The Unbelievable Life of the 'John 3:16' Sports Guy
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.