Johnson was born in 1935 in Texas's cotton country, and grew up in a house there that had neither indoor plumbing nor electricity. The family eventually resettled in small town in California's San Joaquin Valley, where they were one of the few black families in the area. Johnson's talents were apparent by his late teen years, and he was Kingsburg High School's star athlete in baseball, basketball, and track and field. One day, his track coach took him to watch another San Joaquin athlete, Bob Mathias, train for the 1952 Olympics, and Johnson decided that day to make the grueling decathlon his sport of choice.
Offered a football scholarship to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), Johnson declined it in order to concentrate on track and field, and eventually captained the UCLA team. He was also elected student-body president, and became the first black at the school to pledge a national fraternity. After qualifying for the 1956 Olympics in Melbourne, Australia, Johnson was hampered by injury and placed second in the decathlon. Its punishing series of ten events over two days caused its victors to earn the superlative "world's best athlete" designation, for they challenged both speed and strength in jumps, foot races, the discus throw and pole vault, among others. Between 1956 and 1960, Johnson won three U.S. national decathlon titles. In 1958, he competed against one of the decathlon's greatest names of the day, two-time Olympic bronze medallist Vasily Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union. They met in a showcase U.S.-Soviet track competition held at Moscow's Lenin Stadium, and Johnson bested his idol and set a world record that day.
Famous Sports StarsTrack and FieldRafer Johnson Biography - Standout Athlete, Marched Into Stadium, Chronology, Opening Ceremony Honoree Again, Contact Information, Awards And Accomplishments - SELECTED WRITINGS BY JOHNSON: