Remembering Rafer Johnson

Rafer Johnson lights the 1984 Olympic torch

It has always been a privilege to share a person’s story during my 40-plus years as a sports journalist. The subjects have ranged from Little Leaguers to MLB players, from every-day athletes to Hall of Famers. from high schoolers to Olympians.

But when asked who is my favorite interview out of the thousands, I’ve had the same answer since the early 1990s: Rafer Johnson.

It was with great sadness that I read of his passing on Wednesday, Dec. 2 , at the age of 86. It is with even greater sadness that I write this about someone I considered a friend for over two decades.

Johnson was an amazing man, as charismatic as he was gracious, as kind as he was athletic.

He was crowned the world’s greatest athlete by virtue of his winning the decathlon at the 1960 Games in Rome. He was the first Black to be the U.S. flag bearer as well as captain its track & field team. It capped his much-decorated track & field career that included silver at the 1956 Olympics and the 1956 NCAA championship, the first track.& field title for UCLA under the legendary Ducky Drake.

But in between his success on the track and lighting the torch at the Los Angeles Memorial Stadium to open the 1984 Olympics — and the three decades that followed — he became an activist and humanitarian. Johnson was at Bobby Kennedy’s side the night RFK was assassinated in 1968. You hear Los Angeles Rams Hall of Famer Rosey Greer yell on the audio, “Rafer, get it (the gun),” after Sirhan Sirhan fired the fatal bullets. Johnson ended up pocketing the gun, something he didn’t remember doing until the next morning when he put on the jacket from the night before and “noticed it was heavy,” Johnson said in a 2015 television interview. “I called the police, they came and picked me up and took me to the station.”

Johnson was close with the Kennedys, working for the Peace Corps that JFK helped found in 1961, and  with the Special Olympics that was established by Eunice Kennedy Shriver in 1968. He helped create California Special Olympics the following year, and became involved with other causes for the sick and less fortunate.

One of those causes was Easter Seals and Johnson came to Honolulu to ring the opening bell for the third Taste of Honolulu — a benefit for Easter Seals — in 1994.

I walked into the office at the old Honolulu Star-Bulletin and almost immediately walked out. I was told, “Go interview Rafer Johnson at the Hilton Hawaiian. He’s in the lobby.”

I don’t know if there was a press release. I never saw one.

Fortunately I knew enough about him to get through the awkward introductions. What saved me was I also had gone to UCLA (Class of 1977).

“Always nice to meet another Bruin,” is what I remember saying, apologizing that I hadn’t had time to do more research about what he had been doing since 1984.

I did ask about that June 5 night at the Ambassador Hotel when Kennedy was shot. “Do you ever talk about it?”

I don’t think I finished the question before he quickly said, “No.”

The mood was lightened a bit when a passerby called out “Rafer?” It was one of Johnson’s freshman basketball teammates from UCLA. They hadn’t seen each other since the mid-1950s. They chatted a bit, exchanged business cards and promised to catch up later. (Johnson also played two varsity seasons for the legendary John Wooden and was student body president).

We continued our interview. I returned to the newsroom to write the story. Fortunately I was able to reread it today. With the help of former colleague Jerry Campany, we found the July 2, 1994, article and some memories that needed to be dusted off.

It wasn’t Johnson’s first trip to Hawaii. He had stopped here en route to the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, and again in 1965 when filming “None But the Brave” with Frank Sinatra. He also came during the four volleyball seasons (1992-95) when his daughter Jenny played for UCLA against Hawai’i.

It also wasn’t the last time I interviewed Rafer. He was one of the featured guests on a sports archaeology tour jointly sponsored by the UCLA and Cal alumni associations in 1996 to celebrate the centennial of the modern Olympics.

It was awe-inspiring to walk through history with Johnson, in the stadia used by the ancient Greeks in Athens, Corinth and Delphi. At Delphi, he retraced his steps where he and 1968 decathlon champion Bill Toomey reenacted the Ancient Greek pentathlon for a 1972 film by ABC Sports.

It was amazing to be with him in Olympia, where the Olympic flame is now lit every two years before making its way to the host city for the opening of the Games.

We often sat near each other on the bus rides and he shared his Olympic memories. Two years earlier, Johnson had told me that his favorite Olympic memories were of winning the gold in 1960 and lighting the torch in 1984 at the Coliseum.

Then he shared something he said not many knew.

His run up the steps on the torch’s final leg could have been his last.

Johnson said he was worried about stumbling or, heaven forbid, miscounting the number of steps it took to reach the top. If I recall correctly, he said there was no barrier that would have prevented him from running through his “mark” and going over the edge of the iconic Peristyle.

Fortunately for the world, he didn’t.

I am grateful to have run into Johnson on occasion, the last while I was up in the UCLA athletic office a few years ago. He was what was considered a volunteer ambassador for the department and we chatted briefly, fondly remembering that trip to Greece in 1996.

Jenny, who went on to compete at the 2002 Olympics in beach volleyball, has continued to visit Hawaii as the association head coach for the Bruins beach team. When I’ve asked how “Dad” is doing, she’s always replied, “He’s good.”

As mentioned, it is always a privilege to share a person’s story with readers. It is with humility that I share Johnson’s.

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I highly recommend reading “Rome 1960 — The Olympics that Changed the World” by David Maraniss. Very insightful and pertinent to the world we live in.

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On a personal note, I rarely ask for autographs and never for myself. I did ask Johnson for his and he signed an Olympic baseball cap for my son because of the family legacy of Olympians. Tiff’s great-grandfather was a gymnast at the 1928 Games and uncle Chris was a coxswain on the crew team for the 1980 Games that would end up being boycotted by the U.S.

8 Comments

  1. Very heart-warming story of your friendship and encounters with Mr. Johnson. Your literary skills are exemplary when you make the reader feel like they are indeed in your shoes living the moment with you.
    Mahalo nui loa for sharing it with us. And may God Bless you Rafer Johnson!

  2. Thanks for remembering Rafer Johnson. I remember his duals with C.Y. Yang for the title of the “greatest athlete in the world “.

    • Great UCLA teammates. Johnson said his incentive for the last event was he knew he was retiring from competition after that, something Yang didn’t know. Johnson won the silver at the 1956 Olympics. He never lost that event again over the next four years.

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