"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
The first time many of us ever saw the words "John 3:16" on television wasn't beneath the eyes of Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow during his days at Florida. Three decades before Tebow ever hinted fans read up on their scripture with his customized eye-black and long before anyone was "Tebowing," there was the original big-time sports TV evangelist Rollen Stewart, better known as "Rainbow Man." Stewart popped up with his full-color Afro wig and crazy dancing antics all over TV screens in the 1970s and 1980s, eventually spreading the Gospel through strategically placed signs held up between goal posts on game-winning kicks, off to the side of golfers lining up a putt on the 18th green or behind the basket while someone was taking a key free throw.
Stewart, who became a born-again Christian in 1980, seemingly never missed a major sporting event. If Howard Cosell, Dick Enberg or Brent Musburger was calling a game, you'd end up seeing "Rainbow Man" waving a sign with "John 3:16," "Repent" or "Jesus Loves You" written in block black letters on a white background at the game's most critical moment. He reached superstardom among TV viewers for his ability to always be there when you most expected it. But "Rainbow Man" began to run out of money and fade from the public eye. His personal life collapsed. He disappeared from TV screens for good in 1992 after his conviction on kidnapping and other charges and is now serving three life sentences in a California prison. He said he went to trial for the publicity - passing up a plea bargain - to "get the word out for Jesus Christ."
This clip from ESPN in 2006 tells "Rainbow Man's" story:
Has Tebow gone too far pushing his faith? You can make that call. But he's a church mouse compared to "Rainbow Man." And no one needs a wig to do any "Tebowing." Watching Tebow speak about his faith at every opportunity or gesturing toward the heavens after each big play, all the while recalling what happened to Stewart helps to fuel the cynicism surrounding Denver's quarterback. It's unlikely we'll see any disciples of Stewart wigging out Sunday when the Patriots travel to Denver to face the Broncos. But there will be plenty of believers on hand.
About the worst thing that can be alleged about Tebow - beyond the mechanics of his passing game, his inability to generate offense for the first 45 minutes or the "holier than thou" attitude of his extreme critics and supporters - is that he's dating Lindsey Vonn. She denies it.
Stewart, now 67, isn't so clean. He's in prison. There's no real chance he'll ever get out. To say "Rainbow Man" gave religion a bad name might be like understating the extremities of the Spanish Inquisition. Thankfully, the comparisons between him and Tebow end with the Word.
This article in Forbes from 2009 also chronicled Stewart's rise and catastrophic fall:
"Sports television producers began to loathe him, believing his antics detracted from the action on the field. Chet Forte, ABC's former director of Monday Night Football, told the Los Angeles Times in 1991 that Stewart "got to be a terrific distraction ... it was very annoying seeing this guy waving signs and all."
But eventually the rush began to fade for Stewart. When the 1980s came to a close, he became more volatile, ramping up his antics ... In 1991, at the Masters, he blew an air horn as Jack Nicklaus lined up a putt, then detonated a stink bomb. Later that year he detonated four more stink bombs in Orange County, Calif.
Finally he went over the edge. In September of 1992, Rollen locked himself in a hotel room in a Los Angeles Hyatt and made threats to shoot at airplanes landing and taking off at nearby LAX Airport. He held a Hyatt maid hostage in his room. He plastered religious verses on the windows. After an eight-hour standoff, SWAT teams broke into his room and found a handgun, two ammunition clips and 47 live ammunition rounds."
Stewart was also featured in this 1997 documentary.
When it comes to sports, "Rainbow Man" was the ultimate and original religious extremist. Thing is, Tebow would probably visit him in prison if he could.
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