By Michael LeCompte
We’ve all seen him on sports highlights, he’s the guy in the rainbow colored clown wig holding a sign with a spiritual message at seemingly every major sporting event. Known as “The Rainbow Man” because of his wig, Rollen Stewart’s strange career as that guy with the sign, began at the 1977 NBA Finals.
Born in 1944 Stewart lived a fairly normal, sports-loving life, until the mid nineteen seventies when he was born again. Then he felt it was important to “get his message out” and decided that nationally televised sporting events were the perfect avenue to do so.
Of course Stewart was hardly the first person to make the comparison between major professional sports in America and religion, but he took his ministry to the extreme, as he personally moved closer to the abyss.
From the late seventies through the early nineties Stewart travelled the country attending nationally televised sporting events. Strategically buying tickets behind home plate in baseball, courtside at the NBA, or between the goalposts at football games, Stewart ensured that TV cameras would find him. His plan worked. He was quickly dubbed “Rockin Rollen” and the “Rainbow Man” by TV announcers and cameramen were instructed to quickly cut away after catching him in a shot.
As he crisscrossed the country Stewart held a variety of signs with religious messages on them, but his two most commonly used were “Jesus Saves” and “John 3:16” (For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.)
Stewart married and divorced four times as his actions became more extreme and ultimately, unstable. By the time he set off a series of remote-controlled stink bombs at the Masters golf tournament in 1991 the end of his antics was near.
In 1992 Stewart picked up two transient day-laborers with the promise of work and took them to a hotel outside the Los Angeles airport. On the seventh floor he pulled out a gun and tried to get the men into his room. The men fled to safety, but Stewart held a maid hostage in the bathroom while he hung John 3:16 signs from the windows so they could be seen from the airport. Eventually Stewart started shooting at planes and was arrested. The maid was unharmed.
In court Stewart claimed that the rapture was to occur in six days. When he took the stand he explained that “all I was trying to do was make a statement about the end of the world.”
His last statement earned Stewart three life terms (to be served concurrently) for hostage taking and terrorism. His colorful wigs would be exchanged for a prison jumpsuit.
Always a colorful character Stewart was a fixture on the national sports scene for well over a decade and his camera-craving antics have spawned a generation of brightly dressed, sign-wielding fans. The “Rainbow Man” has recently been the subject of a documentary film and in perhaps the surest sign that he achieved pop culture icon status Christopher Walken has portrayed him on Saturday Night Live.
Rollen Stewart is eligible for parole in 2017. Perhaps we have not seen the end of the original super fan. As sports fans we love a good comeback. Maybe one day we will see the return of the “Rainbow Man.”