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.

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