PALO ALTO, Calif.—Rain soaked the plush Stanford University campus on a Friday afternoon as sweaty athletes filtered in and out of Jimmy V’s Sports Café. Inside, Jim Stump, 70, showed himself to be as much a fixture as the signed and framed football jerseys of university legends. Wearing a crisp, black polo with the Stanford logo, he was having his typical poached egg and coffee at a corner table looking out on a bustling Campus Drive.
The chair across from Stump is rarely empty. For 44 years, he has been meeting one-on-one with Stanford athletes, and now meets with about 35 each week. Muffled by televised sportscasters and clattering dishes, they talk about what it means to follow Jesus Christ. Some simply have questions and want to talk. Many are believers facing the pressure of high-level sports—and the trials and temptations of college life. Stump helps them understand and apply Scripture. He also shares candidly from his life—a stint with college sports, 38 years of marriage, three children, and decades of relationships with Stanford athletes gone professional.
Two years ago Stanford drew attention for enlisting its first atheist chaplain. Stump carries no Stanford title, though, and receives support separately through his nonprofit, Sports Challenge. Early in his career, Bill Walsh invited him to serve as chaplain for the San Francisco 49ers. This led to a similar stint with the San Francisco Giants. But he returned to Stanford: “Whether we like it or not, our society worships sports. I believe I can have the greatest impact by helping prepare young athletes to use their natural platform for God’s glory.”
Outside of Jimmy V’s, Stump attends tennis matches, football and baseball practices, games, and Bible studies. In the fall, he travels with the football team. He always carries a pocket-size tract titled, “Would you like to know God personally?”—and he has led many students to profess faith in Christ. But he emphasizes that a confession of Christ is only the beginning: By investing time and building relationships with athletes on campus, his mission has been to help them mature and walk in their God-given callings. He’s written about this in a new book, The Power of One-on-One.
At 5 feet 3 inches, Stump is often teased: “Guys will come up and say, ‘Really ... your name is Stump?’ They see I can take a joke.” He is also known on campus for his skill at table tennis—a “silly game that has opened many doors.” Stump began playing as a boy when his father painted a 4-by-8 piece of plywood green and set it on sawhorses in their Alaskan log cabin living room. When he finally played on a regular-size table, he said, “How do you ever miss?” He began a winning streak that led to state championships at Wheaton College, where he also played football and planned to coach.
Stump’s plans changed the summer before his senior year. The second of seven children raised by missionaries, he realized he “knew a lot about God but didn’t know Him personally.” One night under a California palm tree the self-described skeptic “gave up the control center” of his life after a Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru) presentation. After graduation Stump began traveling with CCC, sharing his faith and helping to establish Athletes in Action.
Underneath a flurry of change and activity, Stump points to perhaps the most significant aspect of his growth: A CCC director steadily mentored him, helping him understand Scripture verses he memorized as a boy: “For the first time, I began to see why I believed what I believed.” That’s how he tries to help others. This fall, Stanford’s atheist chaplain begins his third season. Stump begins his 45th.