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In 1956. Johnson won his first national championship and became the favorite to win the Olympics that November in Melbourne. Then his battered left knee, in jured in high school football, began to swell. Just before the games Johnson tore a stomach muscle. It was painful even to walk, worse to run. Each jump ripped the muscle more. Johnson's two agonizing days came to a climax in the final event, the 1,500 meters. To finish second behind Milt Campbell and to stave off Kuznetsov, Johnson needed to run the best 1,500 of his career. He did. "Sure it hurt," says Johnson, "but what was I going to do? Quit? I was representing the U.S. I had to break five minutes. I could feel the Russian breathing down my neck all the way."
The Russian was still breathing down Johnson's neck in 1958 during the U.S.-U.S.S.R. track meet in Moscow. Weeks before, Kuznetsov had set a world rec ord of 8,014 points. In one of the memorable duels in sports history. Johnson defeated Kuznetsov 8,302 v. 7,897 to regain the world record—and find himself a hero to the Russians. Johnson was kissed on the cheek by Kuznetsov, a bouquet of flowers was pressed into his huge hand, and a band of jubilant Russians later tossed him into the air in triumph. "I'd gone over there thinking we'd be abused one way or the other," says Johnson. "But they cheered the performance, not the man or the nationality." On the strength of his showing in Moscow, Rafer Johnson was named Sportsman of the Year by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED.
"Natural Leadership." Unlike many another star athlete, Johnson did not use his college as a mere mail drop and a spot to hang his spikes. At U.C.L.A., Johnson's record of campus leadership was fully as impressive as his sports achievements. He sparked the basketball team with his clutch play and rebounding. A hard worker if not a great scholar, he kept his grades at a B-minus average, switching from pre-dentistry to physical education as a junior. He was the first Negro to be pledged to the predominantly Jewish fraternity of Pi Lambda Phi. A devoutly religious member of the Swedish Mission Covenant church, he spoke constantly before church groups, was a leader of "Youth for Christ.'' a nondenominational national campus movement.
In his senior year, Johnson was elected student body president. On the job, Johnson worked so late that he kept waking up at his study desk at daybreak. In June 1959, shortly before graduation. Johnson climbed into the rear seat of a car driven by his brother Jim, dangled his long legs over the back of the front seat and dozed off. He was completely relaxed when a car coming from the opposite direction swerved across the road and hit the Johnson car head on. The impact jackknifed Johnson. Only his fit condition and strong body saved his back from a serious injury that would have ended all decathlon competition then and there. As it was, he suffered a severe muscular strain around the lower spine that knocked him out of another duel with Kuznetsov at the U.S.-U.S.S.R. track meet in Philadelphia in July.