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Kingsburg Stories: Rafer Johnson, one of Kingburg's favored sons
Kingsburg Stories

Kingsburg Stories: Rafer Johnson, one of Kingburg's favored sons

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What’s makes fame?

More specifically, what makes a person, place or thing famous? Television coverage? Newspaper or magazine mention? Social media exposure? Historic significance?

In the case of Kingsburg, a measure of fame has come from being hometown to one of its favored sons. His name was Rafer Johnson and he was, once, considered the World’s Greatest Athlete.

That was the title bestowed on world champions in the decathlon, a multi-skill event. And Johnson was just that — world record holder and Olympic medalist — in the 1950s and ‘60s, when Americans still considered “track & field” to be a major sport. 

Today, most sports fans follow track and field events only every four years, during the Olympics. But in the Fifties, when Johnson was in his prime, stars of that sport were revered.

I was reminded of that fact when a friend handed me some old and recent clippings from magazines and newspapers. (They were sent to my friend by former Kingsburg resident Grant Erickson, now living in Santa Cruz.)

The old clips included stories and photos from 1959 when Sports Illustrated featured Johnson on its cover as “Sportsman off the Year.” 

The newer ones were from the Los Angeles Times, both an obituary and a column following Johnson’s death in December at age 86.

All of those reports detailed Johnson’s amazing life. 

Student body president at Kingsburg High, 11 varsity letter winner in football, basketball and track.

Student body president at UCLA, where he played basketball for legendary coach John Wooden and helped lead the Bruins to the NCAA track and field title in 1958. 

Drafted as running back by Los Angeles Rams, but declined so he could continue training for decathlon competition.

Silver medalist in decathlon at the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. In 1960, set a decathlon world record and then won gold medal at the Olympics in Rome.

After all that, add movie actor, sports broadcaster, Special Olympics organizer, Vice President for Continental Telephone, husband and father.

But there were two other events in Johnson's life that brought him plenty of world-wide attention. In 1968, he and Roosevelt Grier tackled and disarmed Sirhan Sirhan after the shooting of Robert Kennedy. 

Then, in 1984, Johnson lit the torch to start the Olympic Games at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

And throughout all those words on paper, Kingsburg became a player in the narrative as Johnson's boyhood home, where the junior high is named for him.

And that is another kind of fame. A famous place, known not for a national treasure or national disaster, but for a favorite son.

Rafer Johnson earned many identities: Olympic champion, Sportsman of the Year, World's Greatest Athlete.

And pride of Kingsburg.

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