January 1, 2021
The track & field world lost a titan with the death of 1960 Olympic decathlon champion Rafer Johnson on December 2.
We ended 2020 by recording an audio tribute to Rafer on our final LetsRun.com Track Talk podcast of the year featuring three distance runners who knew him: Meb Keflezighi, the New York City and Boston Marathon champ who roomed with Rafer’s son Josh on the road at UCLA; Angel Martinez, the former CEO of Deckers who worked with Rafer while at Reebok and on the Reebok Human Rights Award; and Bob Larsen, the longtime track & field coach at UCLA. You can listen in the player below. The Rafer segment starts at [73:46]. Highlights and more on Rafer’s life below the player. You can also listen here on your favorite podcast app.
Rafer’s life story was simply unbelievable. From humble beginnings (no electricity or plumbing) in Jim Crow Texas, he lived a remarkable life. He’s most known for winning the 1960 Olympic gold, but Rafer was always excelling off the track. He was junior high and high school class president, UCLA student body president, the flagbearer for the 1960 United States Olympic team, the cauldron lighter at the 1984 Olympics, and one of the founders and president of Special Olympics California. He also was good friends with Robert Kennedy, and wrestled the gun from Sirhan Sirhan after Sirhan murdered Kennedy after Kennedy clinched the 1968 Democratic nomination for president. We highly recommend this LA Times obituary on Rafer.
As we read more about Rafer and began to see tributes pour in to him on the LetsRun.com forum, we began to realize despite Rafer’s absolutely amazing life, he apparently was an even better person than he was athlete. Joe Rubio, the founder of Running Warehouse, emailed us and suggested we do a tribute to Rafer. Via the distance running grapevine, we got in touch with Angel, Bob, and Meb and they shared their stories and tributes to Rafer. The audio in total is 25 minutes. Highlights below.
Angel Martinez: “He was the best person I think I have ever known”
(Click here [79:41] to listen)
Angel Martinez is a running lifer with accomplishments in all areas of the running world. He was an All-American at UC Davis, a 2:18 marathoner, and one of the founders of the now-HOKA ONE ONE Aggies Running Club before going onto corporate success at Reebok, where he got to know Rafer, and then at Deckers, where he was CEO. Martinez put Rafer at the top of the list of human beings he has interacted with and that is high praise as Martinez worked with President Jimmy Carter on the Reebok Human Rights Award.
Martinez said, “He (Rafer) was even a better person than he was an athlete, which obviously, he was one of the greatest athletes of all time. So that says everything you need to know about Rafer and everyone, everyone who’d ever met him, walked away saying the same thing…I know that I can say this without any equivocation that he was the best person I think I have ever known.”
You’ll get a chuckle on hearing Martinez recount travling in a beat-up Ford Fairlane with Rafer to a Mexican restaurant in the 1980s.
Bob Larsen: “He could connect with anybody”
(Click here [89:14] to listen)
Larsen was the track coach at UCLA for 20 years, where he got to know UCLA legend Johnson. However, Bob’s first interaction with Rafer came much earlier, in the 1950s, when Larsen encountered Rafer at a UCLA track meet. He was in awe of Rafer the athlete and would become in awe of Rafer the person.
With Jackie Robinson, Arthur Ashe and Rafer, UCLA has had many pioneering African-American sportsmen. Rafer may have been the greatest of them all, Larsen noted.
“Some people accomplish something and when you analyze it you’re saying, ‘Yeah, he did this, this and this, but.’ With Rafer there was never a but,” Larsen said.
Meb Keflezighi: “To say no regrets is a wonderful tribute to his life”
(Click here [96:11] to listen)
Meb Keflezighi followed Rafer in the great list of UCLA Olympians. In addition to sharing Olympic success, Meb shared a more personal connection with Rafer, as Rafer’s son Josh was a javelin thrower at UCLA who often roomed with Meb on the road. Meb called Josh his “big brother” despite the fact Meb was older. When Meb competed at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Rafer and the entire Johnson family were there as Rafer’s daughter Jenny was competing in beach volleyball.
“We all have different gifts, different abilities, but he definitely maximized his,” Meb said of Rafer.
After Rafer died, Jenny texted Meb, “No regrets. He did his purpose on earth and I will see him again in heaven.”
Meb acknowledged that’s about as good as it gets in life, “To say no regrets is a wonderful tribute to his life.”
If you’re interested in donating to causes Rafer Johnson supports:
- The Special Olympics Southern California Rafer Johnson Tribute Fund c/o 1600 Forbes Way #200 Long Beach, CA 90810 www.sosc.org/rafer or by phone to Victoria Tracey at (562) 502-1115
- The UCLA Athletics Rafer Johnson Endowment Fund c/o UCLA Athletic Development Office – P.O. Box 24044 Los Angeles, CA 90024 – (310) 206-3302. Checks payable to “UCLA Foundation” with a reference to the memory of Rafer Johnson
- The Play Equity Foundation’s Rafer Johnson Impact Fund dedicated to providing support to organizations serving adaptive athletes and those with intellectual disabilities. Donations can be made via: https://playequityfund.org/donate-raferjohnson/