Skip to main content
You have permission to edit this article.
Edit
Olympian Rafer Johnson, who helped subdue RFK's assassin, dies at 86
spotlight AP

Olympian Rafer Johnson, who helped subdue RFK's assassin, dies at 86

  • Updated
  • 0
{{featured_button_text}}
Obit Rafer Johnson

In this Sept. 5, 1960, file photo, Rafer Johnson of the United States, center, finishes the fourth heat of the decathlon 100-meter dash at the Olympics in Rome, Italy. Eef Kamerbeek of Netherlands is at left, and Gurbachan Singh Randhawa of India is at right. Johnson, who later helped subdue Robert F. Kennedy's assassin in 1968, died Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2020. He was 86.

LOS ANGELES — Rafer Johnson, who won the decathlon at the 1960 Rome Olympics and helped subdue Robert F. Kennedy's assassin in 1968, died Wednesday. He was 86.

He died at his home in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, according to family friend Michael Roth. No cause of death was announced.

Johnson was among the world's greatest athletes from 1955 through his Olympic triumph in 1960, winning a national decathlon championship in 1956 and a silver medal at the Melbourne Olympics that same year.

His Olympic career included carrying the U.S. flag at the 1960 Games and lighting the torch at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to open the 1984 Games. Johnson set world records in the decathlon three different times amid a fierce rivalry with his UCLA teammate C.K. Yang of Taiwan and Vasily Kuznetsov of the former Soviet Union.

Johnson won a gold medal at the Pan American Games in 1955 while competing in just his fourth decathlon. At a welcome home meet afterward in Kingsburg, California, he set his first world record, breaking the mark of two-time Olympic champion and his childhood hero Bob Mathias.

On June 5, 1968, Johnson was working on Kennedy's presidential campaign when the Democratic candidate was shot in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Johnson joined former NFL star Rosey Grier and journalist George Plimpton in apprehending Sirhan Sirhan moments after he shot Kennedy, who died the next day.

Johnson later called the assassination "one of the most devastating moments in my life."

Born Rafer Lewis Johnson on Aug. 18, 1934, in Hillsboro, Texas, he moved to California in 1945 with his family, including his brother Jim, a future NFL Hall of Fame inductee.

After winning the national decathlon championship in 1956, Johnson was the favorite for the Olympics in Melbourne, 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, but tried to gut out the decathlon.

Johnson's teammate Milt Campbell, a virtual unknown, gave the performance of his life, finishing with 7,937 points to win gold, 350 ahead of Johnson.

It was the last time Johnson would ever come in second.

In memoriam: Those we've lost in 2020