As an athlete, John Rambo was a high flier with lofty ambitions. In 1964, he high-jumped to a bronze medal at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo and would parlay his hops into a brief pro basketball career after twice leading his Long Beach State teams in scoring and rebounding.
However, Rambo likes to tell a story that predates his fame. Call it his First Blood, athletically. As a 14-year-old, Rambo said he wrote three personal goals in his 1957 Franklin Junior High yearbook: graduate from college, play professional basketball and earn a position on a U.S. Olympic Team.
Lofty goals to be sure, especially for a boy who stood 5-foot-2 and weighed 78 pounds at the time. But Rambo would grow 14 inches in the next couple of years and his prospects would skyrocket.
“People said, ‘You ain’t going nowhere but there on Myrtle Street,” Rambo recalls of where he lived. “Boy, did I have fun when I came back (from Tokyo) and reminded them.”
Rambo did, in fact, return to Myrtle Avenue, by choice, and still resides there in the family homestead. For all his athletic successes, Rambo has always been something of an iconoclast about the virtue of sports. To Rambo, the first goal on his list was the most important.
It’s a message he will share in a talk at Burnett Library (560 E. Hill St.), Saturday, Feb. 23, from 12 p.m. to 2 p.m. In addition to his talk, part of Black History Month events at the library will be about 25 items from Rambo’s athletic career. Portions of the talk will be adapted for podcasts at a later date.
Sunny Nash, a local oral journalist, historian and archivist, is helping Rambo organize his presentation and collection. She has done several projects on black history in Long Beach, including a project that is periodically updated called “Breaking Through, Lighting the Way.” That effort told the stories of 12 trail-blazing Long Beach African-American women who lived more than 600 years in the community and included text, photos and digital content. She also wrote a book on black history in the city called “Untold Legacies,” in 2008.
Nash said Keith Lilly, a local activist, head of the nonprofit Building Future Leaders, who had been mentored by Rambo as a child, approached her about doing a story on Rambo. However, after meeting Rambo, Nash said, “I thought his story and life were worth a lot more attention than just an article.”
When Rambo tells his story, he advises young athletes not to rely on their physical gifts, because as high as athletic achievements may carry a person, they don’t last.
“I tell kids not to put too much emphasis in their athletic,” Rambo said. “Take your academics seriously, then you can take your career sky high.”
Rambo, 75, a longtime activist in the Central Area of Long Beach, still believes he has important messages to share with the youth, which is why he is returning to public speaking for the first time in years.
Rambo was recently appointed by the International Olympic Committee to its Commission for Athletes’ Rights, joining 4,200 athletes from 120 sports and 190 countries. The intent of the commission, he says, is to “do the right thing for athletes and pay attention to their needs.”
The news these days is replete with stories about professional athletes falling on hard times after they retire and the same is true of Olympians, many of whom are never compensated at the levels of professionals in major sports and forsake schooling for sports.
“I talked with a lot of Olympians and not everyone had what I had,” Rambo said of the education, parental and community support that bolstered him. “I did not do this by myself, I had help. Not everyone has that backing.”
Although Rambo thinks the IOC has a long way to go, he supports the notion of doing a better job providing financial, transportation and medical support to competing athletes and assisting with education and job training for their post-competitive lives.
Rambo particularly stresses this with youths.
“I like to explain that you’re only an athlete for a certain amount of time,” he said. “So prepare for your life and take your behind to class.”
Because he “got his behind to class,” Rambo was able to graduate with honors from Cal State Long Beach and forge a successful executive career in public relations at GTE. He was also an adjunct professor at several local universities in various subjects, such as history.
However, he never forgot his roots and remained active in the community, where he believes his real legacy lies. Rambo helped form the first Pop Warner program in the Sixth District, created a traveling AAU basketball team, “Rambo’s Roundballers,” and coached, refereed and organized tournaments in football, basketball, soccer and track and field.
Even after Rambo had his left foot amputated, the result of stepping on a broken wine bottle after a pick-up basketball game, he did not let it slow him down.
He ran basketball camps during Easter, Christmas and in the summer, that were as much about the fundamentals of life as they were about basketball. Rambo says even now he has parents who played for him or attended camps bring their children to meet Rambo. If you played for Rambo, you were never far from the “get your behind to class” mantra, or the many sports and life aphorisms with which Rambo, an avid reader, peppered his speech.
“I wanted to help them prosper, not just as an athlete, but as a person,” Rambo said.
Keith Lilly, a long-time Central Area activist and former branch director for the Boys and Girls Club still involved in youth programming, points to Rambo as his inspiration.
“He’s why I do what I do,” Lilly said. “He’s a good man.”
After 2010, Rambo slid out of the public eye for a while. However, in 2017, he was an honored guest at the annual Thanksgiving Dinner hosted by the Sixth District and in 2018 he was honored as one of the grand marshals of the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Parade.
Rambo said that experience, along with his selection to the IOC commission, reignited his desire to work in the community.
“He’ll be involved in a whole bunch of stuff,” Lilly said of Rambo in the coming year.
Rambo spent his early years in Rambo, Texas, a rural, black community in Cass County. The Rambos moved to Long Beach when John was in third grade and soon moved to Myrtle Ave., where he still lives. He attended Roosevelt Elementary School, Franklin Junior High and Poly High where he hit his stride athletically, helped in part by good genes.
“My father was the fastest man in Cass County,” Rambo said of his dad, Johnny Rambo, who also made a name for himself playing Negro League baseball in Texas.
Rambo said his older sister, Joanne, regularly schooled him in basketball.
“I was 16 before I finally beat her.”
Rambo starred in both basketball and track and field at Poly. The late John Dixon, a Long Beach sports historian and former sports editor at the Press-Telegram, purportedly dubbed Rambo the best basketball/track athlete to come out of Long Beach.
At Poly, Rambo helped lead the Jackrabbits to the CIF championship game before losing to Compton. He was recruited to Utah State where he enjoyed his breakout season as a freshman in the high jump, clearing 6 feet, 9 inches. Still, for all his athletic success, Rambo couldn’t take the Utah winter and returned home.
At Cal State Long Beach, he built a two-sport resume that would eventually earn recognition in the school’s sports Hall of Fame in 1986, including a senior basketball season in which he averaged 20.3 points and 12.7 rebounds.
But it was in the high jump, in which Rambo first perfected his straddle-technique in a backyard pit built by his father, that he earned international note. A two-time NCAA champ, Rambo barely qualified for the U.S men’s team in third place with a jump of 2.03 meters, 6 feet 7 3/4 inches. In the Olympics, he would tie the Olympic record of 2.16 meters, 7 feet 1 inch, but finished just behind teammate John Thomas, and legendary Soviet jumper Valeriy Brumel, both at a new world record of 2.18 meters, just ¾-of- an-inch better than Rambo.
Rambo would later be a three-time AAU national champion in the sport with a best jump of 2.21 meters, 7 feet 3 inches in 1967.
In 1965, he became the first Long Beach athlete drafted into the NBA as a sixth-round pick by the St. Louis Hawks but injuries sidelined Rambo and he never made it into a game. Athletically, playing in the NBA was the one item on the 14-year-old boy’s list where Rambo fell short.
But it won’t stop Rambo from sharing his message.
“I’m still hanging around,” he said. “I’m trying to do the best I can with what time I have left.”
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