Riordan back sheds hard times

raymone-sanders-use-dis-oneBy John Murphy

SAN FRANCISCO — His mom beat drugs. He beat the streets. And his purple-clad team is beating everyone in sight.

Meet Archbishop Riordan High running back Raymone Sanders. He’s been a few steps from Hell in his young life and a short sprint to the end zone for much of this magical 2015 season.

Raymone, en route to 542 yards rushing and eight touchdowns during this perfect Riordan season, has endured much, including:

–Growing up in a single-parent home in the projects of Hunters Point, known as the “HP.”

— Being raised by a crack cocaine-addicted mother who has since recovered, but is now battling Multiple Sclerosis and a mysterious mouth affliction.

— Letting go of the anger of growing up without his dad (who now attends games) in an environment where violence, drugs and despair abound.

“Sometimes the SWAT team will come by the house,” said Raymone, sitting in the Riordan football bleachers on a rare hot afternoon in the city. “A lot of gunshot happens, like every two nights. You see drug dealers around the corner. I lost a friend around the corner when I was 13.”

The “friend” was actually a cousin. “That was blood,” Raymone said.

“I kind of talk about it so I can release my anger,”  the 5-foot-8, 155-pound stick of dynamite said. “But I don’t think about it too much because my mom says not to. If you stress on it you’ll perform bad and you’ll do bad in school.”

Ah, perform — that’s something Riordan and Raymone are doing in spades this season after a 1-9 2014 season. The Crusaders, heading into Saturday’s 5 p.m. showdown with perennial power Bellarmine College Prep (4-1, 1-1) at Terra Nova High, are 5-0 overall and 2-0 in the West Catholic Athletic League. It’s a development about as expected as the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake that hit the Bay Area like a sledgehammer.

RECORD-BREAKING

Last Saturday against another long-time Riordan nemesis, Serra, Riordan scored a smashing 66-45 win at the City College of San Francisco, breaking a slew of school records along the way. Raymone was at his best, scoring three touchdowns and rushing for 182 yards on 13 carries. Included was a 73-yard bolt of lightning with just over four minutes left in the third quarter. The Riordan back took a handoff from quarterback Jacky Luavasa and broke to his right, then cut left and out-raced athletic Serra safety Jaylyn Membreno to the end zone.

That gave once-laughingstock Riordan a 52-35 lead, much to the delight of a growing base of Crusader fans whose numbers are multiplying with each game.

“It’s really motivating,” Raymone said. “You don’t want to make a mistake. You just want to be calm and keep doing what we’re doing so we can bring some more fans and bring Riordan spirit back to the school.”

SPORADIC SUCCESS

Riordan has had pockets of glory in football since 1966 when its Cal Erskine-coached team stunned Bellarmine 13-10 under the lights at Kezar Stadium. That prompted students to tear down the goal posts, with one of the stray pieces of wood now signed by the team and sitting in the office of Crusaders’ athletic director Mike Gilleran.

“We’ve beaten Bellarmine once since Nam,” said first-year coach Kevin Fordon.

“Since what?” he was asked.

“Since Vietnam,” said Fordon with a smile, referring to the 2000 season when Riordan went 5-0 in the WCAL to win its first league championship since back-to-back titles in 1971 and 1972.

Raymone was lured to Riordan because his brother, Rodney Sanford, played there 15 years ago, as did his cousin on his father’s side, Eric Wright, the former USC and NFL player who finished his career with the San Francisco 49ers.

Hunters Point has produced some notable Crusaders over the years, including pros Donald Strickland and Wright, as well as former Riordan running back Tyrone McGraw and receiver Daniel Cannon.

Another NFL player out of Riordan is running back Steve Sewell, said to be a boyfriend of Raymone’s mom Wendy Butler back in the day.’

CHASING THE HIGH 

Wendy appeared at the weathered Riordan football venue Wednesday after the interview with Raymone finished. She’s hard to miss with brightly dyed red hair, a crimson Betty Boop tattoo on her right arm and polka dot finger nails.

The single mom grew up near Riordan in a middle-class family and was a track star at Lincoln High out in the Sunset District. But a broken leg hindered her track career and drugs (specifically crack cocaine) turned her life upside-down.

“Before Raymone was born I was on drugs, but he doesn’t know what that kind of mother is,” Wendy said. “I’ve been clean since 1989. I’m not ashamed of it because it made me the woman that I am. I feel I’m a strong individual. I feel like all my kids got their determination from my will. I went in (to rehabilitation) and never looked back.”

Wendy’s father and uncle took her to a tough, pre-2000s rehab, not the country club atmosphere today’s programs offer. The 13 ½ months she spent in rehab saved her life.

“My upbringing had a lot to do with getting off of it,” Wendy said. “It started off as fun — it was just supposed to be a fun thing. I had the money and my parents gave me anything at that time that I wanted to help take care of my two older kids. But before you know it, it’s no longer fun. Before you know it, you’re chasing the drug. It’s not party time anymore.”

During one dark moment suicide seemed an option but Wendy shook the urge, much like her remarkable son sheds tacklers today.

Asked what goes through her mind during a game like Serra when she watches her youngest, Wendy said: “There goes my baby! There’s my baby! I used to run track and I tell him “You know you got your speed from your mama?”  That all comes from me. But when I see him going through the end zone I say “There goes my baby. “I’m just proud he can hang with these big guys.”

POWERED BY SKIPPY

The Hunters Point residents don’t have it easy. They share a three-bedroom place with an aunt who has cancer and her small daughter.

“Things are really tight,” Raymone said. “Sometimes there’s no food in the house to eat and my coaches help. I come to school and they feed me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and give me some of their food. It’s really tough sometimes.”

Then there’s the neighborhood which is bleak and dangerous, at best. When Raymone was in the sixth grade returning from basketball practice, he came across a dead body.

“That was at Third and Palou,” he said. “He was shot — two bullet holes in his back. When I saw that it was like nothing I could think of. Stuff like that, I don’t even like to think about.”

“There are a lot of gangs; too much I think. I look around and I don’t really like it because it’s taking the younger kids — kids younger than me that looked up to me when I was playing Pop Warner that’s involved in gangs now. Ten years old, 11 years old. It’s crazy.”

San Francisco police officer Rob Fung, the recently retired Washington High-San Francisco High baseball coach, agrees the HP is no paradise.

“I’ve never lived in this young man’s shoes,” he said. “I trained out there and occasionally patrol that area. It is one, if not the toughest, areas in the city. It’s a tough place for a kid to grow up.”

Raymone has muddled by but not without help. His mom signed him up for Pop Warner football and track and field at a young age, but he grew into an angry, resentful kid by middle school, with a penchant for bullying.

“I was a violent kid when I was younger,” Raymone said. “I used to get in fights a lot. I’d bully kids. I knew I was stronger than a lot of people. And I’d take my anger and frustration out on the kids that were not as strong as me. The weak links. I feel bad about that because it’s not cool.”

GROWING UP

Raymone’s  brother Rodney snapped him out of it, teaching him to channel his aggression on the field. And a San Francisco Warriors’  Pop Warner coach nudged him toward Riordan, an all-boys Catholic school of just under 700 students (1,000 fewer than this week’s  opponent, Bellarmine) that’s  in the working-class Outer Mission/Sunnyside neighborhood.

An indifferent student for three years on Phelan Avenue, Raymone has made a late rush and is said to be NCAA Division I eligible, with Cal State Sacramento in hot pursuit.

“I have him in class this semester and he’s completely different (than last year),” said Fordon who was the offensive coordinator last season. “He’s the first one to raise his hand and he always has his homework done. He got an A on my mid-term; it’s like night and day. It just shows how much this kid’s grown up.”

It didn’t come easily. Raymone’s  mom not only has MS but that severe gum disease doctors at first thought might be cancer. Fordon found out in August, but Raymone was not told until last Thursday for fear it would sidetrack him. His three-TD performance against Serra was dedicated to his mom, who is in the painful process now of having her teeth extracted.

Said Serra coach Patrick Walsh of Raymone. “I was very impressed with his speed, agility and toughness. He really hit the holes hard and ran through a ton of tackles. He ran right up the middle on us and seemed to be in a different gear. I think he has the ability to play at the next level.”

Now with Riordan ranked among the top 25 teams in the state for the first time in school history, Wendy contemplates all that’s happened and gives thanks for the all-boys school he attends.

“Raymone has changed, even at home,” Wendy said.  “I’d don’t have to say please do this and why didn’t you do this? “I’m starting to see the maturity of him becoming a responsible young man. I owe that all to Riordan. They taught him education is first and being a great athlete is important but it’s not a priority. All of these men around him made a difference for my son.”

 

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Throwin’ papers

By John Murphyle paper

Until recently when I gave the ol’ two-weeks’ notice, I was writing sports for a Central Valley newspaper.

Frequently I’d wake up in the middle of the night and head down to the office to get some work done. There in the parking lot folding papers on the hoods of their cars were the carriers … or as I liked to call them, the vampires, because they only came out at night.

Confession: I was once a member of the un-dead. While covering sports for the San Bernardino Sun more than 10 years ago, I picked up a newspaper route in Grand Terrace and reported every night to a warehouse in Bloomington to collect and fold the papers.

Then it was off to GT and its well-kept blocks named after birds like Cardinal and Blue Jay. I was literally driving my father’s old Oldsmobile back then, cruising in a Navy blue Delta 88 with power-lock doors and windows and a strong stereo system as I tossed papers out of by sides of the car.

The route had some quirks. One elderly lady lived at the top of an impossibly high driveway. It was so steep I had to gun my 350 engine to propel my Olds to the top. They say she tipped well at Christmas, but I never made it that far.

Part of the route was in the country and once, about 4 a.m., I tooled up this road to see two deer standing in my path, including a large buck. I’m pretty sure this happened, too, and wasn’t just some flashback from the 1970s.

Sunday was a big paper and we’d pack them into plastic bags so they wouldn’t get wet. But if you grabbed the wrong end of the bag when you tossed it, all of the sections would fly out in different directions and land on the street. I did that like once a day.

I was not the greatest carrier. Twice I had seven-complaint nights which hurt the bottom line because you got fined $1 for each miscue. Figure in the wear and tear on the car and the havoc it played on my sleep patterns and it wasn’t worth it.

After two months I gave up the ghost – not my shortest stint at a job, but certainly longer than my 15-minute career at Safeway, which is a story for another day.

 

Coaches, school have Stroud’s back

T dark skies.JPGBy John Murphy

SELMA – Highway 43 heading from Hanford to Selma is a revelation in late November.

The searing heat of summer is gone, replaced by cooler temperatures. In the distance sunlight pours from the heavens through dark clouds, turning a pair of tall palm trees into silhouettes.

Oblivious to the scenic splendor Nov. 15 was the Selma High School football team and its senior running back Tiveon Stroud. This was his first day back at practice following a long school suspension as the team prepared to meet visiting North in a Central Section quarterfinal playoff game, a game Selma lost 36-35 in overtime.

Stroud played well against North, catching four passed for 80 yards and scoring two touchdowns. But as a student-athlete did he deserve the second chance he  received, what do his teammates think of his return and how will the next 4-5 months impact a 17-year old teeming with so much ability?

“Tiveon has more potential than anyone I’ve had in 31 years of coaching,” said Mike Pallesi, Stroud’s basketball coach and unofficial guardian angel. “He just needs to channel it and get out of his own way sometimes. If he ever figures it out he can do whatever he wants to do.”

Football coach Matt Logue has proven to be as patient with Stroud as he is effusive with praise.

“Any time he touches the ball, he could take it the distance,” Logue said. “We’ve used him as a running back, receiver, kick returner and punt returner. He’s so tall that he looks like he’d go down easily, but the lower half of his body is so strong that he breaks tackles.”

He also broke the school’s code of conduct in September, causing him to go on school suspension for five weeks and miss the entire Central Sequoia League season. That was on top of being academically ineligible for the first part of both the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Sitting in his athletic director’s office Nov. 14 with dozens of championship plaques behind him, Randy Esraelian agreed Stroud is an interesting study.

“He’s one of the best athletes we’ve seen at this school, a playmaker in both sports,” Esraelian said. Off the field, Esraelian agreed, Stroud has had his struggles.

But the 17-year-old returned in time for the North game, and his teammates seemed OK with it.

“We can use him to our advantage,” starting offensive lineman Rocky Ortega said. “He has speed and is a perfect fit for where he plays. He did mess up big-time, but he’s a good football player and he’s what we need.”

Starting center Josiah Cuevas has known Stroud since they were 7 and is not resentful about the second chance his teammate received.

“We’re in the playoffs and he’ll be a big help,” Cuevas said. “He’s always been a star player, ever since we were little. He loves sports and when he’s dialed in and giving it his all, he’s an explosive player.”

Following a recent football practice, Stroud sat in basketball coach Pallesi’s classroom, munching on a light dinner before heading for the gym. He is soft-spoken and friendly and it’s easy to see why his teammates like him.

“I know I messed up,” Stroud said. “But I’ve talked to the team and they believe in me and thought I deserved another chance.”

Scintillating, if raw, on a basketball court, Stroud was hard to miss on Feb. 15 of last season in a 14-point, four-dunk, four-block effort against Dinuba. While teammate Will Pallesi (son of the coach) excited the crowd late in the game by making six consecutive 3-pointers, Stroud had teens moshing in the aisles after a rim-rattling reverse dunk late in the first half.

“He passed it to me and once I got it, I saw the rim and threw my arms back and dunked it,” Stroud said after the game. “I just saw the ball in the air and went for it. It felt great.”

Mike Pallesi saw all this potential five years ago when Stroud was a fledgling player at Abraham Lincoln Junior High. He knew that with Junior Ramirez, Manny Singh and his own son headed for the high school, the addition of Stroud could be the final piece of the puzzle that could end Selma’s 103-year section title drought. And Pallesi was right, as Stroud helped lead the Bears to section titles in football and basketball last year.

Regarding his academic struggles, Stroud said he is afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder, making it difficult for him to focus in school.

“When I asked him to join my AAU team when he was in the eighth grade, I promised his mom I would do everything I could to make sure he graduates from college, Mike Pallesi said. “She started crying because she’s been told a lot of things by a lot of people over the years, but she was happy I could help.”

Stroud was pleased as well, eagerly accepting a male role model into his life who would not ignore him, nor disappear on him.

“In the eighth grade I didn’t know how to play, but Pallesi told me to try it and I liked it,” Stroud said. “He helped me and I started doing really good. He’s been there for me and he’s done a lot for me.”

Pallesi just sees a teen with special skills and some obstacles who needs a helping hand.

“If he goes to junior college and gets an AA degree, then he can play at a four-year college somewhere,” the veteran coach said. “After that he might be able to play overseas or in the CBA and be set for the next 10 or 15 years. But if I don’t help out, then what’s the alternative?”

 

 

Hanford, interesting place to stop awhile

Fox from the frontBy John Murphy 

It was less than a year ago I interviewed at the Hanford Sentinel and was surprised by how big the building is. It reminded me of my first workplace, the Watsonville Register-Pajaronian — another small-town publication that once thrived, but now has a skeleton staff in these difficult times for newspapers.

Following my Sentinel interview, I looked over downtown Hanford and got a distinct Watsonville vibe, considering its beautiful landmarks, impressive architecture, and Hispanic influence.

Newsflash: Within a week I’m retiring from full-time journalism and moving to still another quaint town, Redlands. Before I do, I decided to drive through downtown Hanford with a notebook and my cell phone camera and chronicle what I saw.

A personal favorite is the Hanford Fox theater which was built in 1929 and shows old movies like “Pretty in Pink” and hosts occasional concerts, such as the Marshall Tucker Band. I didn’t partake in either, but I love the neon of this building, the old ticket booth and what I could see of the interior.

LT Sue .jpgA stone’s throw away from the Fox is Court House Square. The square boasts the Civic Auditorium with its stately pillars, the Kings County Courthouse which opened in 1896 and the Veterans Memorial with its ornate cannons.

Not to be forgotten is the nearby Superior Dairy, a 1920s ice cream parlor that serves portions large enough to clog the healthiest of arteries.

Tooling in my Corolla toward the outskirts of town, I re-visited venerable China Alley. Chinese immigrants arrived in Hanford in the late 19th century to help build the railroads. They also built a thriving Chinatown that has now faded but has not completely vanished.

Remnants of a bygone era include the shuttered Imperial Dynasty restaurant and the Taoist Temple erected in 1893. The Imperial Dynasty was once a five-star restaurant so renowned that folks from San Francisco and New York flew into the Central Valley to experience it. At least that’s what my esteemed colleague Stephani Mahon-Jones said and she hardly ever makes anything up.

Arianne Wing writes a fascinating column for the Sentinel about the history of Chinatown. At the end of each column is a recipe, sometimes culled from a noodle house one of her elders owned. It’s an interesting read about a unique corner of Hanford, an underrated city with much to offer.

Old buildings, gray sky

 

 

My mom, a remarkable woman

mom in high school

Catherine Faulkner, as a Lowell senior.

By John Murphy 

Today I awoke at 3 a.m., as I do way too often. I made some coffee, turned on my laptop and noticed that it is Nov. 14 – my late mom’s birthday.

Catherine Florence Faulkner was born on Nov. 14, 1914, in San Francisco. Her father, John, worked for Spreckels Sugar. Her older brother, Charles, played football and baseball at St. Ignatius High.

My mom had aunts who were dressmakers for wealthy San Francisco women. These aunts doted on her and took her on some of their travels, including to New York City. Later, she attended Lowell High School, known as the “smart kids’” public school in the city. She was president of the Girls Athletic Association at Lowell and rode horses, among other pursuits.

Teaching was my mom’s passion and, like me, she attended San Francisco State – then known as San Francisco Teachers’ College. After college, she landed a job in Oakland and had to take a ferry all the way across the bay to reach her destination.

Eventually, she met my dad, James Murphy, on a ferry headed for a dance in Marin. He was once in the seminary but was now on his way to a career in education. The rest is history as they were married and had four children, with me being the youngest.

My mom was smart, artistic and was astute in business, which was unusual for a housewife in 1960s and 70s America. She also liked to dispense pet sayings that have sustained me during some dark moments. Just simple things like “Tomorrow’s another day” and “Being poor is one thing, but being poor in spirit is another.”

My mom made it all the way to 100 years and eight days, living out her final years at the Mercy Retirement and Care Center in Oakland. We had a big 100th birthday party for her there on Nov. 15, 2014, and she had a grand time, as the old-timers used to say.

Eight days later she passed away – but not before living a most remarkable life.

 

 

Vikings were kings in ’67

Geezers

By John Murphy 

KINGSBURG – The year was 1967. It was the “Summer of Love” in San Francisco, but at Kingsburg High School, it might as well have been the 1950s, as football players rocked short haircuts and letterman jackets and the girls tried to look like Sandra Dee.

Not that much was expected of the ’67 Kingsburg High football team. The Vikings had a new coach in native Texan William “Dub” Doshier, and Kingsburg had not won a league title in almost a decade.

Doshier did a magnificent job under-selling his team one week into the season as the Kingsburg Lions Club held its annual dinner that hosted the coaches of the Vikings’ opposing teams.

“We are little and slow,” Doshier said in his Texas twang, the bull manure almost dripping off every word. “Of the 30 players on our team, 10 are under 150 pounds. Our little kids are extremely slow and our big players are slower. Kingsburg parents have set a good example – the kids are too nice.”

Kingsburg played “nice” in a 6-6 opening tie against Lindsay before gaining its footing. Then, the Vikings, getting the hang of Doshier’s run-oriented I formation, won six of their final nine regular-season games to tie for the league title with Exeter.

That 1967 team, some of its players a few pounds heavier and a little more bent than 50 years ago, will be honored on Sept. 22 with an introduction before the start of the Kingsburg game against visiting Monache.

“Dub Doshier was the coach and he liked to run the ball way too much,” said Bob Kataoka, who was – no surprise — a receiver for the Vikings. “The quarterback was Mike Reardon, and he was accurate on short passes but didn’t throw the long ball. They used Mark Bennett to throw long — he could throw and kick the ball a mile.”

The offensive line consisted of Mark Pinheiro, Keith Erickson, Curtis Rasmussen, Mike Sadderstrom and Leonard Samuelson. Pinheiro was 6-foot-1, 220 pounds in an era when 200-pound linemen were considered big.

“I was co-captain of the team and have a lot of memories,” Samuelson said. “We went 6-2-2 and lost in the playoffs to Chowchilla. We tied Orosi and I had a lot of relatives in Orosi and that was the only blemish on their record — they went 9-0-1.”

About 200 miles north in San Francisco, where the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead were getting their start and flower power reigned, future NFL Hall of Famer Dan Fouts was filling Kezar Stadium with passes for the St. Ignatius High team. But in the Central Valley of California, the forward pass was used more sparingly and the Vikings ran behind linemen, who were no behemoths.

“We had a few big linemen who were around 200 pounds, but we had more speed than anything else,” Samuelson said. “There was no weightlifting program then.”

Circuitous route

 

That diminutive John Perry was on the Kingsburg roster at all was unlikely. Perry and his wife Kathy — his high school sweetheart — now live close enough to Kingsburg High to hear the roar of the crowd on a Friday night. However, back in 1967, Perry had only just arrived in town after earlier attending Hanford High School.

“We bought a ranch in Kingsburg in December of 1966,” Perry said. “I missed the 1966 football season, but I did wrestle for Kingsburg that year.”

Perry is a Portuguese-American, and his grandfather came to America from the Azores, passing through Ellis Island, where they changed his name from Francisco Pereira to Frank Perry. Grandpa Frank settled first in Yreka, at the northern tip of California, and then traveled to Kingsburg to join relatives by riding a motorized bicycle, a relatively new invention in 1907.

“The town was very supportive of the team,” Perry said. “Jimmy Johnson and Monte Clark — future pro players — had played there some years earlier, and there was a lot of tradition.”

 

Call him “Dub”

Coach Doshier also meandered his way to Kingsburg. He grew up near Temple, Texas, where he became known as “Dub” because his grade-school teacher refused to call him by his initials, W.A.  He moved with his family to Pasadena in 1940 and later played on the 1951 Pasadena City College national championship team and on a College of the Pacific squad that competed in the Sun Bowl.

Doshier coached at four Northern California high schools before his arrival in Kingsburg. He fit in well in the bucolic small town, where he could play golf and bridge and attend church on Sundays with his children and wife Priscilla.

“Dub enjoyed his time in Kingsburg enormously,” said Priscilla, 82, by phone from Riverside, where she now lives. “It was amazing how united the town was behind football. The place didn’t completely roll up when the games were played, but it was pretty quiet downtown. I have nothing but happy memories of Kingsburg.”

Erickson — a small-but-quick lineman — has similar recollections.

“It was an incredible season,” he said. “We had a good coaching staff and it was a great town where you’d walk down the main street and people would shout out your name and ask how you were doing.”

Championship drive

Kingsburg went 2-1-2 in the non-league season, losing its only game to rival Selma, 18-7. It also dropped its West Sequoia League opener to Coalinga 13-7. However, three consecutive league victories set up a regular-season finale at Exeter and a chance for a co-title.

Few gave Kingsburg a chance, since Exeter was 3-0 in league and had beaten Coalinga.

The hard running of George Roehlk and Dave Burris and the receiving of Kataoka helped Kingsburg take a 13-7 halftime lead, but Exeter nudged ahead 14-13 after three quarters.

Two early fourth-quarter passes moved the Vikings to the Monarch 29. Then Burris ran the ball six consecutive times before bulling over from the two. Bennett’s kick eventually gave Kingsburg the game, a co-title and its first-ever playoff berth, though it lost 32-13 the following week to Chowchilla.

 

The memories are vivid for players like Perry, who still fits into his green letterman’s jacket with the league championship patch and halfback/safety Russell Campagne.

 

“What I miss the most is how the whole town of Kingsburg would support the team,” he said. “Every Friday night, the fans would come out and cheer. You had the entire town’s backing, and it was a great thing.”

John Murphy can be reached at 583-2413 or jmurphy@hanfordsentinel.com.

Rafer Johnson: National treasure

Rafer Johnson photo

By John Murphy 

Rising above pastoral Kingsburg where grape fields and stone fruit orchards eventually give way to stores and churches is a unique landmark.

It is a 1911 water tank adorned with a spout, lid and handle and painted in a Scandinavian style as a nod to the city’s Swedish population that numbered 94 percent of the town by the early 1900s.

So prevalent were the Swedes that local track and field star Rafer Johnson, according to his autobiography, once heard a fan from another town tell a friend, “I’m really looking forward to seeing this Swedish boy, Rafer Johnson.”

That amused Johnson, who for a time belonged to the only African-American family in Kingsburg.

“If you look in the Kingsburg phone book, it was and still is filled with names like Anderson, Swanson and Johnson,” he said. “I guess when that guy read my name, he just thought I was another Swedish kid.”

Johnson was a percolating force of nature who would win the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon, be named Sports Illustrated’s Athlete of the Year, Sport Magazine’s Sportsman of the Year, the Associated Press Athlete of the Year and be given the Sullivan Award as the Outstanding Amateur Athlete. And all that was just in 1960.

Throughout his remarkable journey, Johnson was not only an Olympic champion but played basketball at the University of California, Los Angeles for coach John Wooden. He was also friends with presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and boxing champ Muhammad Ali. He championed the Special Olympics and lit the cauldron at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Now 81 years old, the Sherman Oaks resident has lived an incredible life, and it all largely began in Kingsburg.

Finding a home

Johnson’s meager origins are like something out of a dime novel, almost too corny for a movie script.

He was born in 1935 in Hillsboro, Texas, where his father Lewis Johnson was a farmhand. Later, the family moved to an impoverished neighborhood west of downtown Dallas called Oak Cliff. They lived in various old, wooden houses during their years there and had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Johnson slept in the same bed with his brothers Ed and Jimmy. Jimmy later became a Hall of Fame defensive back with the San Francisco 49ers.

In Texas, Johnson experienced segregation, including separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites, so it probably came as a relief when Lewis Johnson moved the family to the San Joaquin Valley, where it eventually landed in Kingsburg.

Once known as Wheatville, Kingsburg began as a flag stop on the Central Pacific Railroad. By 1946, when the Johnsons arrived, the city had grown and Lewis Johnson took a job with the railroad.

The future gold medalist later described Kingsburg as a “Norman Rockwell painting come to life” – full of fruit orchards to run in and irrigation ditches to swim in and canneries on which to ride elevated belts as if they were amusement park rides.

By Johnson’s high school years, he had grown to a sturdy 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, and he starred in four sports for the Kingsburg High School Vikings. He averaged nine yards per carry in football, 17 points per game in basketball and hit better than .500 in baseball. However, it was track and field where he really excelled under the tutelage of late Viking coach Murl Dodson. No dummy away from the track, Johnson was also a top scholar and student body president.

“When I was a kid, I’d go with my dad on trips and Rafer would do his homework in between running and jumping,” said Dave Dodson, the son of Murl, who later became the longtime track and field coach at Sanger High. “At first he did the 100 and 220 and high jump, but only two athletes from the area qualified for the state meet and there were some top sprinters around like Leamon King from Delano and Alonzo Hall from Edison.”

url Dodson steered Johnson into the high and low hurdles and the long jump. A quick study, Johnson attended a Junior Olympics meet in San Francisco and blew away the competition. A star was born.

By Johnson’s late teens, he was heavily sought by colleges, and UCLA won out. At UCLA, Johnson soaked up the knowledge of iconic coach John Wooden. Now 6-foot-3 and well-chiseled, he was a force inside for the 1959-60 Bruin basketball team.

“He was a good jumper and was more effective offensively around the basket than from the outside,” said Pete Newell Jr., son of the legendary University of California, Berkeley and U.S. Olympic coach of the same name.

Wooden wistfully concluded that he held Johnson back too much, later saying “Imagine Rafer Johnson on the break.”

No matter. The Kingsburg High grad was already headed for big things in track and field, tutored by the great UCLA coach Elvin C. “Ducky” Drake. He also received mentoring in the pole vault by California State University, Fresno coach Cornelius “Dutch” Warmerdam, a Hanford High grad who held the world pole-vault record for many years.

When Johnson was still in high school, Murl Dodson brought him to meet the legendary coach.

“The pole vault was the most technically difficult event and the most difficult for me,” Johnson said. “When I got there I was doing 9-6, but we spent a half a day with Dutch and when we left I had improved two feet, to 11-6.”

Going for gold

By 1956, Johnson had been a world-record holder in the decathlon and the favorite to win at the Melbourne Olympics, but it was not to be.

He injured his knee in training and had to have it drained regularly. He then tore a stomach muscle while competing in the long jump, which he had also qualified for, and had to pull out of that event. He finished second to Milt Campbell of the United States, further stoking Johnson’s insatiable quest for gold.

Johnson trained furiously for the 1960 Rome Olympics, working out under the watchful eye of Drake and toiling under the hot Southern California sun with C.K. Yang of Taiwan, also a UCLA track star. Yang would be Johnson’s main competition in Rome.

“C.K. was one of the greatest athletes of the time,” Johnson said. “He was an all-around talented individual — quick, strong and knowledgeable. When you competed against C.K., you had to bring your best.”

Johnson did in Rome, as the world watched.

Entering the second day of the Olympic decathlon, the competition between Johnson and Yang was close and remained that way to the end. Heading into the final event, the 1500, Johnson led by 67 points, but middle-distance running was Yang’s specialty.

Undaunted, Johnson stayed in Yang’s shadow to the end, crossing the finish line in 4:49.7 to Yang’s 4:48.5, losing the race but winning the decathlon and the gold medal.

Kingsburg’s own was deluged by the press after, and said, “Tonight, I’m going to shower and then just walk for about four hours and look at the moon. I don’t know where — just walk, walk, walk. I’ve got to unwind. I’m through, man. I’m through.”

Except, he wasn’t. Gold medal dangling from his neck, Johnson still had much to accomplish.

Lighting the way

In the 1960s, Olympic gold did not translate into riches. Johnson got into sports announcing for a time, helping to call the 1964 Olympics from Tokyo and working for a Los Angeles television station, but he quit the latter to work on the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Johnson met Kennedy through People to People, a group President Dwight D. Eisenhower had begun in 1956 to focus on cultural-exchange programs.

“I told [Kennedy] I would be willing to help if he ran for office, and so I did, traveling mostly throughout California with him, giving speeches and supporting him,” Johnson said. “It was fantastic.”

Unfortunately, the friendship and dream came to end on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy was walking through the kitchen following a speech when a lone assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, brushed through the crowd, pulled out a revolver and fatally shot him. Johnson and pro football player Rosey Grier were among those who wrestled the gun away.

“I don’t want to get into it, but I was close enough, along with a few others, to get a hand on the gun and remove the weapon,” he said.

Shaken, Johnson forgot he put the weapon in his pocket and later handed it over to authorities.

More difficult for Johnson than getting rid of the gun was exorcising the depression that took hold of him. The Olympic champ went into a deep funk until Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of John and Bobby Kennedy, asked him to help with the Special Olympics, a fledgling athletic program created in 1968 for those with intellectual disabilities.

“In those days, there was little or nothing being done for people with disabilities,” Johnson said. “It was Eunice Shriver’s idea to start the Special Olympics, and I took the idea back to California, but she gets the credit. I just delivered the message. It’s made an unbelievable difference in people’s lives.”

So has Johnson. Following the Rome Olympics, he has done much. He became an actor, performing in movies with Angie Dickinson and Elvis Presley, taking part in Frank Sinatra’s directing debut “None but the Brave,” and saving Lassie from peril in a television show.

 

He’s had three institutions named after him: Rafer Johnson Junior High in Kingsburg, Rafer Johnson Community Day School in Bakersfield and Rafer Johnson Children’s Center, also in Bakersfield.

Ironically, for post-baby boomers, what Johnson is best known for was taking the torch at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and ascending 99 steps at the Los Angeles Coliseum — the last 25 steps at an incredibly steep angle — and lighting the flame as the music swept to a crescendo.

“The great American hero, Rafer Johnson,” sportscaster Jim McKay said on that day.

Though Johnson has climbed to dizzying heights throughout his life, he is described by most as the same down-to-Earth guy who grew up in Kingsburg and still subscribes to his old hometown newspaper.

“He’s just a special person,” Dave Dodson said. “He liked to joke around and have a good time. He was very modest, very friendly and just a super person that I enjoyed being around.”

When asked to state his age for this story, Johnson said simply “I’m an old Viking, but not the oldest Viking. I’m just Rafer.”

John Murphy can be reached at 583-2413 or jmurphy@hanfordsentinel.com.

First at Manson murders, first in scoring

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By John Murphy 

BLOOMINGTON – Don Markham, then 54, elicited more muffled laughter than awe when he first met the 1994 Bloomington High football team.

“He was a straight-up guy and he wasn’t trying to be funny, but I thought he was funny,” said two-way lineman Alex Lora, of Rialto, who now remodels businesses. “He was pointing out guys and saying ‘OK, you need to run more and you need to lift more.’ I thought ‘Oh my God, who is this old man?’ But that was just his persona.”

Soon Markham, with a personality and an offense as subtle as a punch in the gut, would take the prep football world by storm.

Bloomington — 1-9 in 1993 before Markham — flattened host Big Bear 86-8 in the opener and then felled nine more regular-season foes as easily as Paul Bunyan whacking Christmas trees. By the time the playoffs were done, the Bruins (14-0) had won their first section title, earned a mythical Division 3 state title and scored a then-national record 880 points.

The point total is still a state record and one of the Inland area’s 10 most unbreakable records. Albemarle (N.C.) High broke Bloomington’s national record in 2001 with 903 points, but it took the Bulldogs two more games.

When former Bloomington standout running back Cheyane Caldwell was asked recently if any Inland team could break the Bruins’ state record, he didn’t hesitate.

“They can try,” chuckled Caldwell, now a captain in the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

Added Caldwell: “This man named Don Markham came in and he believed in us. Our demeanor changed and we could see there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”

That light for opponents was like a freight train bearing down.

Against Big Bear, the ’94 De Anza League champion, the Bruins scored 62 first-half points en route to an 86-8 victory and the highest point total for a Southern Section team since 1921. The Bruins scored 20 points on two-point conversions alone.

“It was outrageous how many points we scored,” said offensive lineman Hilario “Project” Lopez, now a carpenter in Las Vegas. “We had the same talent as the season before or maybe even less, but we had a coach who believed in us. He put the right talent in the right spots. We were just rolling over people. It was surreal.”

After every touchdown the cheerleaders raced to the end zone, which was good for the fitness level of the Bloomington girls. Said quarterback Jason Buell in 2004: “Some of (the cheerleaders) were kind of fat at the start of the season, but by the end of the season they were looking pretty good.”

Bloomington averaged 408.3 yards per game on the ground. In the section title game against host La Mirada, the Bruins rushed for 581 yards in a 48-32 Bruins victory.

Caldwell, Greg Oliver, Adam Rodriguez and David Smith gained the yards, with Oliver and Caldwell combining for more than 3,000 yards for the season.

The offensive line of Lora, Lopez, Henry Viramontes, Mike Abril and Ricky Salazar bored holes in opposing defenses, with the help of tight ends Frank Martinez and Antonio Muro. Even quarterback Buell aided the blocking effort, sticking his head into the fray on Bloom-ington’s vaunted off-tackle pitch.

Markham created the play while coaching the Pop Warner Northridge Knights beginning in 1966. He used it while running the stack-I formation at LA Baptist, Colton and La Puente Bishop Amat and then adapted it to the double-wing at Riverside Ramona.

“Eddie Robinson (Grambling University) used two tight ends and two wings, but he didn’t run the off-tackle pitch,” Markham said. “We were the first double-wing team to pitch it off tackle.”

Markham has been described as an enigmatic football genius, with a savant’s focus on the X’s and O’s. That expertise has helped produce a total of five section titles, achieved at three high schools; and an overall record of 309-110-1 at eight schools.

In 1969 only a mass murder could break his routine, it seemed.

Then a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, Markham and his partner were the first on the scene of the Manson “family” murders at the Los Angeles home of movie director Roman Polanski and the late actress Sharon Tate.

“We had to help the detectives search the property for weapons,” said Markham, who typically zipped from his police shift to football. “I was upset because it screwed up my coaching.”

The obsession never lifted. During much of the 1994 season, Markham wore sweats from his previous stop, Bandon (Ore.) High, turned inside out because he was too busy to buy coaching gear. That was just the tip of his eccentric iceberg.

The ’94 Bruins had only 20 players and used 12. Markham was the entire coaching staff, save for Jeff Stuckey. The Bruins dressed in foreboding Navy blue and sauntered everywhere they went. Their playbook was as thin as an intern’s resume. And they ignored the kicking game, running for two-pointers and punting just twice during the regular season.

Markham loved the rebel tag and Bloomington embraced the Bruins.

“An End Run Around Obscurity” was the title of a 1994 Los Angeles Times article describing the Bruins’ impact on an unincorporated town searching for an identity.

“Thanks to a ragtag collection of football players at this high school who this season conquered the end zone like an unstoppable army, Bloomington is finally getting respect,” the article said.

The records and opponents tumbled like bowling pins. The Bruins walloped Baldwin Park Sierra Vista 70-0 in their playoff opener, besting the state scoring record of 665 points set by Concord De La Salle a year earlier.

Two games later Bloomington defeated Laguna Hills 34-21 in the semis. Smith’s 18-yard sweep in the third quarter shattered the 19-year-old national scoring record of Big Sandy (Texas) High, whose team scored 827 points and included current Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith.

Finally, Bloomington secured the title against La Mirada. Oliver ran for 255 yards and four touchdowns.

“It’s amazing that we had the same 14 or 15 players as the year before and we were just annihilating teams,” said Oliver, who now lives in Las Vegas and is the outbound operation manager for the Office Max distribution center. “It’s hard to believe.”

Markham described a time and place where everything magically fell into place.

“The kids got their positions in the spring and were happy,” he said. “There was no jealousy. Nobody missed practice. It was a bizarre, fun year. I don’t even know how we did it.”