Pine Nuts: RIP Rafer Johnson
When Bobby Kennedy was tragically shot and killed in 1968, his killer was set upon and wrestled to the ground by Rafer Johnson. For those too young to remember, Rafer Johnson was the first black captain of a United States Olympic Team, and was crowned the best all-around athlete in the world when he won the decathlon in the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome. He went on to befriend the Kennedy family and become a good-will ambassador for the United States. Rafer Johnson died last week at the age of 86.
I felt a pang of personal loss when my eyes fell upon his obituary, as Rafer Johnson had a direct influence on my young life. Not long after his victory in Rome, Rafer was invited to speak to our student body at Miramonte High, where I was the most immature, infantile person in the senior class, and proud of it. I’m sure I was regarded by our principal as, “least likely to succeed.” In short, I was a boat without a rudder or a mast, a pencil-necked dork if you want to know the whole truth.
I was sitting in the front row when Rafer began to speak. We didn’t have an African- American in our school back then, and I had never heard an African-American speak publicly in person before, so I was keenly interested in what he had to say. Well, I soon enough found out, Rafer Johnson was not only the best all-around athlete in the world, he was the best all-around motivational speaker in the world, for in the space of forty minutes I found my chest expanding with a desire to maybe make something of myself. And I might start by competing in the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games.
Rafer Johnson instilled in this scrawny kid a will to be the best that I could be, and darned if I didn’t try out for the Tokyo Olympics down in Ft. Worth Texas. I failed to make the team, but came away from there with a resolve that was planted firmly inside my chest by Rafer Johnson, a drive to welcome the next challenge and take it on with the panache and élan of a Rafer Johnson. The first and only time I ever won a triathlon I put a hand into the air and shouted, “Thanks, Rafer!”
In the greater scheme of things, it is noble to be a statesman, and nobler yet to be a good-will ambassador to the world, and that was Rafer Johnson. May he rest in peace, and be remembered as a manifestly fine man, not to mention the best all-around athlete in the world, and the man who brought down the assassin of Bobby Kennedy. You’re my hero, Rafer, and I thank you posthumously for inspiring a 17 year old kid to become a better young man…
Learn more about McAvoy Layne at http://www.ghostoftwain.com.
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