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The Boston Globe

Obituaries

Milt Campbell, 78, first black Olympic decathlon winner

Mr. Campbell is shown competing in the high jump in 1952.

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Mr. Campbell is shown competing in the high jump in 1952.

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Milt Campbell, the first African-American athlete to win the Olympic decathlon — he took the gold in 1956, four years after he won the silver — who then went on to play pro football and become a motivational speaker, has died, his family said. He was 78.

Linda Rusch, Mr. Campbell’s partner of 13 years, said he died Friday at his home in Gainesville, about 55 miles northwest of Atlanta. She said he had been fighting prostate cancer for a decade.

He edged edging Bob Mathias in a 400-meter heat in 1952.

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He edged edging Bob Mathias in a 400-meter heat in 1952.

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‘‘He was extremely disciplined,’’ Rusch said on Saturday. ‘‘He had huge passion. For you to win the gold you have to be so self-motivated and so self-disciplined. And you have to have a very strong mind.’’

‘‘He literally had to train himself to have this incredible mind, to be such a positive thinker,’’ she added. ‘‘He carried that way of life throughout his whole entire being.’’

A native of Plainfield, N.J. , who was a strong swimmer in his youth, Mr. Campbell was a rising high school senior when he won the silver medal in the decathlon at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, finishing second to Bob Mathias. The Americans swept the decathlon that year. Four years later, Mr. Campbell won gold at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia.

‘‘World record-holder Rafer Johnson was hampered by injury, but even in full health he probably couldn’t have beaten Milt Campbell in Melbourne,’’ according to “The Complete Book of the Summer Olympics” by David Wallechinsky.

Mr. Campbell had hoped to qualify for the Olympic team as a hurdler, but he finished fourth during tryouts.

‘‘I was stunned,’’ he said in the book. ‘‘But then God seemed to reach into my heart and tell me he didn’t want me to compete in the hurdles, but in the decathlon.’’

The 6-foot-3, 217-pound athlete, who attended Indiana University, was drafted in 1957 by the Cleveland Browns, where he played one season in the same backfield as Jim Brown. Mr. Campbell then played for various teams in the Canadian Football League until his football career ended in 1964.

Mr. Campbell was inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame in 1999 and was honored this year by the International Swimming Hall of Fame.

Mr. Campbell won the decathlon in Melbourne in 1956.

associated press/file

Mr. Campbell won the decathlon in Melbourne in 1956.

In 2000, the New Jersey Sportswriters Association named Mr. Campbell its New Jersey Athlete of the Century.

In June, he was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame along with nine others, including actor Michael Douglas, author Joyce Carol Oates, and the late New York Giants owner Wellington Mara.

Linda Rusch said Mr. Campbell dreamed of being a great athlete as a young boy competing with his older brother, Tom. ‘‘He actually would look at the ceiling and say ‘I am going to be the world’s greatest athlete’ every day,’’ she said. ‘‘He needed to beat his brother.’’

Rusch said Mr. Campbell became a motivational speaker, and maintained a positive outlook despite the loss of a son to cancer and as he himself fought the disease. In addition to Rusch, he leaves three grown children.

‘‘Someone would say, ‘How are you feeling?’ He’d say, ‘Great,’ ’’ Rusch said. ‘‘He was such a fighter. And with this cancer, he tried to fight it until the end.’’

Rusch said Mr. Campbell was a whirlwind of activity — playing tennis as well as riding bikes, horses, and motorcycles — until cancer treatment began slowing him down. She said the past year was a special one, with him being honored by the New Jersey and the International Swimming halls as well as being invited to attend the Olympic trials in Oregon.

‘‘People called and said, ‘We need you out here,’ ’’ she said. ‘‘He didn’t get the recognition in the ’50s. He got it all this year and he died.’’

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