A Legacy Met
I was named after Rafer Johnson, Olympic decathlon champion, Robert Kennedy supporter of the late 1960s and Special Olympics co-founder.
While he needs no introduction in Southern California, virtually no one my age had heard of him in the Chicago suburb where I grew up. We all know kids can be cruel, and because of my unusual first name, I was called a variety of parodies throughout my childhood: “Vanilla Wafer” (yes, I am white), “Raper” (which seemed a little horrific even by playground standards), and “Reefer” (which I didn’t understand until I was older).
I didn’t know much about Johnson, other than what my parents told me. (This was before ESPN Classic.) I knew he must be impressive for them to name their son after him when surely they knew it would end up sending me to therapy later on. Mostly, though, I just resented mom and dad for playing what seemed like a cruel joke on me.
Recently I had the great fortune of meeting Rafer. I was sent out to interview him regarding his latest of many charities, “Kids in Sports,” a citywide, nonprofit organization that gives kids who attend schools without after-school sports an opportunity to participate in extracurricular sporting activities.
But before delving into that, I first needed to know where this “Rafer” name came from.
“When my dad was in the fourth grade, one of his best friends was killed,” Johnson said. “When my dad went to the funeral, he found out that this kid, who everyone called Louis, was actually named Rafer. So my dad decided, in fourth grade, he was going to name his first son Rafer.”
My father, Tim, became familiar with Johnson after his impressive gold-medal finish in the decathlon in the 1960 Olympics. My dad was a sports fan and also very passionate about the civil rights movement of the late ‘60s. My father played four sports in college, including football, sharing the same backfield with Calvin Hill at Yale. He went on to be a top sportscaster in Chicago from 1976 until 2001, when he died of cancer at 56. He called sports “the great equalizer.”
“Only in sports were those involved truly color blind,” he said. “Not necessarily in the stands but on the field. Those who competed together didn’t see black. They didn’t see white. They just saw teammates. If a guy was going to help you win, you didn’t care what color he was.”
To my dad, Johnson was the first great U.S. athlete to represent that kind of colorblindness. Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson had broken down barriers. But when Johnson won that gold medal, four years after winning the silver in 1956, Rafer wasn’t the greatest black athlete in the world. He was simply the world’s greatest athlete.
“When I came along, and certainly I’m not comparing myself to Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson because I believe that they did allow me to move closer to a time when people are truly accepted for their own individual worth,” Johnson said. “I think I probably pushed the envelope as far as it could be pushed at the time.”
What is most remarkable about Johnson is that when speaking with him, you realize that he has gone through life colorblind, a remarkable ability considering the level of obstacles that stood in his way as an African American.
“When I lived in Dallas until I was 9, we had segregation everywhere,” Johnson said. “So my dad decided to move us to Kingsburg [Calif.], which was a little Swedish community and it was suddenly very different. We were the only black family in the area, but no one treated us any differently. We were treated like any other Johnson and there were a lot of Johnsons. That really had an impact on me. I realized that if these people could see past my skin color, then I could see past theirs.
“What [Kingsburg] taught me was that the best thing that I could do as a person is not make excuses for not finding success, not blaming other people for not having opportunities. The best thing that I could do for myself was just to go about life in a very positive way achieving as much as I could achieve and being the best that I could be.”
After high school, Johnson went to UCLA. As a senior, he was elected president of the student body, a moment that made national news because it was the first time an African American was elected to that position at a “major” university, but for Rafer it was no big deal.
“I was elected student body president of my elementary school at Roosevelt. I was elected student body president of my high school. So by the time I got to UCLA it was just another student body presidency. It worked on other levels and as far as I was concerned there no reason it couldn’t work on this level.”
What pushed my father’s reverence for Johnson over the top was his close affiliation with Robert Kennedy.
“As I got to know Robert Kennedy, I made a commitment to myself that if this man ever ran for political office I would support him,” Johnson said. “I was working for NBC at the time and they told me they would have to take me off the air if I openly supported [Kennedy]. So I told them ‘if that’s what you have to do,’ so they did.
“The senator was interested in the contributions that we as individuals could make to our country and to our society. He never looked at color in terms of who could make those contributions. He lived his life in a way that he wanted all American citizens to live their life and that is to take all their skills and to the best of their abilities make their best contribution to our democracy at whatever level that is.”
For many people in my parents’ generation, the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 was considered the “third strike,” following the assassination earlier that year of Martin Luther King Jr. and, in 1963, of President John F. Kennedy.
When Robert Kennedy died in that kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel on Wilshire Boulevard, many of the “baby boomers” lost hope in U.S. political system. Rafer, a longtime friend of Kennedy, was walking with him through the kitchen the day that fatal shot was fired.
"[Kennedy’s death] was one of the most devastating moments in my life,” Johnson said. “When it happened, I was actually five or six yards from the senator holding [his wife] Ethel’s hand. When the shots were fired I looked up and I thought it was just balloons popping. I saw Sirhan [Sirhan] and what looked like powder after hearing the sound and the smoke from a weapon and the senator falling away. I was able to get Ethel down on the floor out of the way and then I made a move for the senator and I was the first one there.
“I then grabbed Sirhan, and I got my hand on his gun hand. Immediately after that Roosevelt Grier was there and we all went to the floor. The senator was about three feet away, and I could see that he was injured. And it was just almost like it wasn’t real. It was like eventually I would wake up from this terrible dream. It’s just so hard to ... I mean when you really get to start talking about it ... um ... it was a tough time. It was a very, very tough time.”
My parents told me that that moment had changed them. When they witnessed Johnson standing over Kennedy after he was shot, I was in my mother’s womb and they both agreed at that moment to bring Rafer’s namesake into our family lineage.
Shortly thereafter, Johnson co-founded the Special Olympics with Eunice Kennedy, one of Robert’s sisters, in 1969.
“Eunice and I knew that there was more to life for people with mental retardation than what our structure at that point allowed to happen. [Eunice] felt that life should be better for those people. Again, at whatever levels we come to life, we can all improve.... But
Meeting Johnson, I finally understood what it was that made my father gravitate toward him on more than simply an academic level. Johnson has never lost his passion or compromised his ideals, a transition that most of us go through when we first test the job market. He is one of those people that you hear about but rarely meet. I had never met anyone like him.
Peter Ueberroth once said of Johnson: “If you made a list of the top 10 role models for young men in America, I don’t know who the other nine would be, but Rafer would be one of them.”
All my life my father had been my role model. A year and a half ago, when he passed away, I found myself in the strange position of living in a world without someone to look up to. That changed when I met the man my father looked up to.