Rafer Johnson, Olympic Decathlon Champion, Dead at 86

Rafer Johnson, an Olympic hero who won the decathlon at the 1960 summer games in Rome, died on Wednesday. He was 86 years old. Johnson died at his home in Los Angeles, according to the Associated Press. The cause of death has not been announced.

Johnson was one of the top athletes in the world during the late 1950s into 1960. He won the national decathlon championship in 1956 and earned a silver medal in the Olympics in Melbourne the same year. Along with winning the gold medal in 1960, Johnson carried the U.S. flag at the 1960 games and lit the torch when the Olympics were in L.A. in 1984. He was a standout athlete at UCLA and battled teammate C.K. Yang over the years. Yang died in 2007.

"We are devastated by the news of the passing of Rafer Johnson," UCLA said in a statement. Words cannot sufficiently express what Rafer means to this athletic department, to this university and to our greater community. A true humanitarian, Rafer's profound impact transcends sport. He will forever be remembered for not only for his historic athletic achievements, but also for his heart and for the tremendous example he has set for all Bruins."

Johnson is also known for bringing down the man who shot Robert F. Kennedy. On June 5, 1968, he was working on Kennedy's presidential campaign when the candidate was shot in the Ambassador Hotel kitchen in L.A. Johnson, along with former NFL star Rosey Grier and journalist George Plimpton, took down Sirhan Sirhan moments after Kennedy was shot. The politician died the next day.


"I knew he did everything he could to take care of Uncle Bobby at his most vulnerable moment," Kennedy’s niece, Maria Shriver, said to the Associated Press. “His devotion to Uncle Bobby was pure and real. He had protected his friend. Even after Uncle Bobby’s death he stayed close."

Along with being a top athlete, Johnson was also an actor. One of his most notable films is the 1989 007 film Licence to Kill, which started Timothy Dalton as James Bond. His last credited film is Think Big, which came out in 1990. Johnson was born in Hillsboro, Texas in 1934 and moved to California in 1945. His younger brother is Jimmy Johnson, former San Francisco 49ers defensive back who is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.