Rafer Johnson helped something special grow from tragedy

In the days immediately after his friend and mentor Robert F. Kennedy was murdered before his eyes, Rafer Johnson did the only thing that made sense at the time.

“I built a six-foot fence around my property,” he said.

Trapped to the rest of the world, Johnson, the 1960 Olympic decathlon champion, became a prisoner in his own home, held captive by overwhelming hopelessness, unable to find direction in the shadow of his confusion and despair, a giant of a man disappears into the darkness of America.

“I was just broken,” said Johnson. “I was lost like everyone else.”

Then Eunice shouted Shriver.

Shriver, Kennedy’s sister, asked Johnson to help her and a young Chicago parks and recreation instructor named Anne Burke launch the first Special Olympics.

“I immediately told her I would,” Johnson said.

When the first Special Olympics opened on July 20, 1968, Johnson stood by Shriver’s side at Soldier Field, just as he had been with her brother during the intoxicating and then heartbreaking first six months of one of the most traumatic years in history. of this country.

The Special Olympics, Johnson said this week, pulled him out of his depression following the Kennedy assassination.

“That was my return to a life,” he said.

The Special Olympics gave Johnson a sense of purpose, a way to repay the debt he thought owed to the people who helped him on his way to those two glorious days at the Olympics in Rome; an opportunity to create a working, living monument to the man he intended to follow his life by doing that man’s life’s work.

“There is a direct link between Special Olympics and its legacy,” Johnson said, referring to Kennedy. “That was important to him, helping people with all kinds of challenges.

“I know you can’t get where you want to go without other people’s interest, without help,” said Johnson, who not only helped Shriver for decades but also founded Special Olympics Southern California and continues to speak and raise money for the group. . On behalf of. “Of course I had some skills and abilities, but I would never have been able to achieve what I did without a lot of people helping me, from my high school coaches, at UCLA, people who helped me growing up.

‘In this way you get over some obstacles in life, some obstacles. And I have vowed to give back any way I can, and with Special Olympics, I don’t think I could have found anything better to do that. ”

So the man who had cut himself off from the world and its violence, has for the past 47 years opened the doors to those who have been hidden for too long by society; the fence builder who has demolished barriers for decades.

“As soon as he put his teeth in, you could see a change in him,” said broadcaster Ed Arnold, a longtime volunteer at Special Olympics.

In 1969, Johnson, Arnold, and a small group of volunteers hosted the first Western Regional Special Olympics at the Colosseum. Those games drew 750 athletes from 20 counties and Arizona, New Mexico, Hawaii, Nevada, Utah and Colorado. Within three years, Johnson, Arnold and Co. the International Summer Special Olympic Games at UCLA, by then there were 2,800 athletes from all 50 states and three countries.

The Special Olympics World Games open in the Colosseum on Saturday. Forty-six years after Johnson and Arnold held a handful of athletic events in a nearly empty Colosseum – their organization operates from a Long Beach office with one desk and one filing cabinet – the 2015 World Games and 30,000 volunteers will host 7,000 participants from 177 countries over nine days.

“The reason Special Olympics did so well is because Rafer Johnson was part of it,” said Arnold. “I have no doubt that without Rafer the Special Olympics would not be where they are today.”

Although they had met shortly before, the connection between Johnson and Robert Kennedy, which would last for the rest of both men’s lives, was formed at a banquet held in New York not long after the 1960 Olympics. a tremendous effect on my life, ”said Johnson. Kennedy introduced Johnson and presented him with a national athlete of the year award. Kennedy’s speech resonated with Johnson’s interest in public service.

“I believed in the way the Kennedys wanted to run this country,” Johnson said. What President Kennedy said really meant something to me. I really believed that this was not what my country could do for me. What could I do for my country? ”

After expressing an interest in what would become known as the Peace Corps during a long talk that evening, Kennedy insisted that Johnson fly back to Washington, DC with him. home, zoo, parlor, and the nation’s most famous soccer field (name only) in suburban Virginia. Johnson worked for the Peace Corps for a while and would be involved in a number of projects during the Kennedy administration and later when Robert Kennedy was a United States Senator.

“I promised him when he was Attorney General that if he ever ran for national office, I would support him in any way I could,” Johnson said.

During Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, Johnson assumed the role of bodyguard, sounding board, adviser, and most importantly, trusted friend. Initially, he joined the campaign on his days off from his job as a sports anchor with KNBC, then became a fixture in the campaign when the station raised concerns about the appearance of a conflict of interest.

As the campaign headed for the final, possibly decisive, California primary, Johnson was on Kennedy’s side pretty much around the clock. On June 4, Kennedy won the California primary, making him the front runner on his way to the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

“… And now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there,” Kennedy told a ballroom full of supporters and media at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Johnson was standing next to him.

“When he delivered that speech that night, I had no doubt that I was looking at the next president of the United States,” Johnson said.

Originally, Kennedy planned to walk out through the center of the ballroom and thank supporters along the way. “We were on the podium and he tried to go one way first and then someone said another direction and then someone said another,” Johnson said. “They tried to figure it out.”

It was decided that Kennedy and his party would leave through the hotel kitchen. As a maitre d ‘led Kennedy outside, he walked past Johnson.

“I patted him on the back and followed him with Ethel,” Johnson recalled.

“He was shot a few yards in front of me.”

At 12:15 p.m. Kennedy stopped to shake hands with kitchen staff in a utility room when he was shot in the head by Sirhan Sirhan, an anti-Zionist Jordanian citizen of Palestinian descent. At 1:44 a.m. on June 6, more than 25 hours after the shooting, Kennedy died of a brain injury. According to the Los Angeles District Attorney’s files, Johnson asked him repeatedly after Sirhan wrestled with the ground, “Why did you do it? Why did you do it? ”

Over the next few days and weeks, Johnson continued to search in vain for answers. After making sure Ethel Kennedy and his family were safe in the hospital, Johnson returned home exhausted and fell asleep for an hour. He woke up and planned to return to the hospital, but when he put his coat back on, he saw a heavy object in a jacket pocket. It was Sirhan’s .22 caliber revolver.

“I went home after he died and didn’t know what I was going to do, what I wanted to do,” Johnson said. ‘I wanted to be alone. I wasn’t sure there was anything that would get me outside of my house. ”

Six weeks later, he and Shriver were together in Chicago, not far from where Robert Kennedy was expected to be confirmed as the Democratic presidential candidate, tied by his memory and dedication to his dreams.

That afternoon in Chicago remains clear in Johnson’s mind nearly 50 years later. He recalls watching the opening ceremony and overcome with emotion as he was reminded of similar ceremonies for the 1956 and 1960 Olympics and all the people who helped him get to those Games. “So many people came my way,” he said.

And he remembered a man, a friend whose vision would be the compass that would guide much of the rest of Johnson’s life.

“I remember that day I just looked and had this feeling and I don’t have the words, it’s hard to find the right words to really describe how I felt.”

The words are not necessary. Johnson’s labor since that day has spoken volumes.

Contact the writer: [email protected]