RAFER JOHNSON TIMELINE
A look at the milestones of the remarkable life of Rafer Johnson – from his many athletic achievements, to his meetings with leaders and pursuit of social justice, brief forays into entertainment and broadcasting to a lifetime spent supporting others and philanthropy.
1934 – Rafer Lewis Johnson born August 18, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas
1945 – Johnson family moves to northern, then central California
1946 – Johnson family settles in Kingsburg, Calif.
1951-1954 – Attends Kingsburg High School. Rafer excels in four sports, is team captain in three, wins 11 varsity letters.
1952 – July: Watches Bob Mathias at the Olympic decathlon trials in Tulare, Calif., and was inspired by what he saw.
1954 – Enters UCLA in the fall on academic and athletic scholarships.
1955 – June 11: As a freshman at UCLA breaks the decathlon world record previously held by Bob Mathias.
1955 – March 19: Pan American Games, Mexico City, earns gold medal in decathlon and set a world record with 7,985 points.
1956 – Wins US Decathlon championship.
1956 – November 30: Olympic Games, Melbourne, earns silver medal in decathlon. He entered the competition as the favorite to win gold, but pulled a stomach muscle and strained a knee while training. He was forced to withdraw from the long jump, for which he had also qualified. It was the last time he finished second.
1957 – Participates in summer goodwill tour of the world implemented by the US State Department.
1957/1958 — Plays basketball for UCLA and legendary coach John Wooden.
1958 – Spring – Elected UCLA student body president.
1958 – US Decathlon Champion.
1958 – July 28: US-USSR Dual Meet (1st) – Breaks decathlon world record previously held by Vasily Kuznetsov.
1958/1959 – Begins term as UCLA student body president.
1958/1959 – Plays basketball for UCLA.
1958 – Dec. 1 — Drafted by LA Rams as a running back in the 28th round of the 1959 NFL Draft despite not having played football since high school.
1959 – January: Named Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year.
1959 – Spring: Graduates from UCLA.
1959 – Spring: Suffers back injury in a car accident. Misses AAU Finals and second US-USSR meet.
1959 – Sport Magazine Man of the Year, February 1959 issue
1960 – April: Wins AAU James E. Sullivan Award as “the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States”
1960 – US Decathlon Champion
1960 – July 9: Breaks Kuznetsov decathlon world record.
1960 – Olympic Games, Rome: Aug. 25, carries US flag in opening ceremony. / Sept. 6: Wins gold medal in decathlon. It was one of the most memorable finishes to a decathlon in Olympic history. Johnson battled with C.K. Yang of Taiwan – teammates at UCLA – and the American held a slim lead going into the 1,500-meter run, the final event. The two men were in the same heat, and despite it being Yang’s best event, Johnson stayed close enough to win the decathlon by just 58 points.
1960 – August 29: Appears on cover of Time magazine.
1960 – Voted Associated Press Athlete of the Year.
1960 – Receives the Supreme Award of Merit and Honorary Fellowship from the George Washington Carver Memorial Institute for his outstanding contributions to sports, the arts and the betterment of race relations.
1961 – Becomes part of People to People, a program initiated by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to enhance international understanding and friendship through educational, cultural and humanitarian activities. Develops a university aspect of the program and manages the west coast office of the program.
1961 – Receives People to People Award for Athlete of the Year. Meets keynote speaker Robert F. Kennedy at the award ceremony and an enduring friendship begins.
1961 – Begins an eight-year career with the Peace Corps. Recruits volunteers and travels to South America to speak to citizens and officials on behalf of the Peace Corps
1961 – Rafer serves as a coach for the USA team at the Maccabee Games in Israel.
1964 — Joins NBC’s broadcast team for the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
1965 – Technical advisor for the film Billie, starring Patty Duke.
1966 – June: Attends rally at Tougaloo College in Jackson, Miss., organized by James Meredith to mobilize black voters in the state.
1966 – KNBC (Los Angeles’s NBC affiliate) offers Rafer position as sports reporter.
1968 – June 5: Present at Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles. Rafer wrestles the gun away from assassin Sirhan Sirhan.
1968 – Special Olympics is founded by Eunice Kennedy Shriver.
1969 – Rafer helps establish the Western/California Regional Chapter of Special Olympics, later known as Southern California Special Olympics.
1971 – Dec 18: Marries Elizabeth “Betsy” Thorsen.
1973 – Bakersfield School District (Calif.) votes to rename the Peter Pan School the Rafer Johnson School, which serves children with special needs.
1973 – June 8: Daughter Jenny is born.
1975 – April 6: Son Joshua (Josh) is born.
1974 – Inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame.
1984 – July 28: Olympic Games, Los Angeles — lights the Olympic cauldron during opening ceremony.
1984 – Inducted into UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame as a member of the first inducted class.
1990 – Elected to National High School Hall of Fame.
1993 – September 26: Rafer Johnson Junior High in Kingsburg, Calif., is dedicated
1994 – Inducted into the first class of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.
1996 – April 27: Rafer starts the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games torch relay, which launched at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
1996 – Bakersfield School District (Calif.) opens the Rafer Johnson Community Day School to serve junior high school students with special needs.
1997 – April 10: Receives AAF [LA84 Foundation] Lifetime Achievement Award, honoring Rafer Johnson and C.K. Yang.
1998 – Named one of ESPN’s 100 Greatest North American Athletes of the 20th century.
2009 – August 10: Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum plaque dedication.
2014 – Receives Athletes in Excellence Award from The Foundation for Global Sports Development, in recognition of his community service efforts and work with youth.
2015 – July 25-August 2: Special Olympics World Games, Los Angeles; Rafer assisted Special Olympian Destiny Sanchez in the lighting of the torch.
2018 – March 9: Inducted into the Pac-12 Hall of Honor.
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