How Rosey Grier and Rafer Johnson became friends with Robert Kennedy
The two world-class athletes were with the presidential candidate the day he was shot
As Robert Kennedy thanked the crowd that showed up to celebrate his win in the California Democratic presidential primary 50 years ago, a hard-to-miss image on the old video is the bespectacled African-American man standing within several feet behind him. It was supposed to be a day off for the former NFL lineman turned Kennedy bodyguard, but Rosey Grier wanted to support his good friend on this special day.
Not far away, standing to the far left of Kennedy but not pictured in those images of that speech, was Rafer Johnson, the two-time Olympic decathlon medalist and former starter for the UCLA basketball team. A longtime friend of Kennedy’s, he was also there to support the senator in his moment of victory.
Just after midnight on June 5, 1968, a triumphant Kennedy stepped from the podium at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, one step closer to his goal of being the president of the United States. But shortly after his final words to that crowd — “My thanks to all of you. Now it’s on to Chicago, and let’s win there.” — Kennedy was cut down by three bullets.
It continued what is, perhaps, the most tragic decade in this nation’s history, during which Kennedy’s brother, President John. F. Kennedy, and civil rights leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X were also assassinated.
It’s been clear that both Grier, now 85, and Johnson, 82, played a role in apprehending the man convicted of shooting Kennedy that day, Sirhan Sirhan, who is serving a life sentence.
But the exact actions of Grier and Johnson that day?
It depends on whom you ask.
Neither Grier nor Johnson responded to requests for interviews. Their roles in what happened are based on previous interviews.
So how did two world-class athletes become friends with a member of one of this nation’s biggest political dynasties?
Grier met Robert Kennedy and his wife, Ethel, in early 1968 during a trip to Washington, D.C., where he attended an event to benefit urban kids. Kennedy quickly became friends with Grier, who became famous playing with Deacon Jones, Merlin Olsen and Lamar Lundy as members of the Fearsome Foursome of the Los Angeles Rams, considered to be one of the best defensive lines in NFL history.
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Johnson, a two-time Olympic medalist in the decathlon (silver in 1956 and gold in 1960) and a good enough basketball player to start for a season for John Wooden at UCLA, had become friends with Kennedy after his involvement in several Kennedy-sponsored projects in the early 1960s.
Grier is clearly seen in photos and videos from the night of the assassination, a large, looming figure standing behind the Kennedys while they were on the podium. Although the day of the California primary was Grier’s day off, when he showed up to celebrate with his friends he was given the responsibility of shadowing Ethel, who was pregnant.
As Kennedy thanked the many people who gave him support, he shouted out his two athlete friends.
“To my old friend, if I may, Rafer Johnson, is here,” Kennedy said to applause as he looked off to his left. “And to Rosey Grier, who said that he’d take care of anybody who didn’t vote for me.”
After closing his speech, Kennedy left the podium and was exiting the ballroom through an adjoining kitchen. The presidential candidate, who had gotten ahead of his security detail, was greeting kitchen staff and speaking to reporters when shots rang out.
Grier rushed to the sounds of the shots and saw several people, including journalist George Plimpton, struggling with the gunman. Here’s Grier’s account, from a PBS interview:
“My point was to hold him. I put him up on this table and I wrapped his legs up so he couldn’t kick. And there was a guy standing next to me and George Plimpton was struggling to get the gun out of his hand. And George couldn’t do it.
“So all I did was put my hand over the weapon, I pulled the trigger back so it wouldn’t fire. And I wrenched it out of his hand and put it in my pocket.”
At that point, according to Grier, people were trying to attack Sirhan.
“I fought them off. I wasn’t going to allow them to commit a murder on this man. The guy standing next to me was trying to twist his legs, so I kicked this guy. And when they realized that I was fighting against them, they stood back.”
In other interviews over the years, Grier said that at some point in the chaotic scene he handed the gun to Johnson, after the former track star asked for it.
From an audio tape of the scene, here’s how reporter Andy West described the chaotic moments after the shooting:
“Senator Kennedy has been shot, is that possible. Rafer Johnson has a hold of the man who apparently has fired the shot.
“That’s right, Rafer, get it. Hold on to the guy, hold on to him. Hold him, Rafer, keep people away from him.”
When Johnson appeared on a 2015 television show, this was his account of the aftermath of the shooting:
“As I walked into that area I was with Mrs. Kennedy and I heard what I thought were balloons popping. I look across the room I see smoke coming from the gun.
“I made my way toward the gun. I was so far away I could see everything going on. I just made the move. I was the first one there and I put my hand on the gun hand. Shortly after I arrived Roosevelt Grier came, grabbed my hand. And we both, three, fell to the floor.
“He was in trouble there and we asked the people not to kick him. So I eventually told Rosie to let my hand go. Then we had to literally peel Sirhan away from the gun. I took the gun and put it in my pocket.
“Next day I woke up, put on my jacket, and noticed it was heavy on one side. I still had the gun in my pocket. I called the police, they came and picked me up and took me to the station.”
The details of what happened that night have become a major issue between the two men. After a Los Angeles Times article in 2004 mentioned that Johnson had taken the gun away from Sirhan Sirhan, Grier called the paper to correct the record and told the reporter he had also called Johnson, asking him, “How can you recall something that didn’t happen?”
When asked why it mattered, after all the years that had passed, Grier told the reporter: “You don’t rewrite history.”
That reporter then reached out to Johnson, who told the reporter to listen to the radio report.
So who did what in the aftermath of the mortal shooting of Robert Kennedy, who died a day later, is up for debate.
What isn’t debatable: Two athletic titans are scarred and forever impacted by witnessing a popular politician snuffed out in the prime of his life.