Rafer Johnson death
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The news of Rafer Johnson death leaves everyone grieving, especially in the sports world. He was the champion in the 1960 Rome Olympics Decathlon. Moreover, he was one of the main people to subdue Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin later in 1968. Rafer Johnson passes away on Wednesday, December 2, at the age of 86.

As per the statement of Michael Roth, Rafer’s family friend, the latter breathed his last at his Los Angeles residence. It seems that he was spending his last days at the Sherman Oaks property with his family. However, the cause of Rafer’s death is still unclear.

In the history of world sports, Rafer Johnson was one of the best between 1955 and 1960. Although he was actively participating in games later, these were the golden years of his sports career. From his victory at the 1956 national Decathlon to his 1960 Olympic win, all were notable. Moreover, he was the runner-up in the Melbourne Olympics 1956 too.

Some of the most memorable moments of Johnson’s Olympic career includes carrying the USA flag at the 1960 Olympics. Later, in the 1984 games, he was the guest and opener too. The event took place at the famous Memorial Coliseum of Los Angeles. Moreover, Rafer Johnson created a hattrick with decathlon victories. His strongest competitors were C.K. Yang, UCLA teammate and Taiwan player, and former Soviet Union player Vasily Kuznetsov.

Rafer Johnson death
Image Credit: The New York Times

Rafer Johnson death: remembering his fighter spirit

The Rafer Johnson death reminds us of his first gold medal at the 1955 Pan American games. It was merely his fourth decathlon, and he was already becoming popular as a tough competitor. Later, in the same year, during a welcome home tournament, his first record happened.

The event took place in California’s Kingsburg County. The previous record-holder was Bob Mathias, Rafer’s childhood idol, and an Olympic champion twice.

When Robert F. Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, Rafer was a part of his presidential campaigning team. The Democratic Party candidate was shot while he was touring the Ambassador Hotel’s kitchen in Los Angeles.

Later, the player became a team with George Plimpton, journalist, and Rosy Grier, NFL star, to apprehend Sirhan Sirhan, Kennedy’s murderer. The latter died the day following the shootout. In an interview, Rafer Johnson said that the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy was one of the most tragic events ever.

The early life of Rafer Johnson

The late Olympic champion was born on August 18, 1934, as Rafer Lewis Johnson in Texas’ Hillsboro. Later, in 1945 he shifts to California with his entire family, including Jim, his brother. The latter is a former Hall of Fame, an NFL inductee. Although some people say that Rafer Johnson was born in 1934, his family says it is not true.

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Eventually, Rafer and his family shifted places to settle down in Kingsburg finally. They were staying in the San Joaquin Valley, near Fresno. The place was very close to Tulare, the hometown of Bob Mathias. The latter was Johnson’s idol, and he goes on to the 1948 decathlon and the 1952 Olympics.

Rafer Johnson was a bright student and was good at sports too. He started playing football, baseball, and basketball and surprisingly was good at all. He was also a field and track athlete in the Kingsburg Joint Union High School. However, he was very bulky, weighing over 200 pounds and with a height of 6.3 feet. Therefore, his appearance was more of a linebacker than a normal athlete.

Rafer Johnson death

Rafer’s inspiration and idol Bob Mathias

When Johnson was still in junior school, his coach took him to Tulare, where he watched Mathias in action. It was during a decathlon that later became Johnson’s inspiration to continue with the difficult 10-event sport. Moreover, he was a freshman at UCLA with athletic and academic scholarships when he won the Pan American games with record points. It was in 1955, and he scored 7,985 points to create the record.

Since his 1956 decathlon victory, he was the favorite person at the Melbourne Olympics. However, he forcefully gave up the game due to severe knee and stomach muscle injury. Although Johnson was selected for the long jump event, he chose not to participate. Milt Campbell took advantage of the incident and performed his best. His score was 7,937 points, therefore breaking Johnson’s record by over 350 points.

Fellow players and the millennials for whom he was an idol remember his classy game and vigor after Rafer Johnson death. Surprisingly, the match he left due to injury was the last one that did not win. Since then, till 1960, it as one victory after another for Johnson. However, later, Kuznetsova and Yang arose as tough competitors to Johnson breaking his records too.

In fact, in May 1958, Kuznetsova broke Johnson’s record by scoring 8,016 points. However, the latter claimed it back in the same year by scoring 8,302 points. The second record-breaking event took place in Moscow during the USA-Soviet Dual Meet. Moreover, he became a star in the Soviet Union, beating Kuznetsova at his home ground.

Image Credit: Urban Hollywood 411

Rafer Johnson death: his awards and achievements

In the same year, after the superb performances, Rafer Johnson received the Most Outstanding Sportsman of 1958. Although Johnson was not in the form during 1959 due to a back injury, he came back stronger in 1960.

While Yang was a tough competitor during the Rome tournaments, Johnson was not giving up soon. Johnson won the games finally despite Yang winning the first nine events. It was the 66 points shock during the 1,500 meters event that was impossible to manage for Yang.

The final event was very exciting, and fans were biting their nails when Johnson finished within 10 seconds. It was undoubtedly difficult for him because Yang was a strong runner too. However, Johnson’s finish timing was just 1.2 seconds. By the end of it, the latter was just six yards behind C.K. Yang. Finally, Johnson was the gold winner, and Yang and Kuznetsova won the silver and bronze, respectively.

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The Rafer Johnson death reminded the sports world of his fantastic performance in 1960. As a result of the same, he won two awards that year. One was the Press Athlete of the Year, and the other was the Sullivan, the Best amateur athlete of the nation in 1960. During 1958-59, Johnson was playing basketball under coach John Wooden. He also became the president of the student body in 1958. Moreover, Johnson was the third black School President in history.


Rafer Johnson death: His films and television career

After he retired from the Olympics after the Rome event, he chose acting as his next career. He won hearts with his performance alongside Elvis Presley in Wild in the Country. Johnson was part of None but the Brave alongside Frank Sinatra too. Plus, his 1989 appearance in License to Kill, a James Bond film, became quite popular. Later, he was hailed as the President of Continental Telephone, before which he worked as a TV sportscaster too.

During the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Johnson was the one to light the flame. Gina Hemphill was the one to hand over the torch to him. The latter is the granddaughter of Jesse Owns, former Olympic hero. Later, during an interview, Rafer expressed how proud he was feeling then. He adds in his statement that he was equally nervous and getting goosebumps while lighting the flame. Johnson was famous for his humanitarian works too.

Rafer was a part of the first special Olympics organizer’s committee in Chicago, 1968. Here, he was working alongside Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of the committee. The following year Johnson was the founder of the special Olympic ceremony that took place in California. Finding a role model for the disabled athletes was difficult during those times, and Johnson was noteworthy as one.

Rafer Johnson death
Image Credit: Los Angeles Times

Johnson leaves behind his family and lots of achievements

After the news of Rafer Johnson death, Peter Ueberroth remembers him as a great personality and a wonderful human being. Ueberroth was the one to invite him as the guest to light the flame in the Olympics 1984. Johnson’s humanitarian work includes his contribution to the Peace Corps, Muscular Dystrophy Association, March of Dimes, and American Red Cross.

On the other hand, Johnson was part of the UCLA managing committee for several years. Finally, in 2016 he got the UCLA medal. The same is the highest form of honor for outstanding accomplishments. The school song of UCLA mentions the names of Rafer Johnson and his wife, Betsy.

Rafer Johnson’s children Josh and Jenny, were both athletes. While Josh was in the UCLA javelin team, Jenny was a volleyball player. Later she was part of the UCLA beach volleyball coach team. Rafer leaves behind his 49-year old wife Betsy Johnson, children Josh and Jenny, Kevin Jordan, son-in-law. Johnson also leaves behind his four grandchildren.


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