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Rafer Johnson, Olympic Hero
Brian Cazeneuve
September 11, 2000
AUGUST 6, 1984
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September 11, 2000

Rafer Johnson, Olympic Hero

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AUGUST 6, 1984

Rafer Johnson had kept the honor secret from his daughter, Jenny, 11, and son, Josh, 9, until July 28, the day of the 1984 Olympic opening ceremonies at the Los Angeles Coliseum. While driving to the stadium, Johnson popped the question: "Who's going to light the flame today?" Wide-eyed Jenny perked up and guessed, " Michael Jackson?" "No," Johnson said, as his daughter's spirits momentarily fell. "It's just Daddy."

This month Johnson, 65, will be in Sydney performing a very different role—the role he has cherished most in his rich life, that of a doting, nail-biting dad. Jenny is now Jenny Johnson Jordan, the wife of former UCLA wide receiver Kevin Jordan, and she and partner Annett Davis are medal hopefuls in beach volleyball.

Growing up, Jenny and Josh always came home to a household filled with trophies, medals and ribbons—their own. Rafer kept his tucked away. "I wanted my kids to have their own dreams," he says. "I'd already done so much." When Southern California elementary school classes were learning about the Olympics during their study of ancient Greece, Rafer would often bring in his medals, including the decathlon gold he won at the 1960 Games. Those are the only times Jenny has seen it.

Rafer was born during the Depression to Texas cotton pickers in a home without electricity or running water. He was named both track and field captain at UCLA, where he also was student body president and the school's first African-American to pledge a national fraternity. He earned a silver, behind Milt Campbell of the U.S., in the decathlon at the 1956 Olympics and was SI's Sportsman of the Year in '58.

After winning in Rome, where he was the U.S. team captain and flag bearer, he began working with People to People International (an American goodwill agency), briefly pursued an acting career, recruited volunteers for the Peace Corps and volunteered for Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. On the night Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles, it was Johnson who disarmed Sirhan Sirhan, realizing hours later that the assassin's gun was still in his pocket. The next year Johnson helped establish the California chapter of the Special Olympics, which he has served in various capacities for more than 30 years.

In July he and Betsy, his wife of 29 years, watched Josh, also a UCLA graduate, place eighth in the javelin at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Sacramento. "And no matter what time zone Jenny competes in," Rafer says, "I can't sleep until I see what happened on the Internet. My greatest joy is seeing how my children turned out."

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