Rafer Johnson’s impact endures through his significant contributions as an athlete, a humanitarian and a friend to many. He said, "I learned never to give undue attention to the score or to my competitors. Instead I focused on being the best that I could be... Without that attitude, I would not have been able to form durable friendships with teammates and opponents alike, something I treasure more than all my trophies."
Johnson was gifted with outstanding athletic ability and a competitive spirit. He competed in the decathlon, considered the ultimate test for an athlete. The decathlon is a 10-event contest consisting of the 100-meter, 400-meter and 1500-meter runs, the 110-meter high hurdles, the javelin, shot put and discus throws and the pole vault, high jump and long jump. Called “the World’s Greatest Athlete” he was a member of the UCLA Track and Field team and set the world record four times and won two Olympic medals.
When his athletic career culminated with a gold medal at the 1960 Olympics, he began a second career dedicated to public service, using his fame to advance racial and social justice. A co-founder of the California Special Olympics, his legacy will continue to impact future generations. His mission was shaped in part by his UCLA experience. “Many of the things that I’ve accomplished beyond my years at UCLA, including my relationship with my family and friends and the fact that I’m very much interested in giving back to the community, have a great deal to do with what I learned from Coach Wooden.”
Rafer Johnson exemplified the True Bruin spirit. He was a man who enriched too many lives to count, and who found grace in places others rarely looked.
Rafer Lewis Johnson was born in the segregated town of Hillsboro, Texas, to Lewis and Alma Johnson. The hardworking family lived in a house with no electricity or indoor plumbing in the flat plains outside Dallas, in a town where community life was centered around their local Baptist church.
In 1945, when Rafer’s father found work in the Oakland shipyards, the family moved to California. They eventually settled in the agricultural town of Kingsburg in Central California, where Lewis and Alma worked on farms and other odd jobs. On weekends and school vacations Rafer and his sisters and brothers would join in the work.
Unlike Texas, California schools were integrated and Johnson excelled in the new surroundings. He was president of his high school sophomore class, student body president during his senior year and competed in four sports: track, basketball, football and baseball. When he was 16, his high school coach, Merrill Dodson, drove Johnson to the 1952 US Olympic Trials where Johnson watched Bob Mathias, an American decathlete and two-time Olympic gold medalist, compete. It was there that Johnson set a goal: to compete in the decathlon at the Olympic Games.
In high school, Johnson was an engaged and active student, with success in athletics and in the classroom. UCLA offered Johnson his choice of either an athletic or an academic scholarship; he accepted the academic scholarship with plans to pursue a career as a dentist or minister. Johnson chose UCLA in 1954 in part because of the school’s commitment to diversity. He said, “While I was touring campus, I saw pictures of the former class presidents, and one of them was a Black student. I didn’t see anything like that at any other school.”
His senior year, Johnson was elected student body president and became the second Black UCLA student to hold the role, following in the footsteps of Sherrill Luke ʼ50. In a few years, he would follow his hero Jackie Robinson into the athletic record books. On campus, Johnson joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and was the first African American to join a national fraternity at UCLA, Pi Lambda Phi. He found community at the Campus Crusade for Christ, now known as Cru, where he served as chairperson.
Johnson joined the UCLA track team under Coach Elvin "Ducky" Drake ʼ27, who supported and encouraged his goal to compete at the Olympics. As a freshman, Johnson broke the decathlon world record previously held by Bob Mathias. He said, "What matters is becoming the best you can be at whatever you're doing." UCLA Track and Field won their first ever NCAA championship with his contribution in 1956.
Along with competing in track and field, Johnson played on the men’s basketball team for two seasons under Coach John Wooden. Johnson treasured Wooden’s words of wisdom, and they would influence his future life decisions.
For many years, Johnson continued to attend track meets, gymnastics meets and basketball games, always sitting in the third row. He became friends with Coach Cori Close and at the women’s basketball teams’ first practice he would teach the players how to wear their socks and shoes the Wooden Way. He could also be found attending his daughter Jennifer’s volleyball matches, and watching his son Joshua compete in track and field.
Johnson, who won the decathlon at the Pan Am Games in Mexico City in 1955, was a popular favorite to win the 1956 Olympic decathlon in Australia. A knee injury and subsequent swelling caused searing pain, and he left the Games with a silver medal. The knee required surgery followed by months of rehabilitation and physical therapy. Johnson said, “I started training for the 1960 Olympics right after the 1956 Olympics.”
In 1960, Johnson represented the United States at the Summer Olympics in Rome, where he carried the American flag in the opening ceremonies as the first Black captain of a U.S. Olympic team. The Games were the first to be televised to an enthusiastic American audience.
Johnson competed in the decathlon against friend and UCLA teammate C. K. Yang ʼ64, both coached by UCLA Coach Drake. Tied going into the final event, Yang had the advantage in the 1500 meters but Johnson ran his personal best, taking home the gold. Yang brought home the silver medal.
Johnson later explained how he mentally prepared for the games, “Adversity... is just temporary. The next event or opportunity is coming along. Every day, we face obstacles that we may or may not think are going to be difficult. They turn out to be one or the other. What you do is learn from it, but always look at it as a temporary setback.”
While in Rome for the Olympics, Johnson developed a friendship with actor Kirk Douglas that led to the offer of a role in the 1960 film Spartacus. Johnson turned down the opportunity to retain his amateur athletic standing.
However, after the games, Johnson decided to retire from competition. In the second half of his career he would put the name recognition he earned on the track into becoming a humanitarian leader and ambassador for peace.
He also turned to acting and reporting, and worked as a local sports reporter for KNBC-TV in Los Angeles, as well as for national sporting events including the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo. He acted in movies including “Wild in the Country” starring Elvis Presley and in the classic James Bond film “License to Kill.”
One of the most famous athletes in the world, Johnson became a Department of State goodwill ambassador, traveling and building friendships with people around the world. Introduced to then-Senator John F. Kennedy when he spoke at the 1959 UCLA Convocation, Johnson was inspired by Kennedy’s ideas and volunteered to join the Peace Corps, which led to work recruiting volunteers and attending speaking engagements.
Through the Peace Corps, he became a close associate of the Kennedy family and was involved in Senator Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign. He was with RFK at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the night he was assassinated. Johnson, along with Rosey Grier and journalist George Plimpton, subdued assassin Sirhan Sirhan after he shot Robert Kennedy, a heartbreaking moment that would stay with the men forever. Johnson has said the assassination was “one of the most devastating moments in my life.”
To honor Robert Kennedy’s memory, Johnson joined Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, to help with the first Special Olympics games. The Special Olympics enrich the lives of athletes with intellectual disabilities. Inspired by the talent he witnessed at the inaugural games; he became a lifelong advocate for the event. He became a founding member of the Special Olympics International Board of Directors.
In 1969, Johnson co-founded the Special Olympics Southern California, saying, “I wanted to give back and help others, because no one can be their best unless someone helps them.” His work with the Special Olympics exemplifies his commitment to giving freely of his personal time for the enrichment of others’ lives, especially young people who had been socially disadvantaged. Thanks to Johnson, UCLA has been a home base for the California Special Olympics, hosting more than 20 Special Olympics Games. Johnson said, “For California and the western United States, UCLA was where the Special Olympics grew to what it is today.”
On Dec. 18, 1971, Johnson married Elizabeth "Betsy" Thorsen ʼ66, and the family moved to Sherman Oaks, California, where they raised two children: Jennifer ʼ96 and Joshua ʼ98. All four family members are True Bruins: Betsy graduated from UCLA with a degree in education and became a middle school teacher; daughter Jennifer Jordan is a UCLA Hall of Famer in volleyball and is associate head coach of the UCLA beach volleyball team; son Joshua was on the track and field team and competed in the javelin throw.
In 2000, Johnson realized a full circle moment, watching Jennifer compete in the Olympic games in Sydney, Australia.
Twenty-four years after his gold-medal victory, Johnson received the honor of lighting the Olympic torch for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Johnson ran a final ceremonial lap and then climbed the L.A. Memorial Coliseum stairs where he raised the torch to the cheering crowd. He was the first African-American to light the Olympic flame and said, “It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I thought it was a community of friendship, and I love representing my country.” He donated the torch he carried to the National Museum for African American History and Culture.
In a final nod to his Olympic legacy, in April 1996, the Olympic torch arrived in Los Angeles from Greece, on the way to the opening ceremonies of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia, a 15,000 mile trip. Johnson was first to carry the torch out of the Los Angeles Coliseum and on its way to Atlanta.
Johnson remained an active Bruin, and served on UCLA committees and boards. He was among the inaugural group of inductees into the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame in 1984, and was appointed special assistant to the athletic director in 2011. In 1986, the Alumni Association awarded him with the Edward A. Dickson Alumnus of the Year, and in 2016, he received UCLA’s highest honor, the UCLA medal, in recognition of his leadership and work supporting equality for all.
Since 2003, UCLA has hosted the Rafer Johnson/Jackie Joyner Kersee Invitational track and field meet honoring Johnson and UCLA track and field heptathlon star Joyner Kersee ʼ86, who was the first woman to win back-to-back Olympic medals.
In 2019, the track at Drake Stadium was named in honor of Johnson and his wife, Betsy. At the event, UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said, “As we look back across UCLA’s first 100 years and think about the people who helped shape this institution’s core values, Betsy and Rafer Johnson are among the first who come to mind. Their selfless efforts to inspire others and encourage opportunity for all perfectly embody UCLA’s mission.”
Rafer Johnson passed away on Dec. 2, 2020, at home in Sherman Oaks. Johnson's storied athletic career followed by his years of selfless public service epitomize what it means to be a True Bruin. He left behind a lasting impact, remembered for reaching the peak of competition, and for the friendships he made along the way.