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Thursday, June 5, 2008

He Helped Subdue Bobby's Killer

Like fellow former athlete Rosey Grier, Rafer Johnson was so inspired by Robert F. Kennedy that he dropped everything — in Johnson’s case a burgeoning broadcasting career — in the spring of 1968 and volunteered to work on the New York senator’s presidential campaign.

Rafer Johnson arrives to testify at Sirhan Sirhan's trial in early 1969.

“They were great weeks,” Johnson told London’s Guardian newspaper in 2007 of his role as a bodyguard and fellow campaigner. “We travelled together as part of a team all over California. Senator Kennedy would be in a car in front and I would be with him or in a van behind. San Francisco, Riverside, Long Beach, San Diego — we went all over.

“What I liked about him was that he really connected with people. He cared about them. About young people and their education. About senior citizens and the help they needed. Folk responded to that.”

The California primary was perfect for Johnson — he had spent most of his childhood in the Golden State and had become a sports hero at UCLA, where he competed on both the track-and-field and basketball teams. In 1956, despite being hampered by an injury, he still managed to win a silver medal in the decathlon, considered by many to be the toughest event at the games. It would be his last defeat, and he went on to win gold at the 1960 Rome Olympics. He received the 1960 Sullivan Award for being the outstanding American amateur athlete of the year and was named the Associated Press Athlete of the Year.

After the games, he took up a career as a sportscaster and actor, appearing in several movies and TV shows, including “Lassie,” “Dragnet” and “Tarzan.”

But it was at Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel, where Robert F. Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, that he may have had his finest hour.

He told what happened to the jury at Sirhan Sirhan’s trial in early 1969:

“[I]t was at this point that I thought it was a balloon going off — two poppings and then I looked in that direction and then I heard some other popping and looked up and I saw the smoke. I saw some smoke and started toward that smoke. …

“I saw the senator was down…, but I didn’t see much I could do (there) and I went toward the gun…. I went for it, grabbed the gun with my left hand and caught the gun, along with several others.

“A lot of people were grabbing at him,” he told the Guardian,” with four or five pairs of hands all pulling at the gun. We wrestled with him until I asked the others to let go and I took the gun away from him and put it in my pocket.

“I got home that night having followed Bobby to the hospital and fearful that he wasn't going to make it. I took off my jacket and there it was in my pocket: the gun. They sent a police officer 'round and took a statement and I handed it over.”

After the trial, Johnson resumed his movie and TV career, appearing in more than a dozen productions, such as “Roots,” “Licence to Kill,” “Mission Impossible” and “The Six Million Dollar Man.” He wrote an autobiography, “The Best That I Can Be,” which was released in 1998.

Most of his time, though, has been spent as a roving ambassador for education and sport. Johnson was a member of the President's Commission on Olympic Sports in the 1970s, and in 1984 he was chosen to light the Olympic flame during the opening ceremonies of the Summer Games in Los Angeles.

He founded the California Special Olympics in 1969 and remains involved today as coach, head of the organization’s board of governors in California, and member of the International Board of Special Olympics.

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