Rafer Johnson, who ended his famed track and field career with an exciting win in the 1960 Olympic decathlon, died Tuesday in Los Angeles, according to UCLA and USA Track & Field.
He was 86. No cause of death was given. A statement from the school said he died at his Sherman Oaks, California, home surrounded by family.
Johnson’s win in Rome in 1960 was one of the most memorable finishes to a decathlon in Olympic history. In a battle with C.K. Yang of Taiwan – Johnson’s UCLA teammate – the American held a slim lead going into the 1,500-meter run, the final event.
The two men were in the same heat, and despite the fact that it was Yang’s best event, Johnson stayed close enough to win the decathlon by just 58 points.
According to Bleacher Report, Johnson said: “I had one advantage. And I don’t think C.K. knew this at the time – this was my last decathlon. I was prepared to run as fast as I had to in this last race of my life.”
Johnson who later became an activist and an actor also won the silver medal in the 1956 Olympic decathlon. It was the last time he wouldn’t win a decathlon he entered.
“We are extremely saddened to lose one of the greatest humans one could hope to know,” said Avery Anderson, UCLA’s director of track & field/cross country. “Most people know him to be an all-time UCLA and Olympic great as an athlete, but that only scratches the surface of what he gave the world.
“Rafer set the standard of what an icon should be - a humanitarian, a leader, a great friend and mentor, and most importantly a great patriarch to the most wonderful family I’ve ever known.”
Johnson was born on August 18, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas, and moved to California in middle school, according to USA Track & Field. In high school, he played football, baseball, basketball and track.
He went on to compete for UCLA in track and field, earning academic and athletic scholarships, arriving in Westwood in 1954. He won a gold medal in the decathlon at the Pan American Games in 1955. In 1956, he led UCLA to its first NCAA title for track and field.
While at UCLA, Johnson also played two seasons for legendary men’s basketball coach John Wooden, including as a starter in 1958-59, leading the Bruins in field goal percentage. He was third on the team in scoring with 8.2 points per game.
Johnson’s a member of the US Olympic and & Paralympic Hall of Fame and the National Track & Field Hall of Fame.
After his athletic career, Johnson worked for President John F. Kennedy’s Peace Corps.
He also helped to found Special Olympics Southern California.
He was working with the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy on June 5, 1968, when the Democratic candidate was fatally shot. Johnson, former NFL star Rosey Grier and journalist George Plimpton helped subdue the gunman, Sirhan Sirhan.
Johnson was married to his wife, Betsy, for 49 years, according to USA Track and Field. His daughter, Jenny Johnson-Jordan, was an Olympian in beach volleyball in 2000, and his son, Josh Johnson, was an All-America javelin thrower for UCLA. His brother, Jimmy Johnson, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after his career with the San Francisco 49ers.