In the beginning there was the rainbow wig and sometimes a fake-fur loincloth. With these, Rockin’ Rollen Stewart would travel to all the biggest sporting events, get in front of a TV camera, make a spectacle of himself and, as he puts it, “revel in the adulation.” In this way he came to be famous, or at least noticed, in millions of homes, was paid to attend parties looking outlandish, and even got an Anheuser-Busch beer commercial. Then eight years ago last week, Rockin’ Rollen went to the Super Bowl in Pasadena—the Steelers vs. the Rams—and his world fell apart. “I had gone in my fur loincloth and my wig,” he remembers sadly. “The girls loved it. Everywhere I walked, they were patting my butt. I could have held a thousand women in my arms that day, and yet I walked out of there sad. It was the shallowness. I was being seen all over the world, but never as myself.” Back in his hotel room, he chanced to turn on a Christian TV station. “I saw immediately I could take the word of God to the world,” he recalls. “I fell to my knees there in that room and allowed Jesus to take control of my life.”
Two weeks later Rockin’ Rollen put away the rainbow wig (except for photos) and the loincloth and turned his talents to missionary work. Since then he has been spreading the gospel by planting himself behind home plate at the World Series, sitting behind the goalposts at Super Bowls—he’ll be in San Diego this week—haunting the greens at some 30 televised golf tournaments a year, roaming the stands at NBA championships and insinuating himself near the runway of the Miss America pageant. Being seen is still his game, but now he is clad in a T-shirt bearing the simple legend, John 3:16. He also has a wife and a partner, who wear T-shirts of their own and drape John 3:16 bedsheets over railings. The message of the Gospel according to St. John, chapter 3, verse 16, is, “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.”
“We are evangelists,” boasts Rollen, 42, “who want to get everyone to read the Book, and we reach millions.”
Alas, not every telecaster likes being used to present Rollen’s message. “He is a pest,” snorts an NBC executive. “We try to take him out of the shot whenever we can.” Sometimes those who are annoyed by Rollen do more than that. He says he has been expelled from games—”You know you’re not wanted when they send security guards to walk you out of your seat,” he observes. He claims he was even hounded by authorities in Sarajevo who took him for a spy with a coded message at the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Preaching is not a career many would once have predicted for Rockin’ Rollen. By his own account, he was born into a family of “upper-middle-class alcoholics” in Spokane, Wash. His father, a car dealer, died when Rollen was 10, and his mother in 1968. He himself was married at 19, divorced at 23 after siring a daughter and pursued what might kindly be called a checkered existence. With a $50,000 inheritance, he bought an auto parts store, became a drag racer and for seven years a vegetable of sorts, holed up on a Washington ranch with a snowmobile and plenty of marijuana. “I said I was going to sail around the world on my water bed,” he remembers.
The inspiration for the original Rockin’ Rollen came to him during a visit to Mardi Gras in 1976. “I wanted to get into show business, and I got this vision for a character who could be a people pleaser,” he says. “I desperately wanted to be noticed and admired.” That approach changed with his epiphany. In 1985 he added William King, a fellow evangelist, to his retinue, and in 1986 he married schoolteacher Margaret Hockridge, 37, a born-again Christian. King travels his own routes, while Rollen and Margaret live out of a 1986 Toyota van, driving 55,000 miles and addressing religious groups, several of which give them financial support. But money is still tight, and they budget a humble $6 a day for food. “We visit the salad bars a lot,” says Rollen. “All you can eat for $2.50.” He rarely has to pay for his sports tickets, he says, because “I just show up, and someone is always willing to donate them.” (His network foes say he buys from scalpers, using money from evangelical groups.) Since he hates the cold, he and Margaret spend part of every winter with friends in Southern California, but they never stop traveling for long. In February they will even repair to Calgary for the Winter Olympics, then it’s on to the Kentucky Derby and the Indy 500. But there isn’t much glamour in the life anymore, and Rollen harbors a secret that makes his chosen path all the harder.
“I despise sports,” he admits. “People who go to sporting events are like the Romans who went to watch the lions eat the Christians. I know I’m a strange and unusual vessel. But we’re sincere about this.” And then he talks about the evil, money-grubbing media and a rare—you could almost say beatific—smile spreads over Rockin’ Rollen’s face. “We are on Satan’s airwaves,” he says, “on his time and his dime.”