Motorcycle jumper plans rendezvous of faith

Ryan Hoffman

Rifle represents a special place for professional motorcycle jumper Gene Sullivan.

It’s where the former bodyguard for Evel Knievel was raised, and it’s where he performed his first paid stunt in 1970.

He still remembers the details.

The owner of the old Winchester Bar paid him $250 and gave him all the food and beer he could stomach for two weeks in return for his services representing the establishment in the fair parade. According to Sullivan, some old-timers in Rifle can still confirm details from that day.

“I wheelied clear from Third Street all the way up over the hill standing on the seat,” he said in an interview. “People were just amazed.”

To the dismay of some of the other participants, Sullivan said, he brought home first place in the parade for the Winchester.

Now at the age of 69, Sullivan — who touts being the oldest and longest-touring professional motorcycle jumper in the world — will return to Rifle on Saturday to perform his “Jump for Jesus” program, a faith-based event that involves his jump through a wall of flames, at the 20th annual Rifle Rendezvous. The performance, scheduled to start at 4 p.m., is free.

Looking back at Sullivan’s life shortly after leaving Rifle to join the Navy after high school, his current calling may seem unexpected.

After his time in the Navy, he found work as a bouncer and bodyguard in San Francisco. In 1969, Prescott Sullivan, Gene’s father and a former sports columnist at the San Francisco Examiner, asked his son to accompany him to an interview with a young daredevil by the name of Evel Knievel.

At the time, the performer was not the household name he would become in following year, and he had a reputation as a bit of a wild man, Sullivan said. Following the interview, he stuck around and had a few beers with the legendary performer. Several days latter, Sullivan dropped everything.

“I became Evel Knievel’s first bodyguard,” he said with a chuckle.

The relationship with Knievel introduced him to the stunt world, which Sullivan said he pursued as a way to further his aspiration of making it in Hollywood.

After the ride in Rifle, Sullivan did his first professional jump in Denver, and he continued performing between trips with Knievel.

Then in 1972, while in Sacramento with Knievel, a “crazy thing” happened: Sullivan left.

“I said (to Knievel), ‘You know, I think I just need to go out on my own … no hard feelings, I still believe in what you’re doing … I’m just going to leave,” Sullivan recalled, still struggling to explain the decision.

He was making good money and had assurance from Knievel that he would be taken care of if he stayed on.

“It’s just a crazy thing when I look back at it, because there was no reason for me to walk away,” Sullivan said.

A month later, Sullivan found himself heading to a Christian breakfast with his girlfriend. That is when his life changed.

It was a testimony from a recovering heroin addict that opened the door. Actually, as Sullivan said, it was less the fact that the addict claimed to have quit cold turkey but more so about his claim to have talked to God.

“I dropped my head and said, ‘Lord, I wish you’d speak to me.’”

That’s when Sullivan says his life started running through his mind.

“I wasn’t a real bad guy, but my drinking, my womanizing … all the things, and I felt ashamed and I started crying,” he said.

Sullivan stepped forward and was put through what he called a deliverance — or exorcism.

“I got up out of that place … I probably was in the chair for 20 minutes, and I’m telling you it seemed like life was brand new to me … “ Sullivan said. “And so with my stunt business from that time on it was like a jump for Jesus.”

Contrary to what some, including Sullivan at the time, might guess, he was not advised to abandon his stunt career. Instead, they told him a prayer that amounted to letting “Jesus call the shots.” Certain unsavory aspects of his life, such as his presence in the bar and club scene, naturally dissipated, he said.

For roughly four decades now, Sullivan has been performing his “Jump for Jesus” program — which involves a jump on his bike through a wall lit ablaze.

“The jump has been great because it breaks down denominational barriers,” he said. “It’s not about one church or another.”

In that regard, Sullivan said everyone and anyone is invited to come see the program here in Rifle.

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