Milt Campbell, a versatile athlete who became the first African American to win a gold medal in the Olympic decathlon, besting then-world record holder Rafer Johnson at the 1956 Melbourne Summer Games, has died. He was 78.
Campbell, who went on to play professional football before spending the rest of his career as a motivational speaker, died Friday at his home in Gainesville, Ga., his family said. He had been battling cancer and diabetes.
A three-sport standout in football, swimming and track at Plainfield High School in New Jersey, Campbell had already established himself as a world-class high hurdler when he arrived in Los Angeles for the 1952 U.S. Olympic track and field trials at the Coliseum. He lost a spot on the team when he tripped on a hurdle but a few days later in Tulare, Calif., competing in the decathlon for the first time, he finished third in that event. He went to the Helsinki Games as the only high school athlete on the U.S. team and at 18 won a silver medal in the decathlon, finishing second to Tulare’s own Bob Mathias.
Back home in New Jersey, Campbell resumed his high school sports career and, after graduating in 1953, earned an athletic scholarship to Indiana University. He played football and ran track for two years at Indiana before joining the Navy in 1955. Stationed in San Diego, he competed on military track squads while training for his next shot at the Olympics.
Again aiming for the high hurdles, he fell short once more at the 1956 U.S. Olympic track trials by finishing fourth in the tryouts. Again he qualified for the decathlon. This time, at age 22, he entered the competition in Australia an underdog to UCLA’s Johnson, who had recently set a world record for points in the decathlon.
But on the first day of the grueling two-day event, Campbell took a commanding lead with his performances in the 100 meters, the long jump, the shot put, the high jump and the 400 meters. He clinched the gold medal the next day after the 110-meter hurdles, the discus, the pole vault, the javelin and the 1,500 meters.
He won the gold medal with what was then an Olympic record of 7,937 points, 350 more than Johnson, using the standard scoring system of the day. Johnson would go on to win the decathlon gold at the next Summer Olympics in Rome.
Comparing him to other noted American decathletes, Times columnist Jim Murray called Campbell “as magnificent an athlete as any [Jim] Thorpe or anyone who came before or after him.”
But, recognizing his relatively low profile in the pantheon of Olympic athletes, Murray wrote in 1991: “Part of the problem is, he reigned between the eras of Mathias and Johnson. That’s like sitting between the Pope and Gorbachev, or playing a scene with a baby and a dog.”
After the Melbourne Olympics, with no Wheaties cereal box to propel him to fame and financial success, Campbell came home needing to find a job. The Cleveland Browns chose him in the fifth round of the 1957 NFL draft and as a 6-foot, 3-inch, 217-pound halfback he joined the team’s No. 1 pick, Jim Brown, in the offensive backfield. The Browns made it to the league championship game that year, but Campbell was not brought back the next season.
Campbell always insisted that Paul Brown, the owner and coach, cut him because he had married a white woman, Barbara Mount, during the off-season. Campbell contended he was blackballed throughout the league because of his interracial marriage, although Brown later denied the charge.
After several years playing in the Canadian Football League, Campbell returned to New Jersey. He started a private school for underprivileged youth, got involved in community work and trained to be a motivational speaker. In 2001 he ran unsuccessfully for the New Jersey state Senate and a few years ago moved to Georgia.
Milton Gray Campbell was born in Plainfield on Dec. 9, 1933, the second of three children of Thomas and Edith Campbell. His father taught the children to swim.
Campbell’s first marriage ended in divorce. His survivors include his partner, Linda Rusch; a daughter, Julee Campbell; sons Justin Campbell and Milton Campbell III; a granddaughter; a great-grandson; and a sister. Another son, Milton Campbell Jr., died in 1987.
A member of the National Track and Field Hall of Fame, Campbell reflected on his athletic mind-set in a 2011 interview with the Newark Star-Ledger. “I wasn’t nasty-arrogant,” he said. “It’s just that I’d have told you I was going to win if you asked me. I didn’t come for second or third.”