California Sports History Blog

California Sports Legend: Rafer Johnson, 1958 Sportsman of the Year also tackled Robert Kennedy's Assassian

Many younger people outside of the Fresno area are probably not familiar with the name Rafer Johnson, but they should be. If you're making a list of the greatest and most impactful California athletes, there is no doubt Rafer Johnson, an Olympic decathlon gold medalist, would be in the top 10, hands down. 

Johnson grew up for the majority of his youth in Kingsburg, CA- a tiny town just south of Fresno in the Central Valley. Most of the time his family were the only African-Americans in town, but Johnson excelled both on and off the field of play. At Kingsburg High he was elected as class president twice and was a standout in baseball, football and basketball. 

He did not run track until 1954, when he enrolled at UCLA, where he was president of the nation's first non-discriminatory fraternity, Pi Lamda Phi. In 1955 he went to the Pan American games and won the decathlon and in 1956 he qualified for the Olympics and won a silver medal. 

The crown to his career came at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. His most serious rival was Yang Chuan-Kwang (C. K. Yang) of Taiwan. Yang also studied at UCLA; the two trained together under UCLA track coach Elvin C. "Ducky" Drake and had become friends. In the decathlon, the lead swung back and forth between them. Finally, after nine events, Johnson led Yang by a small margin, but Yang was known to be better in the final event, the 1500 meter. Johnson however managed to stay close enough to Yang to win the gold. He retired from Olympic competition after the race. 

At UCLA, Johnson also played basketball under legendary coach John Wooden and was a starter on the 1959–60 men's basketball team. Wooden considered Johnson a great defensive player. He was also selected by the Los Angeles Rams in the 28th round (333rd overall) of the 1959 NFL Draft as a running back but his NFL career never panned out.

After retiring from the Olympics Johnson briefly served in the Peace Corps after it's founding in 1961. 

Johnson was also a Hollywood actor. He had a role as a DEA agent in the James Bond film, Licence to Kill and he appeared on an episode of ABC's drama about college life, Channing, starring Jason Evers and Henry Jones (1963).

In 1968 Johnson worked on the presidential election campaign of Robert F. Kennedy and with the help of Rosey Grier, he apprehended Sirhan Sirhan immediately after Sirhan had assassinated Kennedy. (18:10 into video below- he discusses his involvement) 

Throughout much of the 1970s he worked as sports broadcaster for NBC Los Angeles. 

In 1969 Johnson helped start the California Special Olympics by holding a competition at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for 900 individuals with intellectual disabilities. Following the first California Games in 1969, Johnson became one of the original members of the Board of Directors. The board worked together to raise funds and offer a modest program of swimming and track and field. In 1983, Rafer ran for President of the Board to increase Board participation, reorganize the staff to most effectively use each person's talents and expand fundraising efforts. He was elected president and served in the capacity until 1992. 

All of these accomplishments led to many honors for Johnson. He was named Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year in 1958 and won the James E. Sullivan Award as the top amateur athlete in the United States in 1960, breaking that award's color barrier. He was chosen to ignite the Olympic Flame during the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. In 1994, he was elected into the first class of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. In 1998, he was named one of ESPN's 100 Greatest North American Athletes of the 20th Century. In 2006, the NCAA named him one of the 100 Most Influential Student Athletes of the past 100 years. In 2009, Governor Schwarzenegger and Maria Shriver announced that Johnson would be one of 13 California Hall of Fame inductees in The California Museum's yearlong exhibit.

Rafer Johnson Junior High School in Kingsburg, California is named after him, as are Rafer Johnson Community Day School and Rafer Johnson Children's Center, both in Bakersfield, California.