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RAFER JOHNSON

Jan. 05, 1959
Jan. 05, 1959

Table of Contents
Jan. 5, 1959

Greatest Game
Events & Discoveries
Rafer Johnson
Basketball
Boxing
Motor Sports
Offbeat Haven
Sporting Look
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over
Pat On The Back

RAFER JOHNSON

As their Sportsman of 1958 the editors choose

Even now, in winter, the broad campus of the University of California at Los Angeles retains the clean, fresh look of spring. Against the dusky green Santa Monica hills the Romanesque lines of university buildings bring to mind medieval Italy—a fleeting reminder of the past, soon lost among all the surer tokens of eternal youth. Under the eucalyptus along the main avenue there is a constant tide of scholars on motor scooters and athletes bound for the playing fields. The coeds of UCLA—brunettes, blondes and real blondes—encamp on the sunlit lawns, discussing John Stuart Mill, the junior prom, or the freshman mud brawl. On the second floor of the student union, where the tide of the present loses some of its force, UCLA harbors the mementoes of its short but fruitful athletic past. Scattered through this memorabilia, mixed in with the memories of All-Americas and Olympians, there are a dozen plaques and trophies paying tribute to the finest athlete who ever came that way: Rafer Lewis Johnson.

This is an article from the Jan. 5, 1959 issue Original Layout

Ray Johnson is a gentle man and the greatest of the many athletic giants to come out of the valley of the San Joaquin. For close to a decade now he has been the favorite son of the 2,500 people in his valley home of Kingsburg. Last April, his 11,000 collegemates elected him president of the student body. Last July, in Moscow, in a hard decathlon match against his old Russian rival and friend, Vasiliy Kuznetsov, he became the athletic wonder of both the Western and Eastern worlds. For these reasons, and for others less tangible but no less important, of all the amateurs and pros who enriched the scene in 1958, Ray Johnson stands first as Sportsman of the Year.

The year was Johnson's, but not his on every count. For holding faith against the odds in October the barnacled old professional, Casey Stengel of the Yankees, was a hero equal to Johnson. One of the most decisive victories of 1958 was won by a little-known figure of sport, Olin Stephens, designer of the America's Cup defender, Columbia. More than a boat hull counted, surely, but Columbia's smashing victory at sea was virtually preordained on Stephens' drawing board.

It was the impact of the man himself, rather than his victory, that made Johnson the worthiest sportsman. Ray Johnson is a rare concentrate of some old Sunday school virtues: tolerance, humility and godliness, none of which can be said to be gaining too much ground in this go-get-'em age. Johnson's kind of tolerance is not the diluted brand that sells so cheaply around the world these days, good only among people who already think alike. His is the real thing—by Voltaire's definition, the capacity to be tolerant even of intolerance. His godliness is inconspicuous; he never wears it on his sleeve. For two track seasons at UCLA a recurring leg injury reduced Johnson athletically to a good team man. At the time he was elected president, there was little glamour to him. He had a reputation for all-round decency and for getting things done without a lot of caterwauling, and this counted heavily for him at the polls.

For Rafer Johnson, the coming summer offers even more challenge athletically than the rich year just past. He will defend his national decathlon title in late July and a month later, in Chicago, his Pan-American title. Before both these defenses, in a U.S.-Russian dual track meet in Philadelphia's Franklin Field, July 17, 18, he will again take on old rival Kuznetsov. Both Johnson and Kuznetsov have raised the decathlon standard now where no specialist, good in a few events, can ever reach it. At Franklin Field, the U.S., after contributing to the cast of characters for some years, will at last get a look at a great decathlon show.

The crowded hours of college life

Just now, the challenge of the coming year is scarcely in Johnson's mind. Until spring the implements of his sport gather dust. Johnson is thoroughly embroiled with the present. His average day now is consumed improving his C-plus average, playing basketball, and as student president juggling many, many matters great and small, hoping nothing of importance falls to the floor. He spends 20 hours a week in his office marked PRESIDENT, one floor above the showcases that already preserve him as part of UCLA's past.

Anyone caring to know how much of the world one good college man can reach should visit Johnson in his office. At the far end of the room, a file cabinet, stenographer's table and Johnson's desk stand before a bay of leaded-glass windows. On a typical day, as he enters, Johnson stacks his classbooks on a small table beside his office couch so that, if office business slackens, he might snatch some learning. On this particular day, Johnson has scarcely put his books down before both his secretaries are orbiting around him. Secretary Sharon Gornbein, a cheerful brunette, comes to rest at the typewriter with a half bushel of memorandums. Secretary Adrienne Hatcher, a real blonde, ticks off on her fingers unfinished business. First there is the U.S. State Department letter asking if Johnson can make another good-will tour. "Then, there's Arizona asking about the blood drive," Secretary Hatcher continues, "and a Mrs. Berler, or Boiler, wrote a letter. You know, another come-to-dinner-and-give-a-speech letter."

Johnson lifts a hand. "I just can't speak any more this semester," he pleads. "I've got to study."

Secretary Hatcher withdraws to advise Mrs. Berler (or Boiler) politely that if Johnson speaks any more, he may flunk. Johnson settles back of his desk and searches for the State Department letter in a folder of mail. The folder contains letters from the Youth for Christ of Muskegon, the Culver City Rotary, a Chicago YMCA, the Toluca Lake B'nai B'rith and a Toronto TV station, asking Johnson to speak. Dan Ferris, the kindly, pink-cheeked vigilante of U.S. amateurism, writes that Australia wants Johnson to compete there in March. Lois Satterburg of Yucaipa, California writes to say she has just realized that this famous Rafer Johnson is the 10-year-old she held long ago in the Kingsburg hospital after he tore open his foot climbing on the cannery conveyor. (Johnson will never forget. Still, at times, as he pounds down a broad-jump runway, he can feel the cut of the conveyor belt.) Ove Strom of Stockholm, Sweden writes for advice and autographs. University President Clark Kerr requests Johnson's services on a committee. Art Lentz of the Olympic Committee hopes Johnson can find time to make a movie. Down in Tolé, Chiriquí, Panama, a Miss Eleanor Larson, who describes herself as an old maid missionary and confesses that she fills teeth without a dental degree, has heard Johnson is contemplating the ministry or dentistry (actually, now he leans more to foreign relations). There are plenty of souls and teeth to fix down Panama way, Miss Larson pleads, but she warns, "You won't get rich."

As he reads, Ray Johnson leans back in his chair, but never for long. Some designer shaped the chair well for a normal man. Johnson's huge back extends six inches to either side and a foot over the top, so the chair back serves more as a goad than a rest. He progresses through the work load, but not without interruption. Secretaries and officials of other offices come and go, bringing contracts, letters and checks for Johnson to sign. A lost student thrusts his head in the door to ask if this is the place to discuss human relations (it is not, at the moment, anyway). A secretary from somewhere asks if he will pose for pictures with a Hula-hoop. At 3 o'clock Johnson goes to basketball practice, and after squeezing in an hour of study, at 7 o'clock he gives a talk to Legionnaires promoting the Olympic movement—a good cause, so Johnson asks only, please, can he speak first and leave early. For classes tomorrow he must be in command of the British Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 and prepare a paper on the ticking intricacy of the human heart. He has a good room in his fraternity, Pi Lambda Phi, but everyone knows it, so past midnight Johnson studies in the emptiness of the student union building.

Rafer Johnson's position on the U.S. sport scene is a strange one. In three big decathlon tests abroad, a quarter million people watched him. In six decathlons at home less than 20,000 Americans have seen him. In the U.S. the decathlon has lacked international flavor, and is, in fact, so poorly understood that it cannot be appreciated. At the banquet tables Johnson often hears his sport called the "most grueling"—a banality and distortion. As decathlon veterans readily point out, many good five-event men give out as much in a conference meet. The ability to master the diverse techniques, to carry a 10-event work load in practice, and in competition to survive where every fraction counts in 10 separate tests, to get emotionally keyed up for one event, then forget it immediately and get fired up for another—"to be fierce 10 times," as veteran Coach George Eastment puts it—these are the real demands of the decathlon.

High school hero of a happy town

The people of Kingsburg have never put a limit on what they feel their favorite son will do. Johnson was president of his eighth grade, president of the high school, now he is president at UCLA, and next year, Kingsburg knows, he will be something else worthwhile. His father, Lewis Johnson, a tall man of gentle humor too, brought his wife and five children from Texas to California in 1944. "I saw I had good boys growing up," Lewis Johnson now explains, "and everyone knows California is the land of opportunity." The town of Kingsburg that Lewis Johnson finally came to sits near dead center in the vast, crop-rich San Joaquin Valley. On a clear winter day, 40 miles east, the people can see the snows of the ragged Sierra that make the valley grow. Kingsburg lives by farming and the operation of a winery, cannery, a cotton-seed oil and a feed plant, where Lewis Johnson works. It is a calm town, its harshest sounds are the growls of diesel trucks stacked high with baled cotton and alfalfa, and the wild wail of the Southern Pacific thundering up the valley. Kingsburg people go to church regularly and to bed early. Those who drink do most of their drinking on the edge of town. Through the shifting athletic seasons the town enjoys following the high school teams. There was not, however, much joy in Kingsburg eight or 10 years ago. In the all-important sport, football, the Kingsburg team was the whipping boy of the league. In the dark years, the most cheerful headline local editor Benton Bowen could summon to report a weekly drubbing was, THRILLING PLAYS ENLIVEN ANOTHER KINGSBURG LOSS.

Then along came Johnson and a classmate named Guy Troisi and, before they graduated, Kingsburg led the league in football, basketball and track. Today if too many Kingsburg men talk too long about sport, someone will stir up memories of Johnson and Troisi. Someone will remember Johnson's sophomore year, when the football team, with a 155-pound line, was still punk, and the coach in desperation put 10 men on the line and gave the ball to his one-man backfield, Johnson, on every play. In Kingsburg they can still see sophomore Johnson now, wriggling, ducking, like a great stag, harassed and run ragged. In Kingsburg they remember the 6-6 tie against Lindsay High for the league title, played in fog so thick it hid half the game from the crowd. They remember how Lindsay gambled two spot passes and hit their end in the back of the head with both, and how Johnson in the second half suddenly popped out of the fog, loose, but alas collided with an opponent. (They recall with greater pleasure the title game the next year, when Johnson and Troisi ran wild, and Kingsburg walloped Lindsay 55-0.) They remember the 880-yard relay, the windup of the night track meets—Troisi passing to anchorman Johnson, and on the dim backstretch nothing of Johnson visible except his gold trunks and white socks, then suddenly in the light of the homestretch the whole magnificent form of him coming to the tape. "Since he was a boy, the people always liked him," Editor Benton Bowen concludes. "When he was in Moscow, Al Nehring called him long distance. Got him too. Couldn't hear much—you know, 'How are you Ray? I'm fine. What are you doing?'—all fuzzy. Al might as well have shouted out the window. But, as I say, they like Johnson here."

The cheering of the Russian crowd over Johnson's victory in Moscow last July was one of few heartening sounds the world heard in that otherwise grim month. When asked about his experience, Johnson recalls most often a moment of the final day. Coming up to the javelin, his lead was substantial. On his second javelin throw, Johnson got out just over 200 feet, some 12 feet shy of Kuznetsov's mark, and the difference restored Kuznetsov's chances of squeezing out a victory in the final 1,500-meter run. "On my last throw, my approach was only fair," Johnson recalls, "but as I threw I could feel the javelin coming through in the groove. You don't usually hear the crowd immediately, but as I watched the javelin in the air I could already hear them cheering. I knew I had a good one, and I knew they knew it." The javelin hit out 238 feet, clinching a world record and pinning defeat for certain on Kuznetsov. "Away from home," Johnson said later, "I have never seen spectators who seemed so proud of what I had done, and I was not one of their men." Outside the stadium afterward, when the Russian crowd began tossing Johnson in the air, the interpreter accompanying Dan Ferris of the AAU shook his head. "I do not understand. Russian people are not often so emotional."

No sport can cure the world's ills. Moments like Johnson's affirm, nonetheless, that a sport sometimes clears a good path where bigger machines have stalled. A track champion of Johnson's stature serves especially as an agent of good will, because of all the American sports, it is in track that this country mixes most often with others. In the continuing crises of the present, the international champion needs an infallible sense of proportion, for in the crowds about him there are always some inclined to use the champion and his feats to prove more than good will. Last summer, an appraisal of his performance in the Congressional Record declared that Johnson's victory had "demonstrated to the Soviet Union and other critics of our country that we produce the best under a system of incentives and freedom which they would label inefficient and decadent."

With equal conviction, of course, Russia can use the feats of its good distance runners to prove Communism, and, at the rate they are taking over in a half dozen sports, the Australians should soon be able to prove anything.

The values he finds in his efforts for his home town, his college and country are often mentioned by Ray Johnson in his talks. The words below are as he expressed it recently at a dinner of the University of Oklahoma chapter of Pi Lambda Phi. "We make friends," he said, "and I like to think we leave friends.... We go to exchange ideas, not to beat ideas into each other's heads, like politicians. It seems funny to say winning is not all-important—I always want to win, and no one likes to lose. But when you start out on the field, everyone is equal. That is the important idea."

PHOTO"Perhaps because I like it best, hurdling is sort of a key event to me. When I hurdle well, I usually do all right in the other events."PHOTOA son's appraisal of his father—"He never pushed us in sport or anything, but he always wanted us to go farther than he had."PHOTO"As I stood there, the Russians cheered. A photographer said they wanted me to wave, so I waved, and they kept on cheering."PHOTO"Kuznetsov and I practiced together and became friends. He wasn't happy losing, but as European athletes do, he gave me a kiss."

WHEN NOTHING ELSE MATTERED

In Moscow last July 28, as Rafer Johnson stood in the winner's spot, still steeped in the sweat of his record-breaking decathlon duel against Vasiliy Kuznetsov of Russia, the crowd of 30,000 in Lenin Stadium cheered and kept cheering. It was a popular victory with the Russian crowd and, as the word of it spread, popular also in a dozen countries where people know Johnson and his talents better even than many of his own countrymen. Johnson's score of 8,302 was 288 points better than his rival Kuznetsov had ever done—the most decisive victory since Bob Mathias opened the new decathlon era of true supermen.

In the light of his career over the past four years, Johnson's victory is still more remarkable. Four years ago, as a UCLA freshman, Johnson had broken Mathias' decathlon record. In his sophomore year he served his university in 10 of the 15 events normally held in tough West Coast dual meets. He was a hurdler and broad jumper of Olympic quality. Then, in Olympic practice at Melbourne, he severely injured a persistently weak left knee. After finishing second to Milt Campbell, his teammate, in the Games, he underwent an operation but later incurred new injury. For over a year his knee proved so untrustworthy that he was obliged to curtail practice, always pampering the leg in training so he might use it—and abuse it if necessary—in competition. He could sprint on the flat, but he could not hurdle for a year. In the 19 months between the Olympics and Moscow he dared not practice the broad jump, high jump or pole vault more than four days each. In his strong events, the hurdles and broad jump, he was reduced to being, by world standards, a man of average competence. Meanwhile, stressing events that taxed his leg less, he became the best all-round weight man the world has known.

It was the cheers of the Moscow crowd as much as Johnson's performance that made his two-day stand in Lenin Stadium a bright moment for many people. On those same two days the bitterness of Lebanon and the Near East had a grip on the world. The slanderous paint stains were still fresh on the walls, and broken panes of glass still in the windows of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. The meet in Lenin Stadium was run almost as if in defiance of the world anger surrounding it. Through the first events the Russian crowd was obviously and logically partisan, but as Johnson moved ahead he carried the crowd with him. When, in the javelin, the ninth of the 10 events, Johnson assured himself of victory and a new world record, the crowd came to its feet in a prolonged cheer. Other Americans in the stadium considered it an extraordinary tribute for a single hero. It was, they felt, the response of a knowing crowd who found in Johnson the finest athlete they had ever seen, and for that moment at least nothing else mattered.