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The drought in Philly

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Despite that I spent almost 15 years in New York City, despite that I've now lived in Los Angeles for nearly two years, despite that I spent four years in New England, my sports allegiances are still with the city where I was born, Philadelphia.

Even if you're not a sports fan, you've probably heard stories about Boston or Chicago's droughts. And perhaps, if you're a trivia nut, you know it's been 24 years since Philadelphia has won any type of professional sports title. (No city with teams in the four major leagues "“ NFL, MLB, NHL, and NBA "“ has ever seen such a drought.)

But did you know the Philadelphia Phillies (that's a baseball team if you've been living in a cave "˜til now) are closing in on their 10,000th loss?! Okay, true, they've also been around for 125 years, a lot longer than any NFL, NHL, or NBA team and longer than almost all MLB teams, but 14 losses from today will usher in a nice, big round number that might not be matched for decades to come.
It's hard to be proud of such an achievement, yet my head does not hang in shame for them. Instead, I guess I feel fortunate that I was one of the 60,000+ fans who saw them win their one and only World Series title way back in 1980, 3 years before the 76ers won the NBA crown that started the drought.

Recently someone told me the drought was brought on by a curse because the city erected a building in the 80s taller than William Penn, who stands atop City Hall. (For centuries there was a law prohibiting the city from doing as much.) I don't really buy into such hooey. It's just a dry spell, and sooner or later the Eagles, Sixers, Flyers or maybe even Phillies will bring home another championship. In the meantime, I'll salute the Phillies' 10,000th loss, which will probably come sometime in July. Because it's not whether you win 9,999 games or lose 10,000, it's still all about how you play the game.

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The Unbelievable Life of the 'John 3:16' Sports Guy
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TheTribeofJudahTeach via YouTube

Sometimes, the man in the rainbow-colored wig would be able to purchase tickets at the stadium gate. Other times, scalpers near the entrance would provide access. Occasionally, television announcers would leave him complimentary admission at the will call window.

If it was a football game, he would try to find a seat behind the goalposts. For NBA and MLB games, behind the backboard or home plate was ideal. A portable, battery-operated television would tell him where the broadcast crew was pointing its cameras. If his preferred seat was being occupied by a child, he’d approach the parents and ask if he could just hold the kid. If they recognized him, they would often oblige.

Once he was settled in, Rollen Stewart would hoist a sign or sport a T-shirt emblazoned with a slightly cryptic message: “John 3:16.” Spiritual devotees recognized it as a Bible verse; others would look it up out of curiosity.

That’s exactly what Stewart wanted. The outlandish wig that earned him the nickname "Rainbow Man," the on-camera visibility, and the homemade message were all intended to spread the Gospel.

Throughout the 1980s, Stewart traveled 60,000 miles a year as a full-time spectator, living out of his car, getting stoned, and using television’s obsession with athletics as a vessel for promoting his faith. In doing so, he made the Bible passage a fixture of professional sporting events.

It was a noble effort—but one Stewart would end up undermining with some increasingly eccentric behavior. The signs gave way to stink bombs, and his cheerfully peculiar persona gradually morphed into a mania that, in 1992, led to an eight-hour standoff with a Los Angeles SWAT team.

By the time he was handed three consecutive life sentences in 1993, Rainbow Man had understandably lost much of his luster. Los Angeles Deputy District Attorney Sally Lipscomb described him as another “David Koresh waiting to happen.”

Stewart was born in Spokane, Washington in 1945. In interviews, he described his parents as alcoholics. His father passed away when he was 10; his mother died in a fire in 1968. When he was 23, his sister was strangled to death by her boyfriend.

A family inheritance kept him afloat until he found regular work as a drag racer and motorcycle shop owner. Later, Stewart operated a ranch that led to a marijuana farming business. When that ceased to be either profitable or interesting, Stewart decided to head for Hollywood to become an actor.

It was slow going. He netted a Budweiser commercial but was otherwise low on job prospects. Though he was able to pay the bills with what remained of his inheritance and proceeds from the sale of his ranch, Stewart decided that the best way to increase his profile was by drawing attention to himself at sporting events. Donning a rainbow wig and a fur loincloth while performing a dance routine, he made his broadcast television debut during the 1977 NBA Finals. He was dubbed Rainbow Man, or “Rock ‘N Rollen,” a crowd mascot of sorts who could be counted on to deliver a vibrant camera shot when directors felt like juicing their coverage of spectators.

After attending the 1979 Super Bowl in Miami (although some accounts place it during the 1980 game) Stewart went back to his hotel room and turned on the television. It was then, he said, that the epiphany struck. Stumbling on a program called Today in Bible Prophecy, Stewart realized his television exposure could be used in the service of spreading the gospel. So off came the fur loincloth and on went a T-shirt reading “Jesus Saves” in front and “Redeem” in the back. The "John 3:16" sign was the finishing touch. In the King James version of the Bible, it reads:

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

Stewart liked that it was succinct, making it a perfect visual cue for delivering his sermon to the masses. Living out of his car to save on expenses, he shuttled himself from state to state, and sometimes even out of the country, popping up like the sporting world’s version of Waldo. He was spotted at the Kentucky Derby and the Olympics, and was at the Royal Wedding, where he was seen dancing just underneath the balcony where Princess Diana and Prince Charles stood.

Stewart averaged two events a week. Prime seating was crucial, so he relied on his portable television to show him where the cameras would be pointed. Donations from evangelical groups helped support his ticket and travel costs. As a presumably harmless presence, he could sometimes talk his way into a family block of seats by offering to squeeze in next to a baby.

But not everyone was charmed by Rainbow Man. Directors of sports broadcasts sometimes felt his fanatical presence ruined dramatic moments in games and cursed at him from production trucks. Arena security personnel would often ask him to leave, or block his entry from the start. But Stewart persevered, achieving his earlier goal of becoming a minor celebrity while enticing viewers with his cryptic sign.

At a point in the late 1980s, Stewart began to tire of his own persona. He slipped into a funk after he totaled his car, which limited his ability to travel; his fourth wife filed for divorce in 1990. (They met in 1984 at a Virginia church; she later claimed he tried to choke her at New York's Shea Stadium during the 1986 World Series for not standing in the right spot with her "John 3:16" sign, an allegation he denied.)

Stewart’s faith took a turn for the paranoid. He feared the end times were near, and started being a disruptive presence at events. He set off a remote-controlled air horn during the 1990 Masters golf tournament, just as Jack Nicklaus was about to swing. The following year, an arrest warrant was issued by the Santa Ana, California police after Stewart triggered electronic stink bombs at events in New Jersey and Connecticut and at an Orange County church. Authorities feared he had a firearm and was growing increasingly unhinged. They told the media he should be considered dangerous.

They were correct.

On September 22, 1991, Rollen Stewart was hammering nails into the front door of a room at the Hyatt Hotel near Los Angeles International Airport. A terrified maid had locked herself in the bathroom. Stewart was armed with a .45 revolver and several stink bombs, which he would periodically lob toward the law enforcement officers gathering outside his room.

By Stewart’s own account, his desire to warn the world of a pending apocalypse had gotten out of hand. Barricading himself in the hotel, he demanded that the SWAT unit deliver a news crew so he could address the audience directly; SWAT was more concerned with making sure Stewart didn’t begin taking errant shots at planes that were landing at the airport less than 2000 feet away.

The standoff went on for over eight hours, at which point a squad smashed the door in and tackled Stewart. Faced with 11 charges, Stewart had the proverbial book thrown at him. With the Los Angeles deputy district attorney arguing he was a “very sick and very dangerous man,” he was sentenced to three consecutive life terms and shuttled to Mule Creek State Prison on August 3, 1993, where he has remained ever since. As of 2008, three parole hearings have resulted in three denials.

While Stewart’s personal legacy may have come to an unfortunate climax, his message has not. “John 3:16” has been a regular sight at sporting events for over three decades now, and has even been adopted by several athletes. Tim Tebow famously wore strips under his eyes with the verse written out during a 2009 Florida Gators collegiate game; In-N-Out Burger has printed it on the bottom of drinking cups; Forever 21 shoppers have likely noticed it on their shopping bags. Men like Canada-based Bill King have carried on Stewart’s mission, traveling to games and raising the sign in the hopes that the enduring popularity of sports on television will remain a viable way of inviting people to join their faith.

For Stewart, who saw some of the biggest sporting moments of the 1980s, attendance was a necessary evil. Speaking with the Los Angeles Times in 2008 from prison, he admitted that his old life involved a little bit of pretending.

“I despised sports,” he said.

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Evel Knievel, Insurance Salesman
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To his coworkers at the Combined Insurance Company of America in Chicago, he was just Bob. A few months shy of his 24th birthday and newly married, Bob was ambitious, charming, and sincere—all qualities company president W. Clement Stone valued in his salesmen. To push high-volume, short-term disability insurance, customers needed to trust their words. Bob Knievel could look a man in the eyes and tell him that $3 worth of insurance was money well spent, and they'd believe him.

Years later, when Bob adopted the Evel Knievel persona and made breaking his bones a spectator sport, his former colleagues would stare at their televisions in amazement. There went Bob, clearing 10 or 14 or 20 cars on a motorcycle. There lies Bob, a heap of fractured limbs that needed to be scraped off the pavement like chewing gum.

In the span of just a few short years, the best insurance salesman in his assigned district had become the most famous daredevil in the world.

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Born in Butte, Montana, in 1938, Robert Knievel stole his first motorcycle at the age of 13. Prone to delinquency and petty crime, he failed to get a high school diploma and instead entered the U.S. Army Reserves. By the time he was 19 years old, he was out of uniform and starting up a semi-pro hockey team, drawing crowds at local arenas and even playing Olympic hopefuls from the Czech Republic. (Knievel’s team lost 22-3.)

By 1960, any discernible skills beyond mediocre athleticism and amoral behavior weren’t quite ready to reveal themselves. Knievel struck upon the idea of becoming a merchant policeman in Butte, which was a fancy term for being a private security specialist. Knievel would approach businesses and promise he’d act as a kind of sentry, checking their locations for suspicious activity and thwarting any robbery or vandalism attempts.

What Knievel wouldn’t admit until much later was that he was frequently the perpetrator of that activity, breaking windows and robbing the registers of businesses that didn’t sign up for his services. It was his version of property insurance.

A few things conspired to redirect Knievel’s ambitions. He married Linda Bork in 1959, and the couple started a family. He also grew concerned that Butte authorities were close to catching up with his security monitoring scam. In the summer of 1962, Knievel decided to go straight and become a salesman for Combined Insurance.

The company’s district manager in Montana dispatched Knievel to Chicago, where he underwent a two-week training course in sales tactics endorsed by president W. Clement Stone. Stone had co-authored a book, Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude, and considered it his business gospel. The lessons were at the level of fortune cookies and free of cynicism (“Big doors swing on little hinges,” “Thinking will not overcome fear, but action will”) but Knievel never once rolled his eyes. He absorbed the strategies and hit the road back in his home state, prepared to sell the $3 policies and collect his 60 cents per signature.

Earning an honest living at that rate would require volume. So Knievel traveled to working-class towns and paid bars to allow him to set up an “office” in a booth, where he could catch the steady stream of farmers coming in for a drink. He stopped workers at a train repair station during lunch breaks, and preached the virtues of the payments Combined would offer in the event the insured had an accident. Sometimes he’d pass up the $3 and do barter trades, like when a rancher once offered to give him a lame horse.

If Knievel had a crowning moment in his gone-straight, suit-and-tie life, it was when he set a district record for the most policies sold in a single week. He had talked his way into a state mental hospital in Warm Springs, Montana, and sold coverage to the staff—and if company legend is to be believed, to many of the hospital's patients as well. Knievel logged 271 sign-ups that week.

For this, Knievel got an award and recognition; he was feted by company executives as an example of the can-do spirit their president endorsed. While he enjoyed the attention, what Bob really wanted was to occupy the office of the vice president. When Combined refused to promote him, he quit. Without advancement in sight, making a living out of a suitcase ceased to be appealing. Knievel wanted to do something else.

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After leaving Combined, Knievel returned to his rudderless lifestyle. He found work at a motorcycle shop in Wyoming and thought a good way to drum up business would be to hop on a bike and try to jump over a pit infested with rattlesnakes.

It was.

That then gave him the idea to jump greater distances, which eventually led to him convincing the operators of Caesars Palace that he could make the 150-foot jump over the fountains near the front entrance of their Las Vegas resort and casino. He didn’t make it, but footage of the 1967 wipeout was absolutely mesmerizing: Airborne one minute and tumbling on the ground the next, Knievel looked like a crash test dummy. Convalescing in the hospital with multiple broken bones, Knievel’s popularity soared. He became one of the most famous men in America in the 1970s, rivaled only by Elvis Presley and Muhammad Ali.

Matt Tonning, one of Knievel’s former coworkers at Combined, was one of the millions of people who saw the footage. He was alarmed, but not because of the gruesome outcome. Over the years, Knievel had phoned Tonning to catch up and buy policies—10 in all, which was nine more than a salesperson was technically allowed to sell to any one person. Tonning liked Knievel so much that he usually just entered another salesman’s name to complete the transaction. The policies could not be canceled and covered any accident.

At no point did Knievel ever list his current occupation: daredevil.

Tonning was fired. When Knievel heard of his friend’s dismissal, he agreed to drop claims on nine of the policies.

If there were any hard feelings, Knievel never voiced them. He would later credit the unflinching optimism of Stone and his book as one of the key reasons he became a professional cheater of death. Staring up at the ramps that would launch him into the air, those sales lessons led him to believe he could make it—even when past experience proved otherwise.

Additional Sources: Evel: The High-Flying Life of Evel Knievel.

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