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Sportsmen of the Year: Rafer Johnson

January 03, 2008
by findingDulcinea Staff
Rafer Johnson is today's Sportsman of the Year in our weeklong profile of Sports Illustrated award winners. Johnson, an Olympic decathlon winner, won the award in 1958. In announcing the award, the magazine called Johnson a "rare concentrate of some old Sunday school virtues: tolerance, humility and godliness." "Johnson's kind of tolerance" it went on, "is not the diluted brand that sells so cheaply around the world these days, good only among people who already think alike. His is the real thing—by Voltaire's definition, the capacity to be tolerant even of intolerance."

Olympic Triumph

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Johnson overcame a stunning defeat and adversity to triumph on the world’s greatest stage. Johnson was widely expected to win decathlon gold in the 1956 Olympic Games, but he struggled through injury and settled for silver. In 1959, an auto accident left him unable to train for a year. Nevertheless, once he recovered from his injuries, Johnson quickly regained his form and won the decathlon in the U.S. Olympic trials.
In its preview issue for the 1960 Summer Olympics, Time Magazine put Johnson on its cover and wrote that he “has shown a monastic dedication to sport that would please the most spiritual of Olympic enthusiasts. He has shrugged off crippling injuries. In competition he has cheered on his most dangerous opponents. Says the Rev. Louis Evans, pastor of Los Angeles' Bel Air Presbyterian Church: ‘This is a most remark able human being. He is as gentle as a child, and yet he is tremendously competitive.’”
Johnson won Olympic gold in the decathlon in Rome in 1960 in dramatic fashion. Before the final event, the 1,500 meter run, Johnson held a modest lead over his college teammate and good friend, C.K. Yang of Taiwan. Johnson needed to finish within 10 seconds of Yang to hold his lead, but Yang’s personal best in the event was 18 seconds faster than Johnson’s. Nevertheless, their shared coach, Ducky Drake of UCLA, predicted to Time Magazine that "If Ray doesn't tie up, he'll dog Yang all the way … He's got the heart to do it." Indeed, Johnson shadowed Yang throughout and finished a mere 6 yards behind Yang to seal the victory. After the race, Johnson revealed his plans for a victory celebration: "Tonight I'm going to shower and then just walk for about four hours and look at the moon," he said. "I don't know where—just walk, walk, walk. I've got to unwind. I'm through, man, I'm through."
For Johnson, being “through” merely meant that his second act was beginning.  He flirted with acting, appearing in a number of motion pictures and television shows, before becoming active in politics.

People and Politics

Johnson has been involved with the organization People to People, founded by President Eisenhower to promote world peace and understanding, for more than 40 years, and serves on its board of directors. Peter Ueberroth, former chairman of People to People, says that “If you made a list of the ten top role models for young men in America, I don’t know who the other nine would be, but Rafer would be one of them.”
Johnson worked on the 1968 presidential campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy. On June 5, Johnson was in the kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when R.F.K. was shot.  Together with pro football player Rosie Grier, Johnson tackled Sirhan Sirhan to the ground and wrestled away his gun.  The Time Magazine edition of June 14, 1968 reported Johnson’s role as follows: “Johnson finally knocked the pistol out of the stubborn hand. ‘Why did you do it?’ he screamed. ‘I can explain! Let me explain!’ cried the swarthy man, now the captive of the two black athletes and spread-eagled on the counter. Several R.F.K. supporters tried to kill the man with their hands. Johnson and Grier fended them off. Someone had the presence of mind to shout: ‘Let's not have another Oswald!’ Johnson pocketed the gun.”
Shortly after R.F.K.’s death, Rafer Johnson joined with Ethel Kennedy and others to launch the Special Olympics. Johnson then launched the Southern California Special Olympics the following year, which now offers year-round sports training and competition to more than 11,000 disabled athletes. Johnson remains active in both organizations, using his fame to recruit legions of sponsors and volunteers over the past several decades.

A Sample of His Honors

In 1984, Rafer Johnson was granted the honor of being the final torchbearer, who climbed the stairs at the Los Angeles Coliseum and lit the Olympic flame that symbolized the opening of the Summer Games.
Johnson was elected, along with Arthur Ashe and Chi Chi Rodriguez, into the first class of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.
In 1998, ESPN named Johnson one of the 100 greatest North American athletes of the 20th century.
In 2006, the NCAA named Johnson one of the “100 Most Influential Student-Athletes” in the organization’s 100-year existence.
Johnson’s autobiography, The Best That I Can Be, was published in 1998.
In a wide-ranging interview with Kentucky newspaper Ace Weekly in 2004, Johnson spoke of the aftermath of the Kennedy shooting, race relations in America, and why he had to turn down a role to appear in Spartacus in 1959 with his good friend Kirk Douglas.
In a video of an interview with Rafer Johnson by Tom Brokaw as part of the History Channel documentary, “1968”, Johnson explains how his memories of Robert Kennedy kept hope alive for him following the assassinations, just two months apart, of Martin Luther King and R.F.K..
Internet Movie Database lists the credits from Johnson’s acting career, including his role as the villain “Mullens” in the 1989 James Bond fim “Licence to Kill.”

Family Ties

Johnson’s brother Jimmy played cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers and was elected to Pro Football’s Hall of Fame.  Daughter Jennifer played on the U.S. Olympic Women’s Beach Volleyball team in 2000.  Son Josh was a nationally ranked javelin thrower.  Johnson rarely spoke of his exploits or displayed his medals, and his children were startled to see their father honored at the 1984 Olympics.  "For all he has accomplished," says Jenny, "I think my dad gets more joy out of seeing my brother and me competing than he does talking about himself."
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