UCLA Athletics announced Oct. 16 plans to honor UCLA Track & Field legend and humanitarian and Kingsburg Native Rafer Johnson, along with his wife, Betsy, by naming the track at Drake Stadium after the couple. The Betsy and Rafer Johnson Track at Drake Stadium, the home of UCLA Track & Field, will be formally unveiled in a dedication ceremony on Friday, October 25, 2019 at 1:00 p.m. The ceremony is free and attendance is open to the public.
"As we look back across UCLA's first 100 years and think about the people who helped shape this institution's core values, Betsy and Rafer Johnson are among the first who come to mind," said UCLA Chancellor Gene Block. "Their selfless efforts to inspire others and encourage opportunity for all perfectly embody UCLA's mission. That's why we are so proud to dedicate the Betsy and Rafer Johnson Track at Drake Stadium."
"It is with pride and gratitude to Betsy and Rafer Johnson that we honor two great Bruins with the naming of the track at Drake Stadium," said UCLA's Alice and Nahum Lainer Family Director of Athletics Dan Guerrero. "This is the track where Rafer became a Bruin, where he helped UCLA Track & Field make program history and where his legacy continues to inspire others today. An ambassador for our program for more than 60 years, Rafer is one of those iconic Bruins whose impact extends well beyond his sport. Still, humility is one of his defining characteristics, one that Betsy shares, and that they have passed along to their children, Josh and Jenny."
Johnson, a two-time Olympic medalist who captured gold in the decathlon at the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, began his UCLA Track & Field career in 1955 as the captain of the freshman team. In that same year, Johnson won a gold medal in the decathlon at the Pan American Games in Mexico City. He ran varsity track from 1956-58 and led the Bruins to their first-ever NCAA Track & Field Championship in 1956 under head coach Elvin "Ducky" Drake. Prior to helping UCLA win the national crown, Johnson won the Pacific Coast Conference title in the low hurdles en route to guiding the Bruins to the conference championship.
"It is such an honor to have the tracked named after us," said Betsy and Rafer Johnson. "UCLA has always been a special part of our lives and the lives of our children, Jenny and Josh. We have been and will always be Bruins."
While competing at UCLA, Johnson won a silver medal in the decathlon at the 1956 Olympic Games despite being handicapped by a knee injury and torn stomach muscle that kept him out of the broad jump portion of the competition. He reached the pinnacle of his Olympic achievements in 1960 as the USA team captain, flag-bearer (the first African-American to serve as such), and gold-medal winning decathlete thanks to a record-breaking score of 8,392. At the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, Johnson was selected to light the Olympic Cauldron at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
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"To be able to name part of our facility after Betsy and Rafer Johnson is a huge honor for UCLA Track & Field," said UCLA's Director of Track & Field/Cross Country Avery Anderson. "When you start listing icons in our sport, Rafer is at the very top. He is not only one of the best track & field athletes of all time, or even one of the greatest athletes of all time, but he is also one of the greatest people of all time. He continues to be a role model for me and the student-athletes, and he makes me proud to be a Bruin."
An all-around student-athlete, Johnson was the second African-American student body president at UCLA, and he also competed on the UCLA men's basketball team under legendary coach John Wooden during the 1958-59 season. In 1974, he was inducted into the National Track & Field Hall of Fame. In 1984, he became a charter member of the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame, and in 2018 Johnson was one of 12 honorees inducted into the Pac-12 Hall of Honor. Sports Illustrated named him its Sportsman of the Year in 1958, and ESPN included him among the 100 Greatest North American Athletes of the 20th century.
Following his retirement from athletic competition, Johnson, along with a small group of volunteers, founded Special Olympics Southern California (SOSC). After the first California games in 1969, Johnson became one of the original members of the Board of Directors. The board worked together to raise funds and offer a program of swimming and track & field. In 1983, Johnson became president of the board, a role he held until 1992, when he was named chairman of the Board of Governors.
The Rafer Johnson Humanitarian Award is given each year to a SOSC volunteer who exemplifies Johnson's qualities: an ability to inspire others, a proven commitment to those in need and a high level of integrity and respect within the community.
In 2016, Johnson was awarded the UCLA Medal, which is the highest honor bestowed upon an individual by UCLA. It is awarded to those who have not only earned academic and professional acclaim, but whose work demonstrates the highest ideals of UCLA.
The Johnson family's UCLA connections run deep. Rafer graduated in 1959 with a Bachelor of Science in physical education. Betsy also earned her degree from UCLA, a Bachelor of Arts in education. Their son, Josh, is also a Bruin, who was an All-American javelin thrower for the track & field team. Their daughter, Jenny, was a member of the 1991 UCLA National Champion Volleyball team. Following graduation, she went on to play beach volleyball in the Olympics and currently serves as an assistant coach for UCLA's two-time National Champion Beach Volleyball program. Rafer and Jenny are the first father-daughter duo inducted into the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame. His brother, Jimmy, a former football player, is also a member of the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame, as well as the Pro Football Hall of Fame.