Rafer Johnson life and biography

Rafer Johnson picture, image, poster

Rafer Johnson biography

Date of birth : 1935-08-18
Date of death : -
Birthplace : Hillsboro, Texas, U.S.
Nationality : American
Category : Sports
Last modified : 2010-07-06
Credited as : Olympic athlete, Decathlon runner,

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Rafer Johnson (also known as: Rafer Lewis Johnson) born August 18, 1935 in Hillsboro, Texas is an Olympic decathlete and film actor.


Rafer Johnson is an Olympic gold medallist, a champion who has supported the Special Olympics and other social and political causes in the years since his retirement, unbeaten, from competition in the decathlon, the event that determines all-around top athletes. Johnson was born in Hillsboro, Texas in 1935, and spent his early years in an atmosphere of racial segregation that was reversed when he was nine and his family moved to Kingsburg California, near Fresno. His family was so poor that they lived in a boxcar in a railroad yard until his parents found jobs. Johnson thrived in California, becoming a high school athlete. He was his school's star halfback and took the Kingsburg team to three state championships. Johnson was a high scorer for both the basketball, baseball and track teams and won the state's junior decathlon championship. He later set the world record.

Johnson chose to study and train at the University of California, Los Angeles, in part because of the school's commitment to racial equality. Johnson won the decathlon at the Pan-American Games in 1955. He qualified for the 1956 Olympic team in the decathlon and the long jump but withdrew from the latter event because of an injury. He won the silver in the decathlon in Melbourne, Australia. In a 1958 meet between the United States and the Soviet Union, Johnson triumphed over Valeri Kuznyetsov and set another world record.

Johnson suffered a back injury in a 1959 automobile accident while driving with his younger brother Jimmy, who later played defensive back for the San Francisco 49ers and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1994. Johnson was unable to train for a year and a half, but he came back in 1960, to carry the United States flag in Rome and win decathlon gold in a very tight competition against his closest rival and teammate, C. K. Yang of Taiwan.

Johnson retired from sports after winning gold. He became involved in politics as a friend and supporter of Robert F. Kennedy. With another former athlete, Rosey Grier, Johnson disarmed Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy's assassin, when Kennedy was killed in June of 1968. Johnson dropped out of politics and turned his attention to charitable and social causes, including People to People and the Peace Corps Eunice Kennedy Shriver had been laying the groundwork for what would become the Special Olympics. Shriver started the program at her home and went national with it in 1968. Johnson formed the California Special Olympics in 1969 with a group of volunteers. The first competition, held in the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, welcomed nine hundred entrants. The program has grown to nearly seventy programs throughout California, which train and hold competitions for twenty-five thousand athletes in sixty-eight sports. Johnson continues to serve as chairman of the board of governors and as a board member of seven other organizations.

The honor of lighting the Olympic flame to begin the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles was Johnson's. He practiced for ten days in preparation for the moment that came on July 28. Only Johnson, Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee president Peter V. Ueberroth, and ceremony producer David Wolper knew he would be the athlete last to receive the torch, as it was handed from athlete to athlete, to mount the stairs and light the flame. Johnson described the final moment three weeks later to Robert Sullivan in an interview for Sports Illustrated. He said it wasn't like winning an event. "The whole thing was bigger. . . . As I ran, I could see tears in the eyes of some of the athletes. I felt a part of all those great Olympians on the field. I was tied to all those in the stands. I think the torch run may be the great legacy of these Olympic Games." "Johnson, feeling bound to the thousands he can see and those he can't, ignited the flame," wrote Sullivan. "The whole world wasn't there, that's true, but the suspicion is that much of it wished it had been."

Johnson's two children are athletes. His son is a nationally ranked collegiate javelin thrower, and his daughter competes on the pro volleyball circuit. William C. Rhoden interviewed Johnson for Emerge in 1994, as Johnson's daughter, Jennifer, was competing in St. Louis. Rhoden said, "What I remember about our conversation is his idealism. Johnson said that he still believed in the intrinsic virtues of sport as a builder of character and values and felt that athletes should strive to occupy a special leadership role in society." Rhoden continued, Johnson "felt that there was a relationship between the deterioration of a noble sports ethic and the ongoing evolution of sports as a billion-dollar industry." Johnson's heroes included Jackie Robinson and Jesse Owens. He spoke to Rhoden of his commitment to doing his best and representing the United States during his years of competition. He said, "Today, patriotism has very little effect on why an athlete competes."

Johnson appeared in several films and worked under director John Ford. His friends included Marlon Brando, Muhammad Ali, and news anchor Tom Brokaw, who wrote an introduction to Johnson's The Best That I Can Be: An Autobiography. Booklist reviewer Wes Lukowsky called the memoir "the autobiography of an uncommonly decent, ethical, and likeable man." The book contains ten chapters, for the ten events of the decathlon. In addition to providing an account of his life, Johnson's purposes in writing his autobiography were that he wanted to acknowledge all those who had helped him and to encourage teachers, parents, and others to support young people, who he hopes to inspire.

In his book Johnson wrote, "We keep on hating and blaming while neglecting those in need, even though we know it's going to kill us. Sometimes I look at the news and think, 'Haven't we learned? Will we ever learn?'"

Larry Little of Library Journal called The Best That I Can Be a "thought-provoking and inspiring read." David Davis wrote in the New York Times Book Review that "track and field used to matter. Jim Thorpe reigned as the world's greatest athlete; Babe Didrikson Zaharias proved that women could just do it; Jesse Owens showed up Hitler; Roger Bannister broke the four-minute barrier; Bob Beamon defied gravity." Davis said The Best That I Can Be "won't spark a track-and-field revival; the tone is too dry to excite the masses. But when Johnson describes how track used to be, he captures its very basic and very old-fashioned appeal." A Kirkus Reviews reviewer said Johnson tells his story "with equal parts grace, humility, and candor. . . . Johnson is perhaps the most undervalued, underpublicized sports hero in recent memory."

Born August 18, 1935, in Hillsboro, TX; children: daughter, Jennifer, and one son. Education: University of California, Los Angeles, A.B., 1959.


Gold medal, decathlon, 1955 Pan American Games; silver medal, decathlon, 1956 Olympics; named Athlete of the Year, Sports Illustrated, 1958; carried American flag at the opening ceremonies of the 1960 Olympics; gold medal, decathlon, 1960 Olympics; named Sportsman of the Year, Sport Magazine, 1960; named Athlete of the Year, Associated Press, 1960; James E. Sullivan Memorial Award, Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, 1960; inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, The Athletics Congress of the USA, 1974; inducted into the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame, 1983; lit the torch for the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics; "Spirit of Friendship" Award, 1988 California Special Olympics; elected to National High School Hall of Fame, 1990; Humanitarian Award, Free Arts for Abused Children, 1992.


Athlete, actor, author, sportscaster, businessman, humanitarian. California Special Olympics, founder with others, 1969, head coach, member of the board of directors, president, and board of governors chairman. Rafer Johnson Enterprises, owner; Continental Tel Corp, vice president of commercial real estate; NBC-TV, sportscaster.


* (With Philip Goldberg) The Best That I Can Be: An Autobiography, Doubleday (New York City), 1998.
* (Special consultant) Great Athletes, revised edition, Salem Press (Pasadena, CA), 2002.

Appeared in films, including Sins of Rachel Cade, Wild in the Country, A Global Affair, The Games, Soul Soldier.

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