Rafer Johnson's life is a story that transcends sports

By Mike Wise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 17, 2010; 12:42 AM

A New York P.R. guy whom you lost track of reaches out, wants to know if a story about an old track star is worth something.

"This man has had an incredible life," he says.

"Let me see what the editors say," you respond, politely.

But deep down, the cynical part - the "If It's Not Redskins Related, No One Cares" part - makes you wonder about news value, who will read that story.

Really, what can a guy who will turn 75 this week possibly say to put Albert Haynesworth, Brett Favre or, heck, even a presidential pickup game with Magic Johnson and LeBron James, on hold?

And then Rafer Johnson speaks.

About Muhammad Ali, whom he met as "Cassius."

About John Wooden, whom you forgot Rafer played for at UCLA.

About Kirk Douglas, who had cast him in "Spartacus." (Well, until the Amateur Athletic Union forbade an Olympian from taking money, so he had to settle years later for James Bond's "License to Kill.")

"I believe I was killed in that movie just before the credits finished," he said, chuckling.

Fifty years after he won the gold medal in the Olympic decathlon and was proclaimed the greatest all-around athlete in the world, Rafer also speaks about Robert F. Kennedy, his friend and the man whose campaign he championed.

Until the night he was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, the night Rafer Johnson heard that disturbing noise.

"As we entered the kitchen area, I heard what I thought was balloons popping," he said, the night Bobby Kennedy won California's Democratic primary. "And it turned out to be this man, Sirhan Sirhan, firing a weapon.

"The way it worked out, people sort of didn't block my way. I was able to get to him first and put my hand on the gun hand. And others joined me. He went to the floor. And basically, he was held down there. I asked Rosey Grier to hold him down and I was able to get the gun out of his hand. But it was like the gun had become part of his body."

In shock, he actually put the murder weapon in his own pocket and walked around with it before realizing what had happened.

"I think it's something you don't talk about often but you think about all the time," Rafer Johnson said.

Rafer keeps speaking and now you can't stop listening.

He won that gold in an epic decathlon a half-century ago this September, the same Olympics as a brash young heavyweight boxer and Wilma Rudolph won, and Abebe Bikila of Ethiopia became the first black African to win gold, running barefoot in the marathon - all evocatively recounted in David Maraniss's book, "Rome 1960, The Olympics That Changed The World."

Surreal, no, how much of history, how much of American life, Rafer Johnson has intersected with the past five decades? Imagine being on the same Olympic team as the Greatest Of All Time. Or playing for the greatest coach that ever lived. Or supporting and knowing the man for whom RFK Stadium was named, being there the moment his life was taken?

And also sad, no, how often we forget the quiet dignity of people who matter? More people today know of an NBA role player named Rafer Alston, star of all those AND1 "Skip to My Lou" playground videos, than Rafer Johnson - even though Alston was named after the Olympic decathlete.

In the little world of sport especially, we're so quick to give platforms to those who stand for nothing and fall for everything.

A Nick Saban sound bite. Anyone led away in handcuffs that once wore a uniform or held a title. A Chad Ochocinco Tweet Up, urging followers to flock to Outback Steakhouse and get fed.

Just what if Rafer Johnson had a Twitter account, 140 characters or less, circa 1960s:

Muhammad Ali, you heard it here first. Cassius changed his name. BTW, he's sweet on Wilma.

"He took [Rudolph] out, like he always wanted to do," he says of Ali, with whom he toured and spoke at black colleges in the South after the Rome Games and with whom he is still good friends. "To be honest, when I traveled with him there was a lot of thoughts about some of the beautiful young ladies that we had a chance to be with."

They competed for one woman's affections for years to the point that, prior to lighting the Olympic cauldron in Atlanta in 1996, Ali bent over laughing when Rafer whispered something in his ear:


Coach had great saying 2Day about showboating: "Before you learn the tricks of the trade, learn the trade."

"I could talk the sports side of that as much I want to, but what really was important was the life lessons John Wooden talked about," he says of the late, great Wizard of Westwood. "He taught you how to be a better brother, sister, son, husband. I can't say enough about this man and how he affected my life."

A great man was taken from us today and I can't express my sorrow in these few words.

"When [Kennedy] won that evening in California in 1968, he basically was on his way to winning the Democratic presidential nomination," Johnson says. "I committed myself to that man. I thought so much of him I quit my sportscasting job to support him.

"I thought he'd make a great president. Who knows how the world would have turned, what would have happened with Vietnam, had that night not happened."

He went into seclusion after Bobby Kennedy's death for a while. Then he emerged determined to carry on his legacy. He visited often with Eunice Shriver, Bobby's sister, and became a founding member of the California Special Olympics after attending the first national competition. He began to find his own determination in them, and later got involved with at-risk kids on a national level.

Rafer wasn't on CNN last week or "Outside the Lines" or HBO's "Real Sports," all the outlets that should be doing stories on him. No, he was at a youth track meet in Hershey, Pa., the Hershey's Track and Field Games, the national finals for 9- to 14-year-olds. "You know, many of them took plane rides for the first time, met kids from outside their neighborhoods," he says.

For the 33rd straight year, the kids heard the story of the aging legend, how Rafer outlasted his UCLA teammate and friend C.K. Yang over two days of 10 grueling events. Fifty years after he won gold, 26 years after he lit the Olympic torch at the 1984 Summer Games, Rafer remembers Yang, the first Taiwanese medalist ever who died at the age of 73 from a massive stroke.

"He was working around his house and had fallen off a ladder - just real sad," said Johnson, who attended the funeral in 2007. "Great man. I couldn't have done what I did without him pushing me."

Same goes for the people in the small central California town of Kingsburg, where he grew up, where his coach doubled as his high school teacher, where everyone supported him in school and sports. Same goes for Ali, Wooden, Bobby Kennedy, all the people who graced his life and all the many more whose lives he enriched.

It's why the New York P.R. guy called, why, after the cynicism is gone, Rafer Johnson's message withstands Twitter and time:

"I learned very quickly that as good as you can be, you're gonna be better if people help you," he says.

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