If you’ve watched any sporting event for the past 40 years, you’ve most likely seen someone in the crowd holding up a sign that reads: “John 3:16”.
They’re usually positioned in a prime spot for the cameras to see – behind a goalpost, basketball hoop or home plate. But have you ever wondered who came up with the idea? It started innocently enough by a man named Rollen Stewart.
Stewart initially set out to become famous and to make people happy. His early appearances got him part of the way. Sadly, over the next decade or so, he would devolve from Bozo the Clown to the Unibomber in a rainbow wig.
He suffered through what he called a difficult childhood, although that seems to be an understatement. Both parents were alcoholics and his father passed away when Stewart was seven. Eight years later, his mother perished in a fire and his sister was strangled by her boyfriend.
Stewart married his high school sweetheart, but that marriage only lasted for a brief time. He struggled to find anything to really make him happy.
His quest for the American Dream took him to Hollywood. After striking out time and again, he felt he needed to increase his visibility. How better to be noticed than in a rainbow afro wig and a fur loincloth?
His “big break” finally struck at the 1977 NBA All-Star Game. He was featured on the national broadcast for about 3 seconds and a new career was born. “Rock N'” Rollen Stewart made it his mission to be televised as often as possible. The extra attention did indeed open up some new doors for him and he was able to support himself enough to travel the country, visiting every sporting event he possibly could.
He showed up at football & basketball games, golf tournaments, horse races – pretty much anywhere that featured a television broadcast. Initially, the broadcasters and arena operators actually offered him free access to the event because they knew it was great for publicity. He was so well known, Christopher Walken even parodied him on Saturday Night Live.
It wasn’t long before network suits realized he wasn’t necessarily helping their cause.
I know directors who were ready to kill the guy…because he would get behind very dramatic shots. [And] the eye would be attracted immediately to this wacko wearing a rainbow colored wig.Broadcaster Brent Musburger
It became a game of cat and mouse. It got to a point where the networks would do everything to keep him out of the shot, including threats:
I’d tell the camera guys… if you want to work next week… please don’t show Rainbow.Larry Cirillo – NBC Sports Producer
The constant battle was getting to be too much for Stewart. He was prepared to hang up his wig for good. Speaking about his appearance at the Super Bowl in 1980, he said:
I had gone in my fur loin cloth and my wig. The girls loved it. Everywhere I walked, the were patting my butt. I could have held a thousand girls in my arms that day, and yet, I walked out of there alone. It was the shallowness. I was being seen all over the world, but never as myselfRollen Stewart
That night, as he wallowed in his hotel room, epiphany struck. He happened upon an evangelical program on television and decided that he just needed a new mission. Maybe he could channel all of this recognition to a new path towards happiness.
While speaking with some friends, he found a way to sum up his mission in the easiest way possible. Something that could both spark interest and be memorable with only two seconds of airtime. Thus, John 3:16 was born.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.John 3:16
Rollen has said that the actual passage itself was almost secondary to the mission. Most people would recognize that as a reference to a biblical passage and when they looked through the Bible to find it, they would be reminded of all the Good Book has to offer.
With a new goal, he amped up his appearances. He no longer just attended national sporting events. He was seen at Olympic venues and even the wedding of Prince Charles & Diana.
He found a way to combat the network broadcasts as well. He bought a small portable television to bring to the games. Most of the time, he sat quietly watching the tube until his section was shown. Then, like a rabid honey badger, he would leap to his feet or hold up his sign.
Even though he usually flashed a killer smile as he gesticulated, trouble was brewing under the multi-colored facade. He had a few run-ins with the law (including a brief jail stint in Moscow at the 1980 Summer Games). Over the years, he created a “hit list” of people he felt deserved retribution- most of them fellow evangelicals.
As is often the case with serial offenders, his “punishments” started small. He set off an air horn at the 1990 Masters, just as Jack Nicklaus was taking his backswing. He set off a number of stink bombs at various locations on his list – Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral, the Trinity Broadcasting Network, The Orange County Register.
The once beloved Rainbow Man was now a wanted criminal, now thought to be armed and dangerous.
On September 22, 1991, the earlier concerns came to fruition. Stewart posed as a contractor of some sort and convinced two day laborers to join him in a hotel room to discuss some opportunities. Upon entering the hotel room, they were met unexpectedly by a hotel maid. Surprised, Stewart pulled out his .45 revolver.
The day laborers fled the room as the maid locked herself in the bathroom. Apparently convinced that the rapture was merely six days away, Stewart nailed the front door of the room shut. In his mind, he had run out of options and he was asking to address the public via a news crew.
To the average viewer, this may have seemed like the ramblings of an anonymous madman. Just one look at the windows of his hotel – covered with signs referencing scripture like he held up during his heyday – may have reminded them who was on the other side.
After he threatened to shoot passing planes, the SWAT team had had enough. The eight-hour standoff finally ended as they burst through the hotel room door, tackling Stewart. Fortunately, the maid was able to escape unharmed.
Stewart was hit with eleven charges including three for felony kidnapping. He was offered a plea deal that would have let him out of prison after twelve years, but he decided to fight in court so he’d have more opportunity to pass on his message.
The deputy District Attorney of Los Angeles argued that he was a “very sick and very dangerous man” and he was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. Had he chosen the plea, he likely would have been released by 2002. Instead, he has been denied parole numerous times and may remain there indefinitely.
The biggest irony of all? According to a 2008 interview from prison with the Los Angeles Times:
I despised sports.Rollen Stewart