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In 1945 Lewis Johnson moved his growing family of three boys and two girls to California, where he caught on as a section hand for the Southern Pacific. The family ended up in the quiet town of Kingsburg (pop. 1,500), 20 miles south of Fresno in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley. For a year, with nothing but a ragged curtain as a dividing "wall," the seven Johnsons made their home in a boxcar on a siding near a cannery.
In time they were befriended by Edward Fishel, owner of a small animal-feed processing plant, who hired Rafer's father as a handyman, his mother as a domestic, moved the family out of the boxcar and into a small house. Things went fine until the town's police chief told the Fishels to fire the Johnsons, then threatened Mrs. Johnson herself: "I don't want to see the sun set on any niggers in this town." The Fishels stood their ground, the Johnsons ignored the threats, and nothing further happened. The police chief later left the job.
"A Decathlon Man." There never was any doubt that Rafer would be an athlete. "First thing I remember about Rafer," says Benton Bowen, co-publisher of the weekly Kingsburg Recorder, "was that my daughter came telling that the principal had asked the new boy to stop hitting the baseball so hard—he was breaking all the bats."
As a high school athlete, Johnson became a legend. In football, he led Kingsburg to three league championships, as a granitic. 195-lb. left halfback averaged over 9 yds. per carry. In basketball, he averaged 17 points a game. In baseball, he hit over .400. But track was his sport—anything in track. In Johnson's junior year, Track Coach Murl Dodson drove him the 24 miles down to Tulare to watch Local Hero Bob Mathias compete in the event he had won as a 17-year-old in the 1948 Olympics in London and at Helsinki in 1952: the decathlon. "On the way back," says Johnson, "it struck me. I could have beaten most of the guys in that meet. That's when I decided to be a decathlon man." Only four weeks later, Johnson won California's Junior A.A.U. Decathlon Championship. In his senior year, Johnson won it again, then went off to the National A.A.U. Championship in Atlantic City. Competing against the biggest names in U.S. track, he finished a respectable third. That should have been enough to please an 18-year-old, but it did not satisfy Rafer Johnson. He hadn't won.
Triumph & Defeat. At least two dozen colleges bid for Johnson. He chose U.C.L.A. "because there was something about the atmosphere I liked." To concentrate on the decathlon. Johnson passed up college football, much to the frustration of the late coach Red Sanders, who saw in Johnson a future brilliant tailback in U.C.L.A.'s single-wing formation. Freshman Johnson improved fast enough in the decathlon to win the 1955 Pan American Games in Mexico City, celebrated by scoring 7.985 points at a welcome-home meet in Kingsburg—thereby breaking Mathias' world record by 98 points.