Rafer Johnson made a big impression on me as a young sports fan in the mid-1980s.
Watching a video of highlights from the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, the former decathlon gold medalist seemed to stand 10 feet tall when he carried the Olympic torch inside Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during the Opening Ceremony.
It also seemed to me that he had the coolest job in the world that day.
Decades later, I learned a lot more about Johnson’s life, about his athletic excellence and intellect, philanthropic work and impact on society.
When Johnson passed away earlier this month at age 86, I thought back to the memorable video that I had seen as a boy and Johnson’s starring role in the global extravaganza. He climbed 99 steps before lighting the torch. All eyes were on him. Just as they were when he carried the American flag during the Opening Ceremony of the 1960 Rome Olympics.
In between those two seminal events, Johnson also collected the gold medal in the decathlon in Rome and before the turbulent decade was through he helped wrestle the gun out of Robert F. Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan’s hands. Journalism legend Pete Hamill, who also died this year, penned an eyewitness account of the tragedy for The Village Voice.
For decades, Rafer Johnson’s tireless work in supporting the Special Olympics for more than half of his life didn’t make front-page headlines day after day, but it was important to him and remains a special part of his legacy.
“From the very start in 1969, I wanted to be a part of helping our Special Olympics athletes succeed,” Johnson once said. “I wanted to be on Eunice Kennedy Shriver’s team as another set of eyes, another set of hands and a heart working to be there for them, finding a way to help them be the best they can be.”
UCLA women’s basketball coach Cori Close spoke a few years ago about the impact that Johnson made on her program as a mentor for the players.
It was so typical of Johnson, helping others and being a positive role model.