American Dream

By Dave Hollander

Rafer Johnson never asked for a headstart. A 1960 Olympic Gold Medal winner who elevated the decathletes to rock-star status remembers disarming Sirhan Sirhan after he shot RFK, enjoyed his foray into Blaxploitation cinema and believes, without rancor, his never having appeared on a Wheaties box is simply a matter of black and white.

Many American can remember the post-Korean War (1950-53) pre-Bay of Pigs/Cuban Missile Crisis (1961-62) period when the world was gripped by cold war politics. After winning the 1956 Olympics decathlon silver medal Rafer Johnson, Taiwan’s C.K. Yang—your UCLA teammate —and the Soviet Union’s Vassily Kuznetsov took turns re-writing the record books in the four years of that political climate leading up to the 1960 Rome Olympics.

As for today, Johnson observes, “I’m not sure that it’s changed. I think more athletes today might be a little more concerned about a contract or ‘How much money this will mean to me.’ And I’m not putting them down, I’m just saying that would be more of a thought than ‘Who am I up against?’

Johnson won the Gold Medal for the Decathlon in 1960—getting into various adventures with fellow U.S Gold medal winner Cassius Clay in the ancient City of Rome?

“We became good friends there. I liked him. I liked the way he talked, I liked what he said. Not that I wished that I could’ve been like that. I mean, I was feeling the same thing in my heart but I wasn’t the type of person who talked about it. Subsequent to the games in ’60, we traveled a lot together. We had the same speaking bureau, so we were booked a lot together at University campuses. We roomed together. In fact, I took a tape recorder with me and recorded a lot of the things he said in those early years when he was Cassius Clay. He spoke of what he was to become, Muhammad Ali, and I have a lot of that stuff on tape.”

On June 5, 1968, Johnson was walking through the kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles with Robert Kennedy when he shot and killed.

“When I first heard it I thought I was just balloons popping. In a few seconds I realized it was more than just balloons popping. I saw a gun, smoke. I saw the Senator falling back. At that moment all I thought was protecting Mrs. Kennedy. I pushed her down, got her in safe place. Then I headed toward where the shooter was. It turned out to be Sirhan Sirhan. Roosevelt Greer was there and together we both dislodged the gun from his hand. We took him down and I eventually ended up with the gun. At that point, all I though about was trying to stop what was happening. After getting him on the floor and getting the gun out, I looked across and saw the Senator. Then it became a whole other matter. My friend had been shot, and subsequently died. Like everyone else who was a friend of his and was involved in that campaign— it brought us totally down. I basically didn’t want to (pause)…I went away for a month. I hid in my house for a month before I ever came out to the public. Even today I think about those moments—it’s like if the Olympics were the greatest of times that that was the worst of times.”

As for how seriously the athletes took Roone Aldredge’s creation, the ABC Sports competition The Superstars, Johnson’s response is mixed.

“I think it was serious. I mean, it was not the Olympic Games. If they held those competitions and it was for free you wouldn’t have gotten anybody to come down for it. The fact of the matter is if you did well you got a few bucks and it was fun. We had some real good laughs down there because there were a lot of events that individually we’re not that good at.”

Later, Johnson developed a flair for entertainment—a force in the Blaxploitation film movement starring in Soul Soldier (1972, with Caesar Romero) and getting producer credit for Buck Six (1974).

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar said that his interest in African Americans in the military came from never seeing any blacks in westerns as kids.Johnson, Jim Brown and Fred Williamson are just a few African American athletes from the 60s who gravitated toward film roles.

Johnson elaborates, “Actually though grade school and high school I did all the school plays. I was in both school plays my junior and senior years. When I went to UCLA, right in the middle of Hollywood, all these great actors and actress worked out here, I became great friends with some. In fact, Kirk Douglas became a very good friend. The film Spartacus—I won that role [the Woody Strode role].”

“It was 1959. I went to the AAU and asked them if I could do that role and Dan Ferris who was head of the AAU said I couldn’t do it. He said ‘You have a choice. You can either go to the Olympics or you can make this film and then you’ll be a ‘professional’ and you can’t go to Rome.’ That’s how the pro and amateur thing stood in those years. It was arbitrary—sometimes decisions were made by a single person. So I missed this unbelievable role in this great movie. But I got a gold medal so I don’t know if I should harp too much about it. Nowadays, I’d be able to do both.”

The 1960 gold medal popularized, even glamorized, the decathlon. Yet 1977 was the first time Wheaties put track a field athlete on their cereal box, featuring 1976 Decathalon Gold medalist Bruce Jenner.

Johson observes, “when you think about race relations in America at that point , it all adds up. That’s the way it was. There weren’t many opportunities then for athletes, let alone an athlete of color. So when the choices of the Wheaties box came around there were very few opportunities for athletes in general and when you talked about athletes of color those opportunities narrowed. That’s the way it was. I wasn’t bothered by it. Obviously sports and track and field became much more commercial as time went by. And, since there was no such thing as professional track, where were you going to go? In terms of what opportunities there were when they came along, I think I got my share of them. Now there’s more for everybody.” n