Rafer Johnson had kept the honor secret from his daughter, Jenny,
11, and son, Josh, 9, until July 28, the day of the 1984 Olympic
opening ceremonies at the Los Angeles Coliseum. While driving to
the stadium, Johnson popped the question: "Who's going to light
the flame today?" Wide-eyed Jenny perked up and guessed, "Michael
Jackson?" "No," Johnson said, as his daughter's spirits
momentarily fell. "It's just Daddy."
This month Johnson, 65, will be in Sydney performing a very
different role--the role he has cherished most in his rich life,
that of a doting, nail-biting dad. Jenny is now Jenny Johnson
Jordan, the wife of former UCLA wide receiver Kevin Jordan, and
she and partner Annett Davis are medal hopefuls in beach
Growing up, Jenny and Josh always came home to a household filled
with trophies, medals and ribbons--their own. Rafer kept his
tucked away. "I wanted my kids to have their own dreams," he
says. "I'd already done so much." When Southern California
elementary school classes were learning about the Olympics during
their study of ancient Greece, Rafer would often bring in his
medals, including the decathlon gold he won at the 1960 Games.
Those are the only times Jenny has seen it.
Rafer was born during the Depression to Texas cotton pickers in a
home without electricity or running water. He was named both
track and field captain at UCLA, where he also was student body
president and the school's first African-American to pledge a
national fraternity. He earned a silver, behind Milt Campbell of
the U.S., in the decathlon at the 1956 Olympics and was SI's
Sportsman of the Year in '58.
After winning in Rome, where he was the U.S. team captain and
flag bearer, he began working with People to People International
(an American goodwill agency), briefly pursued an acting career,
recruited volunteers for the Peace Corps and volunteered for
Robert Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign. On the night Kennedy
was shot in Los Angeles, it was Johnson who disarmed Sirhan
Sirhan, realizing hours later that the assassin's gun was still
in his pocket. The next year Johnson helped establish the
California chapter of the Special Olympics, which he has served
in various capacities for more than 30 years.
In July he and Betsy, his wife of 29 years, watched Josh, also a
UCLA graduate, place eighth in the javelin at the U.S. Olympic
Trials in Sacramento. "And no matter what time zone Jenny
competes in," Rafer says, "I can't sleep until I see what
happened on the Internet. My greatest joy is seeing how my
children turned out."