By Tracy McDannald
Rafer Johnson’s gold medal in the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics put him in a different stratosphere at home in the U.S. and abroad.
He drew interest from the Los Angeles Rams, who drafted him in the 28th round in 1959, despite not playing a single down of college football. Hollywood offers followed, with 26 acting credits to his name ranging from the 1961 musical “Wild in the Country” starring Elvis Presley to the 1989 hit James Bond film “Licence to Kill.” Johnson also appeared in a number of commercials and had a stint as a sportscaster.
At UCLA, the gold medal was another chapter in the growing legacy of a man who was elected class president a year earlier. In fact, the track wasn’t the only place he made his mark in athletics, either, and Johnson’s accomplishments inspired many future Bruins and a host of other Olympians in ways that overshadowed his mainstream success.
Ann Meyers Drysdale is a UCLA legend and pioneer in her own right. She was the first high school player to play for the U.S. national team, recorded the first quadruple-double in NCAA Division I history, the first four-time All-American collegiate women’s basketball player, the first woman to earn an NBA tryout contract, and currently she is vice president of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and color analyst for both the Mercury and the NBA’s Phoenix Suns.
Yet, when she looks back to her time as a UCLA freshman in 1975, the most immediate, attainable dream was to one day compete in the Olympics. This was 22 years before the WNBA would get off the ground in the U.S., and the short-lived Women’s Professional Basketball League lasted just three seasons starting in 1978. All other professional opportunities were overseas.
“For me, growing up as a young girl, the Olympics were kind of the goal for a lot of young girls,” Meyers Drysdale said. “The Olympics were kind of like the golden playground for girls to be able to compete in because you didn’t see anything else.”
Athletes, like Johnson, were a source of inspiration.
During that freshman year, Meyers Drysdale first met Johnson at UCLA, where he had already graduated from 15 years prior. He was back on campus for a Special Olympics event at Drake Stadium, named after his legendary coach.
“During those times, the opportunity to meet Rafer and be involved with Special Olympics was huge because it was only a few years old from ’68 when Eunice (Kennedy) Shriver asked Rafer to be a representative of Special Olympics. So, it was big back in 1975 and to see all the people up in the stands was pretty impressive,” Meyers Drysdale said.
The two shared a UCLA basketball connection, as Johnson also was a two-sport star and a starter for Hall of Fame coach John Wooden in the 1959-60 season and Meyers Drysdale’s brother was a current senior on Wooden’s team that went on to win the national championship.
Their friendship only grew, as they played together in various pick-up and charity basketball games. But it’s a story before her time at UCLA that really put into perspective just what Johnson meant to the UCLA community and the country.
Meyers Drysdale recalled a conversation with former USC coach Stan Morrison, who played collegiately at Cal from 1959-61 for Hall of Fame coach Pete Newell, the coach of the 1960 U.S. national team that won the gold medal. Newell had the admiration of the Cal student section, even during pregame warmups.
“The student section at Cal would just cheer tremendously for Pete and he was a little embarrassed about it,” Meyers Drysdale said.
Well, a game against UCLA dwarfed that reception. Johnson, even in a visiting school’s building, drew a deafening ovation when he was introduced.
“[Morrison] said the whole place at Cal went crazy, applauding him. That’s the kind of effect he has,” she said.
In the Olympic movement, count four-time gold medalist swimmer Janet Evans among Johnson’s biggest fans.
“Once I became an Olympian, one of the highlights of my career was getting to know Rafer Johnson, getting to meet my hero,” Evans told the LA84 Foundation. “To watch him treat people—young people, old people, any person—with such tremendous respect and humility, he was the Olympian I wanted to be and try to emulate in kindness and giving back.”
Evans is currently the chief athlete officer for the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics organizing committee.
Even in recent years, Johnson’s UCLA roots continue to earn him accolades. Since 2003, UCLA has hosted the Rafer Johnson/Jackie Joyner Kersee Invitational track and field meet as part of its schedule. He was appointed special assistant to the athletic director in 2011.
In 2016, he received the UCLA Medal, the school’s highest honor, and two years later, the Pac-12 Conference inducted him into the Hall of Honor.
Last October, UCLA renamed the track at Drake Stadium the Betsy and Rafer Johnson Track, honoring both him and his wife who met at the school.
When Meyers Drysdale thinks of the living legends within the UCLA community, one that includes the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton, she doesn’t hesitate to put Johnson atop the list “as our most prestigious.”
“He’s such a humanitarian. I love him,” she added.