Being an avid football fan, I spend a few hours each Sunday watching the Redskins during the fall. This season I also watched every Monday Night Football game. Every game has been broadcast live from a stadium in a different part of the country–from New York to Seattle to Miami to San Diego. I haven’t paid that much attention to it in past years, but on every single game this season I noticed someone in the stands holding an identical card reading “JOHN 3:16.” Usually the person is sitting at either end of the stadium so that when a kicker goes to kick an extra point and the camera shot is from his back, the sign being waved is clearly visible. Am I missing out on something? What the hell does John 3:16 mean? Is it a hex on the kicker? Is it a riddle? Is it the same person at every Monday night game? (No way!) Cecil, what’s the frequency? I’m as perplexed as Dan Rather! Please rescue me from my ignorance. –Thelonious Carter, Washington, D.C.
Cecil is conscious at times like this of being a helpless participant in that vast engine known as the Mass Media, which is routinely suckered by shameless manipulators looking for a little free publicity. It is even so with the John 3:16 man. But what the hell, at least the guy doesn’t work for the Ayatollah. His name is Rollen “Rock’n Rollen” Stewart. He’s an off-the-wall born-again Christian whose mission in life is to get his signs (and his mug) on national TV as often as possible, the better to spread the word of the Lord. Only in America.
The business with the signs started in 1980, when Rollen accepted Jesus as his personal savior. Prior to that time his interest was in just generally being famous (or, as he puts it, being “the most famous person in the world no one knows about”). For years he was the guy you used to see on telecasts of golf tournaments with the wild multicolored Afro wig, which earned him the nickname “Rainbow Man.” (He has since put the wig aside.) Having scouted the camera angles beforehand, he’d pop out of the crowd at an appropriate moment, waving his arms, making “OK” or “thumbs-up” gestures, and grinning like an idiot.
Rollen’s original idea was that he would parlay this shtick into a job as a media pitchman, but his only big score was a role in a Budweiser commercial. Then he got religion. (Fittingly, he saw the light while watching a TV preacher.) He commenced to wearing and/or carrying “Jesus Saves” and “Repent” T-shirts, signs, and whatnot, hitting an average of two major televised events a week. Eventually he graduated to signs with scriptural references, such as John 3:16. (“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.”) The theory is that you’ll start looking things up in the Bible to figure out what’s going on, and before you know it, you’ll have stumbled into a life of permanent righteousness.
Traveling around to various events is Rollen’s only occupation. He lives in his car with his wife, a fellow sign flasher, subsisting entirely on donations. In addition to golf tourneys and football games, he’s appeared at numerous World Series, the summer and winter Olympics, the Republican and Democratic national conventions, the Indy 500, the Kentucky Derby, the NBA and NCAA basketball finals, the Stanley Cup, and perhaps most memorably of all, the wedding of Princess Di and Chuck. Last summer, he proudly notes, he was down in Mexico hogging the limelight at the World Cup soccer championships, which were viewed by 2.8 billion people worldwide. He estimates that he and his confederates, who help maintain the illusion that he’s everywhere, have appeared at more than 1,000 events to date.
Rollen’s relations with officialdom are touchy at best. He’s been bounced out of numerous joints, and he and another guy are currently suing the managers of RFK stadium in D.C. over the right to display signs. Yet he refuses to become discouraged. Indeed, he envisions the day when he’ll be at the controls of Sign Flasher Central, directing the efforts of evangelical publicity hounds across the U.S. by means of TV monitors and cordless telephones. If ever there was a guy who was a hero for the 80s, Rock’n Rollen Stewart is it.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.