Rafer Johnson (born 1935) won the Olympic decathlon in 1960 with a record-breaking score of 8,392 points. The decathlon winner, according to tradition, is regarded as the best all-around athlete in the world.
Rafer Johnson was an outstanding all-around athlete, as proven by his record-breaking win of the Olympic gold medal for the decathlon at the 1960 Olympics in Rome, Italy. As captain of the American Olympic Team, he bore the U.S. flag proudly in the opening ceremonies of the games that year and was the first African American to assume that special honor. He spent many years before and after his Olympic triumph spreading the message of peace as an international ambassador of goodwill, and in 1984 he received the distinctive honor of lighting the Olympic flame at the games in Los Angeles, California.
From his birth in 1935 until age two, Rafer Lewis Johnson lived in the large home of his paternal grandparents in Hillsboro, Texas, along with his parents and five aunts and uncles. There was no indoor plumbing or electricity. The family moved briefly to Oklahoma to pick sugar cane for one year. Upon their return to Texas when Johnson was three years old, the family settled in the Oak Cliff area of Dallas. He spent his summers at the home of a maternal aunt.
During the six years that the family remained in Dallas, Johnson attended N. W. Harlee School near the Trinity River in Dallas. He was an excellent student even in his youth, enthusiastic and dedicated. His social life revolved around the local Baptist church that he attended along with his family.
The Johnson family moved from Texas to California in 1945 when the future decathlete was nine. Their father, Lewis Johnson, secured work in the Oakland shipyards until the end of World War II. The family then moved deep into the San Joaquin Valley where Lewis Johnson sought work as a farm laborer once again. Life on the West Coast took the family from Chowchilla to Madera, and briefly down to Fresno. The family lived in makeshift housing and Rafer Johnson picked cotton along with his mother, Alma Gibson Johnson, two sisters and two brothers, while Lewis Johnson worked as a foreman on the cotton-picking crew. Young Rafer picked hundreds of pounds of cotton per day on weekends and during vacations from school and worked also at odd jobs. By 1946 Johnson's family had settled permanently in the valley town of Kingsburg, where his father worked for the railroad. In Kingsburg the Johnsons lived in a housing tract, called "section houses," built so close to the railroad tracks that the earth shook violently with every passing train.
Johnson was still a young boy in grade school when he suffered a debilitating injury while playing recklessly on the conveyor belt outside a food packing plant. In a terrible accident his left foot became stuck in the rollers, which pulled the sole from Johnson's foot. The foot became infected and healed only after a slow and painful recuperation. It was his left foot that tore, which would become his lead foot in track and field racing. Even as a superior athlete in adulthood, Johnson maintained that the pain of that injury remained a constant presence, even after the injury healed.
In California Johnson attended integrated schools. Unlike his earlier life in Texas there was little talk of racism in California, and Johnson felt akin to his lighter skinned peers. He attended Roosevelt Elementary School where his leadership qualities shone even as a youth. He was elected president of the student body in grade school. In high school he was an all-A student, president of his sophomore class and student body president during senior year. Additionally, he was a member of the California Scholarship Federation and other extracurricular groups.
As an athlete for the Vikings of Kingsburg Joint Union High School, Johnson earned 11 school letters, captained three high school athletic teams, and distinguished himself in four sports altogether, swinging baseball bats so hard that he broke several. He played on three all-league basketball teams and was a member of the all-state football team in twelfth grade. Johnson excelled in track and field, where he derived a feeling of elation from the uncomplicated non-contact sports of running, jumping, and throwing. "There is no pro future in track, that's true. But there is a stimulating present," he said and added, "I loved every sport I played, but I was most passionate about track and field."
With the support and encouragement of a caring high school track coach, Johnson gained stamina and turned his natural ability into athletic skill. His first competition after high school ended in a third place showing for Johnson. The experience whet Johnson's taste for competition, and he set a goal—to qualify for the Olympics scheduled for Melbourne, Australia, in 1956.
Collegiate Athlete and More
Johnson, who aspired to become a dentist, enrolled at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). When the school offered Johnson his choice of a football scholarship or an academic award, he accepted the more lucrative and less restrictive academic scholarship. At UCLA he joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and pledged Pi Lambda Phi fraternity; he was, in fact, the first African American to pledge a national fraternity at UCLA. He joined the Campus Crusade for Christ and eventually chaired the UCLA chapter of that organization. He found time also to play basketball for UCLA during the 1958-59 season, and he ran for student body president in 1959.
Johnson's track coach at UCLA, Elvin "Ducky" Drake, supported Johnson in his Olympic quest. Drake coached Johnson to a third-place finish at the 1956 Olympic Trials. Yet Johnson secured a place on the U.S. Olympic track and field team only to revive an old knee injury two weeks later while competing at the decathlon trials at Wabash College in Crawford, Illinois. Regardless, he won the trials and went to Melbourne, Australia, for the games. Johnson, who won the decathlon with ease at the Pan Am Games in Mexico City in 1955, was a popular favorite to win the 1956 Olympic decathlon, but the injury to his take-off leg caused swelling, which aggravated the injury. He left Melbourne with a silver medal, although he spent the subsequent months in rehabilitation and therapy following surgery to his knee.
Johnson was a man of dynamic spirit, and he put recuperation time to good purpose. He refreshed his faltering grade point average at school and spent the summer of 1957 on a goodwill tour arranged through the U.S. Department of State. The 89-day tour took him to Hong Kong, the Holy Land, and other parts of Africa, the Near East, and the Mediterranean countries. He returned to track and field competition mid-year in 1958 and won the Kingsburg Invitational Decathlon. He then went to the AAU decathlon in Palmyra, New Jersey, followed by the first-ever U.S.-U.S.S.R. dual track meet, held in Moscow. There Johnson broke the world decathlon record.
When Johnson returned from Moscow he received the World Trophy for North America from the Helms Athletic Foundation. Pi Lambda Phi established an annual fraternity award in his honor, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) honored him as well. On January 5, 1959 Sports Illustrated proclaimed Johnson as the sportsman of the year.
Hard Road to Olympic Gold
A serious car accident in 1959 resulted in damage to Johnson's spinal cord and lower back and caused him to miss both the AAU decathlon and the Pan Am games that year. After seven months of painful recuperation, Johnson began jogging. Slowly he resumed running and sprinting training. One month prior to the 1960 Olympic trials at the AAU decathlon in Eugene, Oregon, Johnson accelerated his recuperative retraining schedule to include jumps. Again in 1960, as in 1956, Johnson qualified for the Olympic team. He went to the games in Rome, Italy, as captain of the U.S. team and carried the American flag at the opening ceremonies. It was a poignant moment for Johnson, as he was the first African American in the history of the modern Olympics to receive that honor.
Johnson won the gold medal in the decathlon that year with a record-breaking score of 8,392 points and earned for himself the distinction of being the world's best athlete. Following his Olympic gold medal victory, he received the Associated Press Athlete of the Year award, the California Athlete of the Year Award for the second time, and endless other citations. His life was documented with Mike Wallace who narrated a television special produced by David L. Wolper, and Johnson also appeared on This Is Your Life. Years later, Johnson's childhood home of Kingsburg named a junior high school after him. He was touched by the hoopla and noted in his autobiography that, "If a gold medalist today were to receive as much attention as I had for six straight years, he would already be a wealthy man."
During the months following the 1960 Olympics, Johnson's earlier inclination toward dentistry ebbed. He received numerous offers to play professional football and basketball, but accepted instead a contract to make films with Twentieth Century Fox. Among his film credits, he appeared with Woody Strode in Sergeant Rutledge and with Frank Sinatra in None But the Brave. He appeared in films with Bob Hope and Elvis Presley and in two Tarzan movies. Johnson accepted television roles on Dragnet, Six Million Dollar Man, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents and served as commentator for NBC for the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. In the mid-1960s he anchored the sports news for the ABC affiliate in Los Angeles, and he appeared on Mission: Impossible and Daniel Boone. He appeared in a staged documentary about black pioneers for the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) called The Black Frontier and a subsequent PBS film called Soul Soldier, about the Buffalo Soldiers of the U.S. 10th Cavalry.
Later in the 1960s Johnson accepted a position with Continental Telephone as an affirmative action consultant out of Bakersfield, California. He rose through the executive ranks during the 1970s to become vice president of personnel.
Also during the 1960s Johnson became affiliated with an international goodwill group called People to People. After spending considerable effort in establishing chapters of the group on college campuses nationwide, he settled into a post in charge of the organization's West Coast office in Los Angeles, California. He worked also with youth programs under the auspices of the California State Recreation Commission.
In light of his celebrity status and because he was an African American, he used the clout of his great popularity to further social causes, including fair housing and equal opportunity in the entertainment industries. He worked with the Urban League, with the NAACP, and with James Meredith's national voters' mobilization of blacks in Mississippi in 1966. Additionally, he was affiliated with San Fernando Valley Fair Housing Counsel, and the Voter Registration Program.
When Johnson received the People to People Award as Athlete of the Year following his gold-medal win in Rome in 1960, he met the late U.S. attorney general Robert F. Kennedy at the awards affair. A friendship ensued that spawned Johnson's involvement in a number of Kennedy-sponsored public projects, among them the Peace Corps and the Special Olympics. In 1968 Johnson served as an official delegate for the Kennedy presidential ticket, although the honor turned tragic on June 5, 1968 when Robert Kennedy was assassinated following the California presidential primary. Johnson, who witnessed the murder firsthand, assisted in arresting the assassin's flight and retrieved the murder weapon. He was a pallbearer at the funeral and testified at the murder trial. In the years that followed, Johnson was a frequent escort to Kennedy's widow for political junkets and other public affairs.
Johnson maintained many organizational affiliations throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including the Close-Up Foundation on which he served as a board member. He was involved with the Hershey Track and Field Youth Program, the National Amateur Sports Development Foundation, the National Recreation and Park Association, and the Athletic Advisory Panel of the U.S. State Department, as well as the American Red Cross and others.
More Glory Days
On December 18, 1971, Johnson married Elizabeth "Betsy" Thorsen, a middle school teacher in Orange County, California. The couple had two children: Jennifer, born in 1973; and Joshua, born in 1975. The family moved to Sherman Oaks, California, in 1973.
Twenty-four years after his gold-medal victory, Johnson relived his Olympic glory days by running the final lap of the opening ceremonies relay and lighting the Olympic torch for the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, California. In 1990 he was elected to the National High School Hall of Fame, and in 1992 he received the Humanitarian Award from Free Arts for Abused Children. In 2000 Johnson realized a unique dream, and what he called his greatest moment, when he watched his own daughter compete in the Olympic games in Sydney, Australia.
Johnson, Rafer, The Best That I Can Be: An Autobiography, Doubleday, 1998.
Notable Black American Men, Gale Research, 1999.
"From Rags to Sport Riches," ESPN.com, http://espn.go.com/sportscentury (December 14, 2000).
"Olympic Champion Rafer Johnson," September 14, 2000, http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/olympics/news/2000/09/14/head-games-rafer-johnson/ (December 14, 2000).
"Rafer Johnson," http://www.webpak.net/~hallfame(March 23, 2001).