State track and field: Kingsburg's Joey Souza chases legacy of Rafer Johnson

The Fresno BeeJune 4, 2014 

— After finishing a practice this week at Kingsburg High's stylish Rafer Johnson Track, Joey Souza was reminded that at his age -- a 17-year-old junior -- he's running faster and jumping further than the venue's namesake.

The 1960 Olympic decathlon gold medalist.

Further, Souza was reminded, he's running faster and jumping further than Rafer's brother, Jimmy.

The Pro Football Hall of Famer and also former track and field star.

"I'm honored to have my name up there with them," says Souza, whose season-best 24-foot, 10-inch long jump is the best among 27 qualifiers for this weekend's CIF State Track and Field Championships at Buchanan's Veterans Memorial Stadium.

Rafer Johnson's best long jump at Kingsburg was 23-4¼ in 1954. He would win the Olympic decathlon in Rome six years later.

Jimmy Johnson's best long jump as a Viking was 23-6¾ in 1956. He would then go to UCLA before making the Pro Bowl five times in a 16-year career with the San Francisco 49ers as a cornerback.

And neither of the brothers, while both very fast, could match Souza's 10.72-second time over 100 meters, and no matter that they ran 100 yards in the '50s.

"I like to be compared like that," Souza says, "though, technically, Rafer was not exceptionally good at one thing because he was a decathlete.

"But it's really good. They're probably the reason we have such a nice facility because they put the school's name up there so high."

What can't be compared is physical appearance, which magnifies the most remarkable fact of all regarding Souza.

The Johnson's were cut -- Rafer at 6-foot-3, 190; Jimmy at 6-2, 187.

Souza? Try 5-7, 135. And don't bother measuring the biceps.

Kingsburg coach Cole Sprague recounts this story two years ago, the first time he pointed out Souza to Rafer Johnson at the school's annual track meet named after him: "Rafer said, 'That's him?' "

Yup, the kid who was sailing 17 feet as a sixth-grader without coaching, 20 feet before he entered high school, 23-6¼ as a freshman and now the 24-10, which is tied for seventh in section history.

Oh, and not to forget the wind-aided 25-7 missile-shot at the Mt. SAC Relays in April.

How to explain, at 5-7, 135?

And no need to climb into the family tree. In that aspect, he’s similar to superstar horse California Chrome: Great, sans pedigree.

"I don't know anyone who did anything in sports in my family," says Souza, a single child whose mother (April) and father (Joey) are each about 5-5.

Sprague tries to break it down to the simplest form: "He's a big ball of fast-twitch muscle fiber; I mean, he's real explosive. He's just one of those rare physical specimens that doesn't come around that often, especially at a small school like Kingsburg (1,075 students)."

Sprague has been particularly impressed with how Souza has carried his success: "The great thing is, he realizes how good he is but doesn't let it get him overconfident. He's a very humble individual and he's never satisfied -- that's what makes him great. When he does well, he doesn't settle for it; he comes back more hungry than ever."

Souza hungers, indeed, for a second duel in the sand with Castro Valley's Nate Moore. And no longer part of the equation is Serra Gardena's Adoree Jackson, who was leading the state with a wind-legal 25-5¼ before being disqualified in a Southern Section preliminary meet. He placed first and second in the state long jump as a sophomore and junior.

It was at the Mt. SAC Relays that Moore also launched a wind-aided 25-10, combining with Souza's 25-7 for the two most prodigious all-conditions jumps by California preps in 24 years, says PrepCalTrack.com editor Rich Gonzalez.

"It was one of the most spectacular things I've ever seen, two superstars jumping over 25 feet," Sprague says, "and I'd love to see it again."

Souza, who placed a disappointing 11th in the state last year at 21-8¾ while Moore scored gold at 24-11¾, welcomes the challenge.

"I'm sure Nate's going to pop off a 25-footer, I'm almost sure," he says. "I know I can win, I know I can. Nate's going to give me a jump for my money, but I feel great. I've never felt better."

The reporter can be reached at aboogaard@fresnobee.com or @beepreps on Twitter.

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