Rafer Johnson, a U.S. decathlon gold medalist at the Olympic Games Rome 1960 and actor, died Wednesday at his home in Los Angeles.
Following his success in the 1953 and 1954 decathlon meet, he received scholarships and attended UCLA. He was a member of the Men’s Basketball Team and selected to be amongst the starting five during the 1958-59 season. Johnson stayed very active while on campus, participating on the Track and Field team under one of the most influential coaches, Elvin “Ducky” Drake. Johnson looked up to Drake and learned more from him than
any other coach he has had. Johnson went on to become the first African American to pledge a national fraternity when he joined Pi Lambda Phi at the University.
Johnson’s defeat against Taiwan’s C.K. Yang remains one of the most memorable Olympic Decathlon competitions decades later. His record-breaking performance at the Summer Olympics in Rome was just another accomplishment for Johnson after the Olympic Decathlon Silver Medal in 1956.
After his victory, he didn’t grab the American flag and lap the area; instead, he put his arm around friend and UCLA teammate Yang in exhaustion. After the Rome Games, Johnson had a chance to meet Robert F. Kennedy, which led to a lifelong friendship with the Kennedy family after his assassination. Johnson was present at Robert Kennedy’s 1968 assassination. After shots fired, Johnson confirmed that Kennedy’s wife, Ethel, was safe. He then tackled assassin Sirhan Sirhan to the ground alongside Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Rosey Grier until police arrived.
Johnson was not only amongst the world’s greatest athletes, he was a leader and legend, a hero.
After hanging up his running shoes, he went on to become an actor. Some of his credits include The Sins of Rachel Cade, the James Bond thriller Licence to Kill, and various television shows.
“With deaths these days, for some of us older than 80, we take these things in stride. With Rafer, I’m having trouble doing that,” said Peter Ueberroth, CEO of the 1984 Summer Olympics, who chose Johnson to light the torch for those Games. “We’ve lost a marvelous human being, and I’ve lost a true friend.”
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