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A Legacy Met

Rafer interviews Rafer as namesake gains a new perspective

January 20, 2003|Rafer Weigel | Special to the Times

I was named after Rafer Johnson, Olympic decathlon champion, Robert Kennedy supporter of the late 1960s and Special Olympics co-founder.

While he needs no introduction in Southern California, virtually no one my age had heard of him in the Chicago suburb where I grew up. We all know kids can be cruel, and because of my unusual first name, I was called a variety of parodies throughout my childhood: "Vanilla Wafer" (yes, I am white), "Raper" (which seemed a little horrific even by playground standards), and "Reefer" (which I didn't understand until I was older).

I didn't know much about Johnson, other than what my parents told me. (This was before ESPN Classic.) I knew he must be impressive for them to name their son after him when surely they knew it would end up sending me to therapy later on. Mostly, though, I just resented mom and dad for playing what seemed like a cruel joke on me.

Recently I had the great fortune of meeting Rafer. I was sent out to interview him regarding his latest of many charities, "Kids in Sports," a citywide, nonprofit organization that gives kids who attend schools without after-school sports an opportunity to participate in extracurricular sporting activities.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday January 24, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 13 inches; 483 words Type of Material: Correction
Rafer Johnson -- It was incorrectly reported in a Sports article Monday that when Rafer Johnson was elected student body president at UCLA in 1958, he was the first African American elected to that position at a major university. Sherrill Luke, an African American, was elected UCLA student body president in 1949.

But before delving into that, I first needed to know where this "Rafer" name came from.

"When my dad was in the fourth grade, one of his best friends was killed," Johnson said. "When my dad went to the funeral, he found out that this kid, who everyone called Louis, was actually named Rafer. So my dad decided, in fourth grade, he was going to name his first son Rafer."

My father, Tim, became familiar with Johnson after his impressive gold-medal finish in the decathlon in the 1960 Olympics. My dad was a sports fan and also very passionate about the civil rights movement of the late '60s. My father played four sports in college, including football, sharing the same backfield with Calvin Hill at Yale. He went on to be a top sportscaster in Chicago from 1976 until 2001, when he died of cancer at 56. He called sports "the great equalizer."

"Only in sports were those involved truly color blind," he said. "Not necessarily in the stands but on the field. Those who competed together didn't see black. They didn't see white. They just saw teammates. If a guy was going to help you win, you didn't care what color he was."

To my dad, Johnson was the first great U.S. athlete to represent that kind of colorblindness. Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson had broken down barriers. But when Johnson won that gold medal, four years after winning the silver in 1956, Rafer wasn't the greatest black athlete in the world. He was simply the world's greatest athlete.

"When I came along, and certainly I'm not comparing myself to Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson because I believe that they did allow me to move closer to a time when people are truly accepted for their own individual worth," Johnson said. "I think I probably pushed the envelope as far as it could be pushed at the time."

What is most remarkable about Johnson is that when speaking with him, you realize that he has gone through life colorblind, a remarkable ability considering the level of obstacles that stood in his way as an African American.

"When I lived in Dallas until I was 9, we had segregation everywhere," Johnson said. "So my dad decided to move us to Kingsburg [Calif.], which was a little Swedish community and it was suddenly very different. We were the only black family in the area, but no one treated us any differently. We were treated like any other Johnson and there were a lot of Johnsons. That really had an impact on me. I realized that if these people could see past my skin color, then I could see past theirs.

"What [Kingsburg] taught me was that the best thing that I could do as a person is not make excuses for not finding success, not blaming other people for not having opportunities. The best thing that I could do for myself was just to go about life in a very positive way achieving as much as I could achieve and being the best that I could be."

After high school, Johnson went to UCLA. As a senior, he was elected president of the student body, a moment that made national news because it was the first time an African American was elected to that position at a "major" university, but for Rafer it was no big deal.

"I was elected student body president of my elementary school at Roosevelt. I was elected student body president of my high school. So by the time I got to UCLA it was just another student body presidency. It worked on other levels and as far as I was concerned there no reason it couldn't work on this level."

What pushed my father's reverence for Johnson over the top was his close affiliation with Robert Kennedy.

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