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Meet the Evangelical Evel Knievel

Gene Sullivan runs Jump for Jesus, the world's only full-gospel ministry stunt program, where he leaps through rings of fire on his motorcycle in the name of Jesus Christ.

by Harmon Leon
Oct 20 2015, 5:27am

Photo by Daniel Sullivan

"The fact is, the Lord sent me to Evel Knievel," says Gene Sullivan, who is known by friends simply as Sully. The 68-year-old daredevil, formerly Knievel's bodyguard, is the world's oldest and longest active motorcycle stunt rider. Sully regularly jumps through walls of fire on his motorcycle and holds the Guinness World Record for his Hydra Cycle Jump, where he soared 180 feet into a lake with his Triumph 500. He also runs Jump for Jesus, the world's only full-gospel ministry stunt program, where his elaborate motorcycle leaps through walls of fire are all in service of the Lord.

"The Lord created that whole thing," he says. "More people have received and heard the message of Jesus Christ because of Evel Knievel and me being his first bodyguard than anything I could've done on my own."

Sully first met Evel Knievel in 1970, when he came to do a motorcycle jump at the Cow Palace near San Francisco. Long before Jackass and the X-Games, Knievel was the ultimate doer of stunts—an Elvis Presley on two-wheels and world-class asshole, he was an international fascination. At the height of his motorcycle prowess, Knievel pushed the limits and crashed more than 20 times, suffering 433 bone fractures (the Guinness World Record for "most broken bones in a lifetime").

Sully was a professional bodyguard at the time and his dad, a prominent sports writer, had been assigned to interview Knievel for the San Francisco Examiner. At his dad's insistence, Sully tagged along, watching Knievel jump a record-setting eleven cars. "I stayed and had several beers with Knievel and he asked me if I'd come to the Cow Palace the next night to help him out." Thrilled to be the daredevil's guest, Sully agreed.

The following evening, Knievel was jumped by the notorious Hell's Angels biker gang.

"The announcer was half-in-the-bag that night and said, 'If Evel Knievel makes this jump, he'll set the Hell's Angel's back 100 years,'" Sully remembers. "Obviously they were in the crowd, and that's not the right thing to say."

This was the 70s, and the Hell's Angels were not only the most famous motorcycle gang, but were largely considered a criminal organization—and Knievel had been outspoken about his distaste for motorcycle gangs, which he believed were tainting the image of motorcycle sports.

"A Hell's Angel threw a wrench at Knievel on his way up the takeoff ramp," Sully recalls. "It didn't hit him—he made the jump and came back around."

While Knievel rode a victory lap, the Hell's Angel jumped into the arena, waiting for him. Like a scene out of a Peter Fonda movie, Evel leaped off his bike, and Sully says the Hell's Angel grabbed him and threw him to the ground like a ragdoll. The San Mateo Times reported that it was actually Knievel who threw the first punch, but either way, a fight broke out. Sully saw this happening and ran across the arena and smashed the Hell's Angels at full-force.

"I just plowed into a bunch of them and got Knievel out of there."

Knievel was hauled to safety just before the ruckus broke out. Some 150 fans stormed the Hell's Angels—who severely got their asses handed to them. "They took every single one of them to the hospital," says Sully.

Afterward, Knievel invited Sully to become his full-time bodyguard and join him on the road as his right-hand man. "After the Hell's Angel's deal, Evel was concerned that they would go after him. But we never had any encounters with them after that."

Photo by Daniel Sullivan

Sully had a motorcycle, but he "didn't consider doing stunts or anything like that before meeting Knievel." Soon, though, Sully's duties extended to building and setting up ramps for the daredevil. Sully learned the most by watching Knievel's mistakes. Once, Knievel crashed and broke his shoulder after jumping 13 cars because he insisted on moving the takeoff ramp back to add additional cars.

Pretty soon, Sully started doing his own stunts, like jumping 55-gallon drums into a burning wall. But things weren't perfect. Working for Knievel was exhausting; he was constantly picking fights in nightclubs, and Sully grew tired of what he calls "defending him from the good guys."

"We'd go into a nightclub or a bar and he's loud; he's boisterous," Sully said. "He's after the women. He'd offer to buy everyone a drink but he's just being a jerk. He's taking over; he's telling people what to do. You know, not cool."

Sully also said that Knievel was "a liar, a drunk. The guy held it together, but you know his off-life was terrible."

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Then, in 1972, he had his literal "come to Jesus" moment: He went to a Christian Fellowship breakfast as a favor to a friend, which became his biggest leap of them all, into the land of Holy. "The Lord just really encountered me at that meeting," Sully says. "Really nothing like that happened to me before."

At the time, Sully didn't consider that his life was so bad. "It wasn't like I was this piece of trash—I just knew my life was going in the wrong direction and the things I was doing were destructive to me and other people," he says. This all dawned on him that morning, and Sully says he walked out of the Fellowship breakfast a changed man.

"There's a proverb that says, 'Depart from evil.' That's exactly what the Lord did: made me depart from Evel." — Gene Sullivan

With that, Sully did a 360 on his fast-lane lifestyle: He turned down an offer to be the poster boy for Sears, gave up a lucrative movie contract, gave up being a bodyguard, and most significantly, Sully immediately severed ties with Knievel. As Sully explained it to the Billings Gazette, "There's a proverb that says, 'Depart from evil.' That's exactly what the Lord did, is made me depart from Evel."

Conversely, Knievel maintained that he fired Sully on the spot for being "dead-ass drunk" the night before one of his jumps because he made some serious mistakes while working on his motorcycles. Either way, the two split. When Knievel tried to coax him into assisting with his legendary Snake River Canyon jump, Sully stood his ground.

"I told him I came to the Lord I'm not doing this," says Sully. "It highly offended him."

It wasn't until 1978 that Sully says the Lord called him back to the world of motorcycle stunts. He once again got back on his bike, ready to jump—but this time it was for Jesus, and the purpose was to create an Evangelical motorcycle stunt ministry. Thus, Jump for Jesus was born.

"I'd been jumping through this burning wall, which didn't make a lot of sense," he says. "But when I came to the Lord, I saw the burning wall as the Gates of Hell. And the Lord helped me put an analogy of the jump together that is a tremendous message."

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Today, Jump for Jesus travels the country spreading God's message on two-wheels. Sully draws crowds up to 400 people, who come to hear the word of the Lord or sometimes just to see a man jump through a wall of fire.

Photo by Daniel Sullivan

The evangelistic motorcycle ministry begins with Sully explaining to the crowd the true spiritual meaning behind his jump. The whole thing is a big metaphor: "The takeoff ramp represents our launch into life—so we become accountable for what we do. We've launched off the takeoff ramp of life and we're headed somewhere," he says, symbolizing this by his air-bound motorcycle.

"The gap represents the darkness and pitfalls of this life." These are the demonic temptations of drugs, alcohol, criminal behavior, which his motorcycle soars over. "Whatever the darkness is, that's the gap we're jumping, we're going through life and the object is to stay above the darkness and not to land in the darkness and get involved in it and be consumed by it."

A Jump for Jesus event climaxes with Sully smashing through a huge eight-foot firewall, doused with five gallons of gasoline, with flames that crawl to 30 feet high and heat up to 2,000 degrees. The fire is symbolic, too: "That represents the Gates of Hell, which Jesus said stands in the way between God and eternity. All the darkness activity blinds us to eternity and that's what the wall represents," says Sully. "Those gates prevent people from seeing into eternity and prevent those who are gone from extending into paradise."

"I saw the burning wall as the Gates of Hell. And the Lord helped me put an analogy of the jump together that is a tremendous message." — Gene Sullivan

Sully tells the crowd if they agree with the word of God, they'll pass through the Gates of Hell, like his flying motorcycle. "When I break through that wall and I come through the other side, the landing ramp has a big white cross on it and that represents eternal life," says Sully.

Then they're invited to pray with Sully and his crew clad in Team Jesus T-shirts. Cheers echo. Souls are saved. Autographs signed.

Every spring, Sully and his right hand man, Joe Winterman, leave the home base of Billings, Montana and start scouting towns where they want to bring their motorcycle stunt ministry. "When we find a community that we feel the Lord wants us to be in, then we start promoting."

Sully's greatest gig to date was jumping for 10,000 people in the South Pacific. The King of Tonga had invited him to come and do Jump for Jesus for his 79th birthday, so Sully and his team of 20 people traveled to the island, where he says they were treated like spiritual rock stars. "I jumped in a corridor of people. It was absolutely electric!"

Jump for Jesus' most-publicized event was in Blanchester, Ohio in 2008, where Sully soared his motorcycle in the name of the Lord over the world's largest horseshoe crab (30 feet long with a 25-foot-long upraised spiky tail) and through the fiery Gates of Hell. A local pastor organized the jump as a promotional event for his church.

"All were awed by Mr. Sullivan's faith and skill as he safely passed through those flames and testified his love of Jesus," said Alana Ferko, who had helped Sully organize a similarly spectacular jump at the Butte Plaza Mall during Evel Knievel Days. "Seeing this good man brave fire for his beliefs strengthened many in the crowd—myself included," she said. "We definitely should have had more Kleenex!"

Ferko doesn't view Sully as an entertainer, like she did Evel Knievel. "I see Gene's purpose to minister a path to Jesus, and even if you have to jump through fire to get there, your faith will get you safely through to the light on the other side."

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Sully practices up to 15 jumps before each Jump for Jesus program. He used to be more extreme: Early stunts, like the one that earned him his Guinness World Record, involved things like jumping 180 feet into a lake with skis attached to his Triumph 500. He doesn't do stuff like that anymore. "The Lord got a hold of me and said, 'Look, you do what you can do safely,'" he said.

"The Lord says don't push it so much. Fame and glory is what kills everybody; it either kills you slowly through vice, or it kills you rapidly through some hair-brained idea that snuffs your life."

Photo by Daniel Sullivan

In 2007, Evel Knievel had his own personal encounter with Jesus. Sully laughs as he recalls born-again Knievel phoning him and telling the Devil: "You bastard get away from me and never come back!"

Sully feels if Evel would have come to Jesus sooner, he would've had a lot fewer broken bones. "He was a changed man," Sully says about Knievel's encounter with Jesus. "He had a legitimate encounter and that November he passed."

After years of being estranged, Sully and Knievel's friendship came full circle. Though the two took vastly different paths the very last jump Knievel ever saw was Sully doing Jump for Jesus at his annual stunt celebration, Evel Knievel Days, in Butte, Montana.

"He told me it was the best program at Evel Knievel Days that year," says Sully. "He loved it. He absolutely loved it."

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