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Ashway: Rafer Johnson’s life well lived
Denton Ashway

From living in a boxcar to being the world’s greatest athlete to becoming a national treasure, Rafer Johnson defined a life well lived.

Johnson, the decathlon gold-medalist in the 1960 Olympics, died last week at his home in Sherman Oaks, California. He was 86.

Johnson’s Olympic triumph couldn’t have been more fitting. He carried the American flag into Rome’s Olympic Stadium as the first African-American captain of a United States Olympic team.

Johnson was the star of a United States contingent notable for the many Black athletes turning in outstanding performances, including Oscar Robertson, Wilma Rudolph, and Cassius Clay.

But it was Johnson who grabbed the spotlight. He had been chosen to speak on behalf of the team at a send-off rally in New York City. He “flawlessly called out the names of the dozens of teammates who stood at his side,” wrote David Maraniss in his book “Rome 1960: The Olympics That Changed The World.”

“He had a firm grasp of the occasion, and team officials took notice. His performance in New York, along with his stature as the gold medal favorite in the decathlon, convinced the officials that Johnson should be the US captain in Rome, and the first Black athlete to carry the US flag at Olympic opening ceremonies.

“Rafer Johnson, the person and the athlete, was viewed as a powerful antidote to the otherwise irrefutable poison of American racism. No one could question his sense of purpose or his good will.”

Johnson had already come a long way by the time he became an Olympic champion. Born in 1935 in Hillsboro, Texas, Johnson experienced poverty, discrimination, and segregation. 

“I don’t care if I ever see Texas again,” he told ESPN. “There’s nothing about it I like. If my family had stayed in Texas, I not only wouldn’t have represented the US in the Olympic games, I wouldn’t have even gone to college.”

When Johnson was 9, his family moved to the San Joaquin Valley in California. They were the only Black family in Kingsberg, lived for a year in an abandoned boxcar, and Johnson and his five siblings helped their parents pick cotton.

“Thinking about picking cotton brings tears to my eyes to this day,” Johnson told the Los Angeles Times. “Just from remembering how hard my parents had to toil to earn a meager living.”

Johnson became an exceptional athlete, excelling in football, basketball, and baseball, but his favorite sport was track and field. 

“There was something pure and innocent about the sport,” he wrote in his autobiography. “You ran, you jumped, you threw things, just as young men had done since the dawn of civilization.”

During his junior year in high school, his track coach took him to a meet where he got to watch Bob Mathias, the ’48 and ’52 Olympic decathlon champion, compete. “Sometimes you have that feeling,” Johnson told the Washington Post. “This is right. When I saw Mathias at the decathlon, I thought, ‘You can do this.’”

Within a month, Johnson had won the California Junior AAU decathlon championship. A year later, he finished third at the national AAU meet. The next year, 1955, he won the Pan American games. And in 1956, despite a knee injury, he won the silver medal in the Olympics at Melbourne.

Johnson attended UCLA in the mid-50s, where he played basketball for John Wooden and was elected student body president. He also developed a close friendship with UCLA track teammate C.K. Yang of Taiwan, who would become his primary competition for the decathlon gold medal in Rome.

Going into the final event, the 1,500-meter run, Johnson had a slight lead, but he had to stay within 10 seconds of Yang to win the gold. Yang’s personal best was 18.2 seconds better than Johnson’s.

“I wasn’t going to let him get away,” Johnson told ESPN. “I wanted to stay with him, and that’s what I did. I knew we were going faster that we usually did in one of these things, but we both held up. I wavered in the stretch, but I knew he was as tied up as I was.”

Johnson crossed the finish line 6 yards — or 1.2 seconds — behind Yang, the gold medal and title of world’s greatest athlete secured. It would be Johnson’s last competition.

But his life was just beginning. He gave speeches, worked in films and television, and became friends with Robert Kennedy. In 1968, he went to work full-time on Kennedy’s presidential campaign.

During his victory speech on June 5 at the Ambassador Hotel, Kennedy noted, “To my old friend, if I may, Rafer Johnson, is here. And to Rosey Grier, who said that he’d take care of anybody who didn’t vote for me! My thanks to all of you. Now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.”

Moments later, it would be Johnson and Grier who wrestled the gun from Kennedy’s assassin.

At year later, at the urging of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, Johnson co-founded the California Special Olympics. He would serve as its president for the next 10 years. It became his true calling.

“Mrs. Shriver would tell me that even if people had disabilities, they could still be the best they could be,” Johnson told a reporter. “Nobody should be denied that opportunity. That’s all I needed to hear. I was in.”

And in 1984, Johnson was chosen to light the Olympic flame during the opening ceremony for the Los Angeles games. It was a moment that moved news anchor Tom Brokaw to tears.

“I thought about the whole arc of his life,” Brokaw told the Los Angeles Times. “And how I always believed, well before I knew him personally, that he was the quintessential American athlete.”