Recent popular commercials for the beer “Dos Equis” have featured a character they call “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” That character is fictional. If they were looking for a real life person to fill that title, Rafer Johnson would deserve a nomination. He has been an olympic decathlon champion, accomplished actor, bodyguard and advisor to Robert F. Kennedy, and one of the early catalysts for the Special Olympics. Rafer Johnson is a true American hero and success story, who deserves to be known.
Rafer Lewis Johnson was born August 18, 1934 in the small town of Hillsboro, Texas. He lived with his parents, five aunts and uncles, two brothers and two sisters in his grandparents home. The house had no indoor plumbing or electricity. The family would later move to Dallas, and then to California where they would settle in the town of Kingsburg. The Johnsons were the only black family in Kingsburg. Young Rafer would attend school, but pick cotton alongside his mother and siblings after school, on weekends, and vacations. When he went to Kingsburg Joint Union High School, he flourished, earning 11 varsity letters and was elected student body president.
Johnson then accepted an academic scholarship to attend the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). He would later say he chose U.C.L.A. because they were the only school he visited which had pictures of African Americans on the walls. He excelled at U.C.L.A. while competing for the track team as well as being a starter on the basketball team for one year for legendary coach John Wooden. While starring for the track team he broke the world decathlon record in just his fourth competition. He also joined the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps and became the student body president.
In 1956, Johnson joined the United States Olympic team in Melbourne. Although he was favored to win gold the decathlon, he was hampered by a leg injury and took the silver. In 1958 he was named Sports Illustrated’s “Sportsman of the Year.” In 1960, at the summer Olympics in Rome, Italy, Mr. Johnson would become the first ever African American flag bearer to lead the United States delegation. He would also take home the gold in the decathlon that year.
Photo Credit: Getty Images
When Los Angeles hosted the Olympic Games in 1984, Mr. Johnson would perform the honors of lighting the Olympic flame at the Los Angles Coliseum.
Photo Credit: Los Angeles Times
In 1960, at the urging of his friend Kirk Douglas, Johnson took up acting. This would lead to roles in more than thirty films and television shows. He appeared alongside Frank Sinatra in None But the Brave (1960), Elvis Presley in Wild In the Country (1961), as well as the James Bond film License to Kill (1989). He was also featured in the iconic television shows Dragnet, Tarzan, Lassie, and the Alfred Hitchcock Hour.
In 1960 he began a relationship with Robert F. Kennedy as a friend, advisor, and sometimes bodyguard. He and Kennedy joined forces for several charitable causes, and Johnson became an outspoken advocate for the Peace Corps as well as civil rights. Johnson pledged to RFK that if he ever ran for President, he would do anything he could to help him. On June 5, 1968, Johnson was on stage next to Kennedy when he made his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. During his speech Kennedy said, “A special thank you to my old friend here, Rafer Johnson.” Minutes later, Kennedy was shot and mortally wounded by a 24 year old named Sirhan Sirhan. It was Johnson, football star Rosey Grier and writer George Plimpton who wrestled Sirhan Sirhan to the ground and took the gun from him. Rafer Johnson then stood over the assassin asking him ‘why did you do this?…..why did you do this?” The next morning, when he was getting ready to go to the hospital to visit Kennedy, Johnson noticed something heavy in his pocket. It was the gun used to kill Bobby Kennedy.
The Special Olympics
Rafer Johnson was distraught and inconsolable. He soon built a seven foot fence around his house for protection from the outside world. Then he got a call from RFK’s sister, Eunice Kennedy Shriver. She thanked him for his friendship to her brother, and implored him to get back up and get involved in making the world a better place. She had just the way for him to do it too, the newly formed Special Olympics. She had founded the organization to help improve conditions for those with intellectual disabilities, like her sister Rosemary. The first games would be held in July of 1968 in Chicago, and Shriver wanted Johnson to be on stage with her at the historic Soldier Field for the inaugural event. Johnson said yes, and was forever changed.
Approximately 1000 athletes from 26 states and Canada appeared at the first games. Johnson was there to help administer events, coach athletes, and inspire. He went around talking to the competitors and offering many hugs. A practice he has continued at the games for the last half century. When he went home, he immediately founded the Southern California Special Olympics, and arranged for their first regional games to be held in 1969. Along with many other volunteers he recruited, the first Southern California games hosted over 900 athletes in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Globally, the Special Olympics now has over five million athletes competing in 172 countries.
Photo Credit: Special Olympics of Southern California
Rafer Johnson at 84:
Earlier this year, Johnson was honored by an exhibit at the LA84 Foundation House. The exhibit is titled “Rafer Johnson: His Life, His Impact.” At the opening of the exhibit, Robert Kennedy Junior spoke, as did current mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti, who said: “Thank you for being and angel in the City of Angels.”
Mr. Johnson lives in a modest house in Sherman Oaks with his wife of 48 years, Betty. There are no trophies, nor evidence of his long and distinguished life of contributions. There are simply family photos and drawings from children on the walls. Outside there is a flag he flies everyday that simply bears a one word inscription:
Follow the unfinished pyramid on twitter at: https://twitter.com/unfinishedpyr