By Tracy McDannald
Rafer Johnson isn’t one to beat his chest and flash his Olympic gold medal. It would be years before his own children learned of his mainstream success.
Yet, the Special Olympics Southern California founder has many friends and admirers, in addition to family, who will go to bat for him and attempt to measure the impact he’s had on so many people beyond just the world of sports.
In a celebration of his exhibit at the LA84 Foundation Library in Los Angeles last November, many of them were in attendance and asked what words come to mind at the mention of the name Rafer Johnson.
Caring. Champion. Class. Competitor. Drive. Family. Humanitarian. Humility. Integrity. Jokester. Love. Passionate. Pride. Service. Superstar. Quiet.
One word was repeated often: humble.
Ed Arnold, a longtime Southern California sportscaster for both KABC and KTLA, has known Johnson for more than 50 years. Their first meeting came when Arnold was state chairman of health and safety for the California Jaycees, a leadership development organization for young adults that provides opportunities to improve business skills, network and perform community service. The organization had a meeting with Special Olympics in Long Beach.
“We became close friends from that point on,” Arnold said.
“What impresses me the most is the impact that one man had on Special Olympics. We were able to make it grow faster because of him. We were able to knock down doors because of the name Rafer Johnson. It’s amazing just what his involvement meant. He was huge.
“He had been making movies, he was less than 10 years removed from winning the gold medal as the greatest athlete in the world. … You’d think he’d be some big-headed guy—he was then, as he is today, one of the nicest human beings God ever put on this earth.”
Brian Erickson, a member of SOSC’s board of directors and a coach in the South Bay program, sees Johnson as a man who was never too big to take the time to get to know someone, especially the athletes. Currently, the lives of more than 38,200 athletes in Southern California benefit from what he helped start.
“His success in entertainment and athletics helped him bring supporters to the movement. But the kind of guy he is, the person he is, the human being he is, really grew the movement from the athletes’ side,” Erickson said.
“When I started volunteering here in Los Angeles about 14 years ago, he would come to the Summer Games or Fall Games that I’d be at and he would tour around and knew all the athletes. And he knew all the athletes by first name. ‘Hey, you’re Johnny from Carson. Hey, Suzy!’ The way he was with them demonstrated what we’re about. He brought so much.”
Apart from his own family, perhaps only the Kennedy family knew Johnson better. Johnson’s tie to Special Olympics started with founder Eunice Kennedy Shriver, but the relationship started with her brother, Robert.
While recovering from surgery in 1957, Johnson took the time to go on an 89-day U.S. Department of State goodwill tour that furthered his interest beyond athletics. He used his platform in the 1960s for social justice causes, and the two worlds collided following his gold medal victory at an awards dinner where he met Robert, who was less than a year away from confirmation as U.S. attorney general. Johnson not only made his official alignment with Special Olympics in 1968, but he also served as an official delegate for the Kennedy presidential ticket.
Tragically, Robert Kennedy was assassinated following the California presidential primary on June 5, 1968. On the scene was Johnson, along with football star Rosey Grier, both serving as unofficial bodyguards, and journalist George Plimpton, to wrestle the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan.
The first international Special Olympics Games were at Soldier Field in Chicago a month later. Even while grieving for his friend, Johnson was just as invested in helping others. He wanted to assist Kennedy Shriver with improving the lives of individuals with intellectual disabilities. By 1969, he had brought the movement to the Western U.S. and California Special Olympics was born.
Over the years, Johnson has remained close to the Kennedy Shriver family and their five children, including Timothy, chairman of Special Olympics since 1996, and Maria, an award-winning journalist and former First Lady of California.
Like Johnson has been there for the Kennedys and Shrivers, the favor is returned. On the night of the celebration was one of the 2019 Democratic presidential primary debates. Maria Shriver made time for both, even if it took rushing through rainy Los Angeles to be there for her friend as the event came to a close.
Maria said that while the world knows of his accomplishments, there is a “very quiet and humble” side to Johnson.
“They don’t know his drive, his passion,” she said. “They know about his athleticism, but I think even looking at this exhibit brings it to life.
“There’s a lot to admire in Rafer. He’s a tremendous role model for people—for men, in particular, and athletes, in general.
“To have somebody of his stature be so committed, to be such an example to [Special Olympics athletes], is unparalleled. I think people look up to Rafer—not just the athletes, but everybody in the movement. Parents look up to him, business leaders look up to him, Olympics athletes, Special Olympics athletes. He’s the gold standard, really, of humanity.”
After celebrating a snapshot into his life for the past few weeks, maybe it’s understandable why Rafer Johnson isn’t someone who harped about his success—because, in order to be fully defined, there is so much more to his story beyond on-field, athletic performance and the other ways successes are measured.
Still, as 2020 marks an anniversary of a time he became a household name, it’s worth remembering why and how he grabbed the world’s full attention in the first place.