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In the southern half of the San Joaquin Valley, in the California farm towns of Selma, Reedley, Kings-burg, Fowler, Dinuba, Visalia, Tulare and Orange Cove, a standard American mixture of many races, creeds and nationalities prosper from the bumper yields of a rich flat land. Through the shifting athletic seasons the small high schools of these valley towns have produced a fair crop of giants for the world of sport. Some of these giants have gone into the football stadiums of the West, and some notable ones of late, such as Discus Thrower Sim Iness and Decathlon Champion Bob Mathias, have become world-beaters in track. It was a bit over a year ago that another of the valley's boy wonders became a track champion of the Western world. In March last year Rafer Lewis Johnson, 19-year-old favorite son of the 2,500 people of Kingsburg, Calif., won the decathlon championship of the Pan-American Games.
News of Johnson's victory was carefully noted in some foreign corners of the world where decathlon interest runs high. Since Johnson's score of 6,997 points was 295 less than the best of the Russian champion, Vasiliy Kuznetsov, the news from Mexico certainly was passed through the growing ranks of Russian trackmen. It is doubtful if Johnson's performance attracted as much attention here as it did abroad. There are probably not, in fact, many Americans outside Johnson's home valley who can rattle off with conviction the 10 events of a decathlon test.
However, Johnson had scarcely crossed the finish line at Mexico City in each of the four running events, the 100-meter dash, the 110-meter hurdles, the 400-meter dash or the 1,500-meter run, and he had scarcely made a mark in the broad jump, shotput, pole vault, discus, high jump or javelin before his followers back in Kingsburg knew not only his times, heights and distances but also his point scores and ranking in the competition.
The people around Kingsburg got the news of Johnson hot and fast from a small local radio station, KRDU, which kept direct phone contact with Mexico City. Since the results from Mexico would have reached the valley almost as fast by normal news channels, KRDU's effort seems unwarranted, even for a local boy. The best that Al Nehring, a part-time Kingsburg sportscaster, can explain it, the town has had a high regard for Rafer Johnson since he was a grammar school boy. A special effort of news-getting seemed the least the town could do.
Though Sportscaster Nehring was assisted in reporting Johnson's performances by Murl Dodson, the high school track coach, and Si Tyler, president of the Central California Association of the AAU, Nehring discovered that gathering news about a decathlon from Mexico takes some doing. For one thing, the people on the Mexico City end of the line did not seem to care much. They would pass on a few scattered results amid much giggling and tinkling of glasses and remind Nehring that it was siesta time. "It's no siesta for Johnson," Nehring would shout back. For another thing, the decathlon is a severe test for score-keepers as well as athletes. In a decathlon a man competes, not directly against his rivals, but against the inexorable dimensions of height, distance and time. How a competitor does in each event is scored in points derived from scoring tables ranging from record-breaking performances to very punk ones. A decathlon scorebook is the size of a small phone directory, and, what's worse, the tables-for the throwing and jumping events are graduated in meters. After a day of bad phone calls and computing scores, Sportscaster Nehring had the feeling a baboon with an abacus could have done as well.
"To let the people back here know how Johnson and the others in the decathlon were doing in feet and inches," Nehring relates, "we strung out Si Tyler's measuring tape in the studio. It had meters on one side, and we could flick it over and read off the feet on the other. We wound enough tape out in the studio to read distances for the shotput, then we strung it on out into an office for discus distances, and wound it back and forth until finally in the reception room we got to the javelin. If Johnson had done much over 190 feet in the javelin, he'd have put us in the washroom." Official word of Johnson's victory came while Nehring was off the air. Nehring wanted to sound the Kingsburg fire alarm to tell the whole town. Officials refused, but a brave friend rang the firebell anyway. This brought firemen and police, but no one was arrested. It was, after all, Rafer Johnson's day, and it seemed the valley had found a 1956 Olympic champion to replace two-time champion Bob Mathias, who had grown up in Tulare, 25 miles down the valley.
An international victory by a comparative unknown such as Johnson, the complexity of scoring, the giggling of indifferent people and bell ringing for a local boy are all characteristics of the decathlon that are likely to persist. It is not a sport that can spread grassroots-style in vacant lots. There will never be a large hot-stove following ready with scorebooks to settle arguments. There will always be many who know little about it, or who don't care. But, as Rafer Johnson's present coach, Ducky Drake of UCLA, observed last week while Johnson worked on the decathlon events that had gathered rust during the regular track season, "We do not do much thinking about the decathlon in this country, but at the right time a good man seems to come along." What is more fortunate, each good man who has come along of late has brought a staunch local following and sustained regional enthusiasm for the decathlon in non-Olympic years. Rafer Johnson quite literally took over from Mathias. These two boys came down fairly similar roads to the decathlon. Anyone seeing Johnson now—broad-shouldered, lean and loose at the waist, 6 feet 3 inches and 200 pounds, yet always walking lightly with small measured steps—recognizes that some of his physical advantages were God-given. To supplement a good, large frame, Johnson, like Mathias, developed musculature and tuned his reflexes by going in for a variety of sports. At Kingsburg High he competed four seasons in football, track and basketball. Johnson also squeezed in a season of baseball, hitting over .500 because, as he now apologizes, "I beat out a lot of slow rollers." Along the athletic byways of UCLA, where Johnson has just finished his sophomore year, the coaches of other sports always have a warm hello for him. Football Coach Red Sanders still hopes to get cleats under Johnson for a season or two. Basketball Coach John Wooden may get Johnson's services for at least part of next season.
ONE LOVE THROUGH NOVEMBER
Johnson will remain devoted to track through Olympic time next November. He has already made the Olympic team as a 25-foot-plus broad jumper. The odd thing about Johnson's excellence as a broad jumper is that, although as a 15-year-old he could hit over 21 feet, he did not compete in the broad jump until he was 18. Another Kingsburg freshman could do 22 feet; Coach Murl Dodson used second-ranker Johnson for points in the sprints and high jump.
In the summer of his sophomore year at Kingsburg, 16-year-old Johnson went down to Tulare to see 21-year-old 1948 Olympic Champion Bob Mathias break his own decathlon record and win a place on the 1952 team. "I didn't add up points on myself," Johnson says, "but I remember being very mad that I hadn't entered. I saw a number of boys that I could beat." The next year Johnson won a watered-down high school decathlon with 9,070 points.