Rafer Johnson, American Hero and Olympic Decathlon Legend, Dies at 86

by Jamila Lizet White

December 2, 2020

Photo by Aaron Rapoport/Corbis/Getty Images

Rafer Johnson, decorated Olympian and one of the heroic men who tackled and subdued the gunman who assassinated Robert F. Kennedy, has passed at the age of 86.

Photo by DAVID MCNEW/AFP via Getty Images

The Associated Press reported that Johnson died at his home in Sherman Oaks, California Wednesday morning (Dec. 2) with the cause of death yet to be revealed.

His athletic career began in high school when his coach Murl Dodson drove the soon to be Olympic gold medalist to watch Bob Mathias compete in the 1952 U.S. Olympic decathlon trials. On the way back home, Johnson revealed to his coach that he decided to be a decathlon man when he noticed he “could have beaten most of the guys in the meet.”

Three years following, he set the world record of 7,985 points in his fourth competition as a freshman at the University of California, Los Angeles and won gold at the 1955 Pan Am Games.

Photo by Robert Riger/Getty Images

He went on to win the national decathlon championship in 1956 and was a favorite for the Olympics in Melbourne. Nonetheless, he was forced to withdraw from the long jump due to an injury during training but still managed to take home second place.

Following his injury, he was involved in a car accident which resulted in the athlete missing the 1959 season. That same year, he was selected as the 28th round of the NFL draft as a running back.

He came back stronger than ever in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and ran his personal best and won gold.

The father-of-two retired after the Rome Olympics and worked on the Kennedy presidential campaign in 1968. When the infamous assassination occurred, with the help of former NFL defensive tackle Rosey Grier and journalist George Plimpton, the three tackled and subdued Sirhan Sirhan in what Johnson recalls as “one of the most devastating moments in my life.”

Johnson became an actor and appeared in movies including “Wild in the Country” beside Elvis Presley and the 1989 James Bond film, “A License to Kill.”

He leaves behind his wife Elizabeth “Betsy” Thorsen, daughter Jennifer Ann Johnson and son Joshua Ray Johnson, and a legacy that will forever be remembered.

We’re sending our love and prayers to his family.

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