In 1945, a young man’s family moved from the segregated farming town of Hillsboro, Texas to a land of new opportunities found in central California.
In the central California town of Kingsburg, a principal at Roosevelt Elementary School handed students a two-inch by three-inch paper called the “Roosevelt R,” which was meant to remind them to be the best they could be wherever they went in the world.
Upon leaving the halls of Roosevelt Elementary School, the young man, Rafer Johnson, eventually found himself attending Kingsburg Joint Union High School. There, Merrill Dodson, a social studies teacher who doubled as a track and field coach, instilled a sentiment in his track and field prodigy which would become Johnson’s mantra: Be the best you can be.
In an effort to encourage Johnson to become the best he could be athletically and take up the decathlon, Coach Dodson drove the incoming high school junior to Tulare, California to watch Bob Mathias, then the holder of the decathlon world record, compete in the Olympic decathlon trials.
The decathlon is such an extreme series of physical challenges that its ten events span the course of two days. To prepare mentally and physically for the challenges faced in the decathlon and to compete against the likes of Bob Mathias, Johnson knew he would have to be the best he could be.
“When we moved to Kingsburg, the people in that town gave all their kids the most optimistic outlook they could possibly have. My social studies teacher and my track coach was Merrill Dodson. Nobody knows who Merrill Dodson is except for in that little town. But he put a positive spin on everything we did. It was the first time I ever heard someone say, “All I want you to be, is the best you can be.” So I’ve always just followed that—“be the best you can be,” said Johnson.
In 1954, the United States Supreme Court, in an effort to further the United States of America on its path to becoming the best it could be, ruled in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
That fall, Johnson enrolled at UCLA. At UCLA, Johnson found a legacy of other athletes who subscribed to the notion of being the best they could be. These athletes included the likes of Jackie Robinson who, after leaving UCLA, broke professional baseball’s color barrier, and Ralph Bunche, the former UCLA athlete whose role as a United Nations mediator between Israel and Palestine earned him the 1950 Nobel Peace Prize.
With a legacy of student-athletes committed to being the best they could be preceding him, Johnson quickly found coaches who motivated him to be his best. At UCLA, Johnson performed under track coach Elvin “Ducky” Drake. During Johnson’s recruiting trip to UCLA, Coach Drake implied that he would help Johnson become the best he could be at track and field, by telling Johnson he believed he could earn a spot on the next Olympic team.
Under Coach Drake’s guidance, Johnson participated in the 1955 Pan American Games in Mexico City. Johnson not only brought home an American decathlon victory in those games, but a new Pan American decathlon record. Johnson set this record during the event dreaded by every decathlete: the 1,500 meters.
Johnson described a decathlete’s distaste toward the 1,500 meters by explaining,
“I would suggest that there probably isn’t a decathlete anywhere in the world who loves the 1,500 meters. It’s the tenth event, the last event of two days’ of competition and by that time you’re tired. I don’t care how good of shape you’re in, how prepared you were—at that point, you’re tired.”
Although his closest competitor at the 1955 Pan American Games sat out the 1,500 meters event–meaning that Johnson could have won the gold medal without completing the event–Johnson knew that he would not be the best he could be if he did not run the 1,500 meters.
Johnson’s best that night turned out to be good enough to break the Pan American decathlon record.
Johnson’s training and dedication toward becoming the best decathlete he could be allowed him to secure his place on the 1956 U.S. Olympic roster. Although battling a knee injury and torn stomach muscle, Johnson won the silver medal for the decathlon in the 1956 Olympics.
While Johnson’s injuries during the 1956 Olympics acted as a setback to his earning an Olympic gold medal, Johnson never backed down from challenges in the face of adversity.
“Adversity. . . is just temporary. The next event or opportunity is coming along. Everyday, we face obstacles that we may or may not think are going to be difficult. They turn out to be one or the other. What you do, is learn from it, but always look at it as a temporary setback,” noted Johnson.
Alicia and Rafer Johnson in Hermosa Beach, CA
Returning to UCLA in the fall of 1956, Johnson conditioned for the track and field season by playing basketball at UCLA. On the basketball court, Johnson encountered another influential force whose coaching method mirrored Johnson’s adopted motto of being “the best you can be.”
By the fall of 1956, the man who would become known to the world as the “Wizard of Westwood” had racked up 184 of his 620 wins at UCLA. Later, Coach John Wooden’s popular Pyramid of Success featured a top block declaring, “Perform at your best when your best is required. Your best is required each day.”
“People wonder how he was able to win. To me, it was very simple. That’s all he asked of his boys [to be their best], and he got them ready to play the game, physically and mentally. Being the best you can be is what I think of all the time, whether I’m on the field of competition or not,” explained Johnson.
Johnson’s dedication to becoming the best he could be ultimately granted him a second chance at earning Olympic gold in the decathlon.
At the 1960 Olympic games in Rome, Johnson was named the captain of the American contingent, which was composed of athletes including an eighteen-year old boxer named Cassius Clay and a pioneer in women’s sports named Wilma Rudolph.
Over the course of two hot and humid days in Rome, where temperatures reached up to 90 degrees, Johnson’s chance at Olympic gold came down to the decathlon’s final event: the 1,500 meters.
Ahead of his UCLA classmate and track and field teammate, C.K. Yang, by only sixty-seven points going into the event, Johnson knew that he could not let Yang win the 1,500 meters by more than ten seconds. Johnson also knew that Yang’s 1,500 meters best was fifteen seconds better than his personal best.
“I was up against one of the best athletes I’ve ever known in C.K. Yang, my friend and classmate. My coach Ducky Drake, gave us specific instructions as to how we were each to run that race,” said Johnson.
In that moment, Johnson knew that he had to be the best he could be.
Finishing 1.2 seconds behind Yang, Johnson gave the event his best, as he ran the 1,500 meters in the fastest amount of time he ever had.
“Each of us did exactly what [Drake] told us to do,” noted Johnson.
In recognition of being the best he could be, after completing the 1,500 meters, Johnson stood on a podium in Rome when a ribbon laced with a gold medal was placed around his neck.
“One of us finished first and one finished second. I believe that’s why he [Yang] and I have remained friends all these years, because he knew he was the best he could be and I felt I had my best performance, as well. That’s really what it’s all about. Yes, I wanted to win gold, but I would have been a lot more disappointed winning gold, or any other medal, knowing that I hadn’t brought everything I could to that competition,” said Johnson.
In explaining how he achieved Olympic gold medal success, Johnson emphasizes the importance of one being his best in every moment:
“The way I did my decathlon is, I did one event at a time. I did the best I could do at that event. The second event, I didn’t look back at the first thinking, “Oh, I could have done that better,” or “that was a great event for me.” I tried to be my best in the second event. And I didn’t look forward to the third event when I was doing the second event. I went through ten events. That’s all I wanted to do, was be the best I can be. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t. But what I wanted at the end of ten events, was for it to add up to be my best ten events,” explained Johnson.
Johnson’s lifetime personal commitment to being the best he could be allowed him to cross paths with a family recognized by most Americans as exuding excellence.
In 1961, Johnson was awarded the Athlete of the Year award by People to People. The keynote speaker of the event was United States Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. After the ceremony, Kennedy invited Johnson to Washington, D.C., as Johnson expressed interest in international relations and foreign exchange programs. Johnson accepted the offer and subsequently formed a lasting friendship with the Kennedy family.
Through his friendship with Robert F. Kennedy, Johnson became familiar with Kennedy’s sister, Eunice Shriver. During the period in which they became friends, Shriver was organizing day camps for individuals with intellectual disabilities at her home. In 1968, Shriver’s efforts culminated in the first-ever International Special Olympics Summer Games, during which 1,000 athletes competed in various events in Chicago.
While previously involved in community service projects, Johnson’s friendship with the Kennedy’s allowed him to become intimately involved with the Special Olympics and exercise his personal best to support the needs of others. Since 1966, Johnson has committed himself to giving his best to ensure the success and development of the Special Olympics.
“I was involved in the Robert Kennedy Presidential Campaign in 1968 and I had been involved with the Special Olympics just prior to that in 1966. Eunice Shriver, Bobby’s sister, started the Special Olympics because she wanted to involve her sister [Rosemary], who had an intellectual disability and at that point, wasn’t getting any recreation or exercise activities. Eunice thought life could be better for her. So she worked on this program,” said Johnson.
At the 1968 International Special Olympics Summer Games, Johnson led 40 California athletes to Chicago to encourage them to be the best they could be.
In 1969, Johnson served as the co-founder of the California Special Olympics by organizing the first annual Western Regional Special Olympics, at which 900 individuals from seven states participated in five athletic events. In 1995, the California Special Olympics divided into Special Olympics Southern California and Special Olympics Northern California. Today, 9,000 athletes participate in the Special Olympics Southern California, which hosts a two-season sports calendar during which athletes are given the opportunity to participate in twelve events.
Throughout the 42 year history of what became the Special Olympics Southern California, Johnson has served as a member and president of the board of directors. Today, Johnson’s commitment to giving his best to supporting Special Olympics Southern California’s athletes is as strong as ever, as he attends every Special Olympics Southern California event.
“I’ll never forget what Mrs. Shriver said [at the 1968 International Special Olympics Summer Games] that, “every athlete here today deserves our attention and deserves this opportunity.” I remember those words and I think I’ll always be involved with the program, because I came up as a youngster in a very small town in central California and that’s what I think provided the basis for the rest of my career—that somebody helped me be the best that I could be. That’s what Mrs. Shriver was doing with her inception of Special Olympics and what the Special Olympics program has done ever since. It has helped special athletes be the best that they can be,” said Johnson.
In a room in a house in Los Angeles, there lies a gold medal that was won by a young man who put forth his best effort on a hot summer night in Rome.
Next to that gold medal, is a crinkled up “R” that his elementary school principal gave him.
Rafer Johnson has never forgotten what it takes to be the best that he can be.