Rafer Johnson was one of America’s greatest athletes. He was the world record holder and 1960 Olympic gold medalist in the decathlon, having won silver in the 1956 Olympics and also gold in the 1955 Pan American Games. He was the star of his Kingsburg High School’s football, baseball and basketball teams and won the 1953 and 1954 California state high school decathlon championships. At UCLA, he was a starter on legendary coach John Wooden’s 1958 basketball team, and in spite of never having played football in college, he was selected by the Los Angeles Rams as a running back in the 28th round of the 1959 NFL Draft. He was the USA team’s flag bearer at the 1960 Olympics and lit the Olympic torch for the Los Angeles Games in 1984. He was also a movie actor and sportscaster, and helped start the California Special Olympics. In 1968, he tackled Sirhan Sirhan and removed the gun from his hand after he shot Robert Kennedy.
At age 83, he was crippled by a stroke and died from its complications three years later, on December 2, 2020.
Early Life and Athletic Career
Rafer Lewis Johnson was born during the depression in 1934 in Hillsboro, Texas, to a cotton-picking and farming family. At age three his family moved into a home in Dallas that had no electricity or indoor plumbing. At age nine, his family moved again, this time to Kingsburg, California in the San Joaquin Valley, where they were the only black family in town and survived by picking cotton. He described his father as a kind, hard-working family man when he was sober, but a hell-raising drunk who beat his wife when he drank.
Johnson was the best athlete in his high school in football, baseball, basketball and track and field, and he was elected class president in junior high and high school. He chose UCLA for college because of its apparent “lack of racial prejudice”. However, he was turned down by one fraternity there, and a white woman he was dating was told to choose between her sorority and dating a black man. He did become the first African-American to pledge a national fraternity at UCLA, and was elected president of his class.
He won the Pan American Games decathlon in 1955 and broke the world record for the decathlon. In 1958, the year after being graduated from college, he became a focus of the world battle between communism and the free world. With Cold War tensions at their highest level, the highlight of the first U.S.-USSR track meet held in Moscow was the battle in the decathlon between Rafer Johnson and Russia’s Vasili Kuznetsov, the current world record holder. In this symbolic battle against communism, the free world was represented by a black man. He wrote in his autobiography: “I was fully aware of the irony that a Black man was an emissary of a nation where discrimination raged and racists got away with lynchings.” He won and regained the world record from Kuznetsov. After he won, the primarily Russian crowd rushed from the stands and Johnson thought they were going to attack him, but they raised him on their shoulders and praised his victory.
The Two Best Decathletes in the World Trained Together
In 1958, China’s best decathlete, C.K. Yang, came from Taiwan to study at UCLA and trained with Rafer Johnson under the direction of famed track coach Ducky Drake. They became best friends. Two years later at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Rafer Johnson was the first Black American to carry the American flag in opening day ceremonies.
Right from the start of the decathlon competition, the two UCLA training partners quickly separated themselves from the rest of the field and by the ninth out of 10 events, Johnson led C.K. Yang by the slimmest of margins. The last event was the 1500-meter run and Yang was a much better distance runner than Johnson. Just before the run, Ducky Drake told Johnson to hang on to Yang as he had to finish within 10 seconds of Yang to win the event. He then told Yang to put as much distance between himself and Johnson as possible before the final sprint. Yang led the race from the very start to the finish, but Johnson ran the race of his life hanging on to Yang’s every step, and he finished closer to Yang than he had ever done in their previous distance races. Johnson’s time was 4:49.7, his best ever. He finished just 1.2 sec behind Yang and won the gold medal by a mere 58 points for an Olympic record of 8,392 points. Just after they finished, they both were so exhausted that they grabbed onto each other for support and stood hugging each other. Yang won the silver medal for the Republic of China and became the first Olympic medalist in his country’s history.
Movie Career, Later Years and Death
After the 1960 Olympics, Johnson acted in motion pictures and worked as a weekend sports broadcaster on KNBC in Los Angeles. On June 5, 1968, while working with the presidential election campaign of Senator Robert F. Kennedy, he and legendary football player, Rosey Grier, grabbed Sirhan Sirhan immediately after he shot and killed Kennedy. In 1968, Johnson became one of the founders of the first Special Olympics competition in Chicago in 1968 and served as vice president of personnel at Continental Telephone Company.
I could find no medical records in the media and have never examined him personally, but the news media reports that he suffered a crippling stroke at age 83 and died of complications from that stroke at age 86 on December 2, 2020.
Causes of Strokes
A stroke is sudden interruption of the blood flow to the brain. Each year, strokes kill more than 185,000 North Americans and permanently cripple far more than that. Most strokes are caused by:
• a clot blocking blood flow to the brain, or
• a blood vessel bursting to bleed into and crush parts of the brain.
The brain controls breathing, so a person stops breathing after just three minutes of his brain not receiving any oxygen though the bloodstream. If the blood flow is only partially obstructed, parts of the brain start to die in three hours or less.
Lifestyle Risk Factors for Stroke
Everything that can damage blood vessels increases risk for strokes (Current Atherosclerosis Reports, 2000;2:160–166):
• A diet that is low in vegetables, fruits, nuts, and beans, and high in red meat, processed meats, fried foods, sugar-added foods and sugared drinks (Int J Prev Med, 2013 May; 4(Suppl 2): S165–S179)
• Obesity, particularly abdominal obesity
• lack of exercise
• Use of recreational drugs such as cocaine, ecstasy, amphetamines or heroin
• smoking or breathing second-hand smoke,
• some medications such as blood-thinning drugs, hormones to treat menopause and some birth control pills
• air pollution and some environmental pollutants
Risk Factors You Cannot Control
• aging (risk doubles after age 55)
• family history of strokes
• being African-American or nonwhite Hispanic American
• having sickle cell disease (Stroke, May 2014;45:2041–2046)
• having had a previous stroke
Medical Conditions that Increase Stroke Risk
• high blood pressure
• high cholesterol
• heart disease
• diabetes (more than doubles the risk) because arterial damage is done by blood sugars that rise too high after meals. Anyone who has a blood sugar level higher than 145 one hour after eating a meal should immediately adopt a lifestyle that helps to prevent and treat diabetes (Diabetes Care, 2001;24(8):1448-1453).
• sleep apnea
• narrowed neck arteries
• history of transient ischemic attacks (TIAs — a sudden loss of brain function or control of muscles that clears up soon afterwards)
• atrial fibrillation, in which clots accumulate in the upper heart and travel to block blood flow to the brain
• blood disorders such as high red blood cells or platelets
Help to Prevent Strokes with a Healthful Lifestyle
Try to follow an anti-inflammatory lifestyle that will help protect you from heart disease, diabetes, and other preventable causes of dying too young:
• Try to exercise every day,
• Avoid being overweight,
• Avoid tobacco and restrict or avoid alcohol,
• Follow a diet that is high in the anti-inflammatory foods including fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains (not ground into flour), beans, coffee, tea, and fatty fish such as salmon, mackerel, tuna or sardines.
• Restrict or avoid the pro-inflammatory foods such as sweetened beverages and sugar-added foods, foods made with flour and other refined carbohydrates, red meat (meat from mammals), processed meats, fried foods, butter and margarine.
Why a Stroke is an Emergency
If you suspect someone is having a stroke, EVERY SECOND COUNTS. Call 911 and get that person to the hospital as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the greater the brain damage.
The American Stroke Association suggests that you remember the mnemonic 911FAST: if you see a person suddenly develop Face drooping – Arm weakness – Speech difficulty – Time to call 911. Other signs of a stroke include difficulty walking, seeing, or understanding another person, numbness or paralysis of the face, arm, or leg, or sudden headache (although strokes are often painless). Most stroke victims will not benefit from CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation), but if you are trained in CPR and hear no heartbeat, feel no pulse and the person is not breathing, it is reasonable to start CPR while you are waiting for an ambulance.
Strokes are caused by clots blocking arteries or bleeding into and crushing the brain. Recent data show that you have up to 13 hours after first symptoms of a stroke to start to have injections that dissolve the clot and up to 24 hours after the start of a stroke to have surgeons remove a clot (New England Journal of Medicine, May 9, 2019). If you have a clot blocking the blood flow through an artery bringing blood to a part of your brain, doctors can inject tissue plasminogen activator (tPA) to dissolve the clot and open up the artery. However, you have very little time to get this treatment to prevent a part of the brain from dying. Other treatments are to have a surgeon remove the clot that caused a stroke, or open the skull and remove the excess blood to relieve the pressure crushing the brain. A surgeon may also be able to fix an aneurysm in which a weakened and swollen blood vessel burst to bleed into and crush the brain. These surgical treatments must be done as soon as possible.
What You Should NOT Do
• Don’t let the victim talk you out of calling 911. Trained emergency responders can start specific treatments as soon as they arrive.
• Don’t let a potential stroke victim drive himself to the hospital.
• Don’t let the person go to sleep. It is common at the start of a stroke for patients suddenly to feel sleepy.
• Don’t feed them. Stroke patients can vomit and then aspirate the food into their lungs and die from the food blocking their airways.
• Don’t give the patient aspirin. If the person has a stroke caused by bleeding into the brain, the aspirin can kill them. Soon after the person arrives at the emergency room, a CT scan will tell if it is a bleeding stroke or a clot.
• Don’t cancel the emergency call if the patient feels better. The symptoms of a stroke can temporarily improve before they become more severe.
Rafer Lewis Johnson
August 18, 1935 – December 2, 2020