LOS ANGELES – Rafer Johnson, who won the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics and helped subdue Robert F. Kennedy’s hit man in 1968, died Wednesday. He was 86.
He died at his home in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles, according to family friend Michael Roth. No cause of death was announced.
Johnson was one of the world’s greatest athletes from 1955 to his Olympic triumph in 1960, winning a national decathlon championship in 1956 and a silver medal in the Melbourne Olympics that same year.
His Olympic career included carrying the American flag at the 1960 Games and lighting the torch at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to open the 1984 Games. Johnson set world records three times in the decathlon amid a fierce rivalry with his UCLA teammate CK Yang from Taiwan and Vasily Kuznetsov from the former Soviet Union.
Johnson won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 1955 while competing in his fourth decathlon. At a welcome home gathering afterwards in Kingsburg, California, he set his first world record, breaking the goal of two-time Olympic champion and his childhood hero Bob Mathias.
On June 5, 1968, Johnson was working on Kennedy’s presidential campaign when the Democratic candidate was gunned down in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Johnson joined former NFL star Rosey Grier and journalist George Plimpton in the arrest of Sirhan Sirhan right after he shot Kennedy, who died the next day.
Johnson later called the murder “one of the most devastating moments of my life.”
Born Rafer Lewis Johnson on August 18, 1934 in Hillsboro, Texas, he moved to California in 1945 with his family, including his brother Jim, a future NFL Hall of Fame inductee. While some sources cite Johnson’s year of birth as 1935, the family has said this is not true.
They eventually settled in Kingsburg, near Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley. It was less than 25 miles from Tulare, the birthplace of Mathias, who would win the decathlon at the 1948 and 1952 Olympics and be an early inspiration for Johnson.
Johnson was a standout student, playing football, basketball, baseball and track and field at Kingsburg Joint Union High. Weighing six feet and over 200 pounds, he looked more like a linebacker than an athletic athlete.
During his freshman year in high school, Johnson’s coach took him to Tulare to watch Mathias compete in a decathlon, an experience Johnson later said spurred him to take on the grueling sport of 10 events.
As a freshman at UCLA, where he received academic and athletic scholarships, Johnson won gold at the Pan Am Games in 1955 and set a world record of 7,985 points.
After winning the national decathlon championship in 1956, Johnson was the favorite for the Melbourne Olympics, but he pulled an abs and strained a knee while training. He had to withdraw from the long jump, for which he had also qualified, but tried to put out the decathlon.
Johnson’s teammate Milt Campbell, a virtual stranger, gave the feat of a lifetime, finishing with 7,937 points to take gold, 350 for Johnson.
It was the last time Johnson would ever come second.
Johnson, Yang and Kuznetzov had their way in the record books between the 1956 and 1960 Olympics. Kuznetzov, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist dubbed their ‘man of steel’ by the Soviets, broke Johnson’s world record in May 1958 with 8,016 points .
Later that year, Johnson defeated Kuznetzov in a dual meeting between the US and the Soviet Union by 405 points and recaptured the world record with 8,302 points. Johnson won the Soviet public with his courageous performance in front of what had been a hostile audience.
A car accident and subsequent back injury left Johnson out of competition in 1959, but he was healthy again for the 1960 Olympics.
Yang was his most important game in Rome. Yang won six of the first nine events, but Johnson led with 66 points in the 1,500 meters, the final event of the decathlon.
Johnson had to finish within 10 seconds of Yang, which was no easy task as Yang was far stronger than Johnson.
Johnson finished just 1.2 seconds and six meters behind Yang to take the gold. Yang earned silver, and Kuznetsov took bronze.
He was named The Associated Press Athlete of the Year and won the Sullivan Award in 1960 as the best amateur athlete in the country.
At UCLA, Johnson played basketball for coach John Wooden and became a starter on the team from 1958-59. In 1958 he was elected student council president, the third black to hold office in school history.
Johnson withdrew from the competition after the Rome Olympics. He started acting in films, including appearances on Wild in the Country with Elvis Presley, None But the Brave with Frank Sinatra and the 1989 James Bond film License to Kill. sports reporter before becoming vice president at Continental Telephone in 1971.
In 1984, Johnson lit the Olympic flame for the Los Angeles Games. He took over from Gina Hemphill, granddaughter of Olympic great Jesse Owens, who walked into the Colosseum with it.
“When I stood there and looked out I remember thinking ‘I wish I had a camera,’” Johnson said. My hair was straight on my arm. Words really seem inadequate. ”
Throughout his life, Johnson was widely known for his humanitarian efforts.
He was a member of the organizing committee of the first Special Olympics in Chicago in 1968, in partnership with founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver. Johnson founded the California Special Olympics the following year at a time when positive role models for the mentally and physically disabled were rare.
Peter Ueberroth, who chose Johnson to light the Olympic torch in 1984, called him “just one great person, a great person.”
Johnson has worked for the Peace Corps, March of Dimes, Muscular Dystrophy Association, and the American Red Cross. He remained with UCLA for many years and served on various committees and boards. In 2016, he was awarded the UCLA Medal, the university’s highest award for outstanding achievement. The school’s number is named after Johnson and his wife Betsy.
His children, Jenny Johnson Jordan and Josh Johnson, were athletes themselves. Jenny was a beach volleyball player who competed in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and is on the coaching staff of the UCLA beach volleyball team. Josh competed in javelin at UCLA, where he was an All-American.
In addition to his 49-year-old wife and children, he is survived by son-in-law Kevin Jordan and four grandchildren.