UCLA Track & Field legend, 1960 Olympic decathlon champion and humanitarian Rafer Johnson passed away Wednesday at his home in Sherman Oaks, Calif., surrounded by his family. He was 86.
Statement from UCLA Athletics: “We are devastated by the news of the passing of Rafer Johnson. Words cannot sufficiently express what Rafer means to this athletic department, to this university and to our greater community. A true humanitarian, Rafer’s profound impact transcends sport. He will forever be remembered not only for his historic athletic achievements, but also for his heart and for the tremendous example he has set for all Bruins. Today, we mourn the loss of a legend. Our heartfelt sympathy is with the entire Johnson family, including his wife, Betsy, his children, Jenny and Josh, his son-in-law, Kevin, and his four grandchildren.”
Statement from UCLA’s Director of Track & Field/Cross Country Avery Anderson: “We are extremely saddened to lose one of the greatest humans one could hope to know. 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. This is a tremendous loss to the world and especially our Bruin family.
Statement from UCLA Chancellor Gene Block: “This morning we were profoundly saddened to learn of the passing of Rafer Johnson, one of the most honored and cherished members of our Bruin family. Rafer’s career and accomplishments are widely and rightly celebrated. But beyond the headlines and medals, what distinguishes him in my eyes are the truly outstanding qualities of character I have witnessed in him. I will always remember his genuine warmth and compassion, his driving sense of civic responsibility and his unwavering commitment to service and the well-being of others.”
Born Rafer Lewis Johnson on Aug. 18, 1934 in Hillsboro, TX, Johnson had a legendary Olympic career, highlighted by winning the gold medal in the decathlon in a narrow victory over UCLA teammate C.K. Yang. Four years prior, Johnson had qualified for the 1956 Olympics in both the decathlon and long jump but was unable to compete in the latter event due to injury. Despite a knee injury and torn stomach muscle, Johnson still won the silver medal in what would be his last ever decathlon defeat. Johnson’s Olympic career also included being chosen by teammates to be Team USA’s flag bearer at the 1960 Games and being selected to light the Olympic cauldron at the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
A recipient of both academic and athletic scholarships to UCLA, Johnson arrived in Westwood in 1954-55 and made an immediate impact, captaining UCLA’s freshman track & field team. That summer, he won a gold medal in the decathlon at the Pan American Games. In 1956, he led UCLA to its first-ever NCAA Track & Field Championship and also won the Pacific Coast Conference low hurdles title. Johnson competed for two legendary Hall of Fame coaches in Elvin “Ducky” Drake, who he credited as the most influential coach of his coaching career, and John Wooden. Johnson played for two seasons with the men’s basketball team under Wooden and a starter in 1958-59, when he led the team in field goal percentage (.507) and ranked third in scoring with an 8.2 average.
An all-around student-athlete, Johnson was UCLA’s third African-American student body president in 1958. He also participated in numerous activities and organizations, including the Air Force ROTC, the community-focused Yeomans club, the spirit-oriented Kelps and became the first African American to pledge a national fraternity at the University (and potentially the first west of the Mississippi) when he joined Pi Lambda Phi. Johnson graduated from UCLA in 1959 with a Bachelor of Science in physical education.
Following his retirement from athletic competition, Johnson, along with a small group of volunteers, founded Special Olympics Southern California (SOSC). After the first California games in 1969, Johnson became one of the original members of the Board of Directors. The board worked together to raise funds and offer a program of swimming and track & field. In 1983, Johnson became president of the board, a role he held until 1992, when he was named chairman of the Board of Governors.
Along with the Special Olympics, Johnson also worked for the Peace Corps, traveling on behalf of the volunteer program run by the United States Government, providing international social and economic development assistance to millions around the world and for the People to People International Foundation. He was a Fellow with the Coro Foundation, a member of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, and served on the Board of Directors of the Close-up Foundation and numerous other organizations.
In 2016, Johnson was awarded the UCLA Medal, which is the highest honor bestowed upon an individual by UCLA. It is awarded to those who have not only earned academic and professional acclaim, but whose work demonstrates the highest ideals of UCLA. Last October, UCLA renamed the track at Drake Stadium the Betsy and Rafer Johnson Track.
Johnson is a member of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Hall of Fame and the National Track & Field Hall of Fame, and he became a charter member of the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame in 1984. Sports Illustrated named him its Sportsman of the Year in 1958, and ESPN included him among the 100 Greatest North American Athletes of the 20th century. In 1994, he was elected into the first class of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Betsy; his daughter, Jenny Johnson-Jordan, a 2000 Olympian and Associate Head Coach for UCLA’s beach volleyball team; his son, Josh Johnson, who was an All-American javelin thrower at UCLA; his son-in-law Kevin Jordan, a former UCLA football All-American; and four grandchildren.
The Johnson family requests that their privacy be respected at this time and anyone wishing to make a donation in Rafer Johnson’s honor do so through:
The Special Olympics Southern California Rafer Johnson Tribute Fund c/o
1600 Forbes Way #200
Long Beach, Ca 90810
https://www.sosc.org/rafer or by phone to Victoria Tracey at (562) 502-1115
The UCLA Athletics Rafer Johnson Endowment Fund c/o
UCLA Athletic Development Office – P.O. Box 24044
Los Angeles, CA 90024 – (310) 206-3302
**Checks payable to “UCLA Foundation” with a reference to the memory of Rafer Johnson
The Play Equity Foundation’s Rafer Johnson Impact Fund dedicated to providing support to organizations serving adaptive athletes and those with intellectual disabilities. Donations can be made via: https://playequityfund.org/donate-raferjohnson/