he was doing. He said, ‘Great. We’re on No. 8, I’m having the round of my life and I haven’t gotten out of the cart.’’’

Johnson’s life would have been full to capacity if only Long Beach State had played women’s volleyball this season. Jenny’s daughter Jaylen is a freshman there. She is one of Johnson’s four grandchildren.

“He was a superstar in the field of human endeavor,” Toomey said, and you wonder who else, in the world of sports, could make that roster.

Shumard remembers office workers idly wondering when the next Rafer Johnson would come along. Sympathetically, he had to tell them to stop wondering.





Source: Orange County Register

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