McFarland, USA – 1987 McFarland Cross Country Team

The 2015 film “McFarland, USA” tells the true story of California high school cross-country coach Jim White (Kevin Costner) and his underdog team of Latino runners who had never competed in the sport before and who, when they weren’t training, had to help their parents pick crops in the fields. The film follows their rise from obscurity in the tiny agricultural town of McFarland, California to become a legend in the sport of cross-country.

The film opens with Jim White coaching a high school football game in Boise, Idaho. After a difficult first half, a disrespectful player talks back to White in the locker room during the coach’s half-time talk. White loses his cool and throws a cleat at a locker. The shoe bounces off the locker, hits the player in the face, and cuts his cheek. The incident costs White his job, and, with no other employment choices, he moves out of town with his wife Cheryl (Maria Bello) and two daughters, Julie (Morgan Saylor) and Jamie (Elsie Fisher). White takes a position at a small, humble high school in McFarland, California in the middle of the vast agricultural flatland of California’s Central Valley.

Their first night in McFarland is difficult. The home they’ve bought is old and run-down, and the family experiences culture shock. They find themselves in a mostly Hispanic community, and when they go to a local Mexican restaurant, a group of young Hispanic men who sport an intimidating “gangbanger” look makes suggestive comments toward Jim’s daughter Julie. The family quickly goes home. White wonders if he made a mistake.

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Contributing author: Kevin Ott

McFarland, USA – Real Life, Reel Differences

  • The opening sequences of the film are fictional. Jim White never lived in Boise, Idaho, he never taught high school (he taught middle school but later coached high school sports), he was never fired from his teaching job for having an outburst against a student, and he did not have a troublesome teaching career before starting at McFarland. McFarland was not a desperate last resort. The reality is much less dramatic: he started teaching in the McFarland school district in 1964 –and only middle school– after graduating from Pepperdine University.
  • White taught fifth-grade science and seventh- and eighth- grade PE and woodshop. He started coaching the high school cross-country teams in 1980, not 1987.
  • The film depicts the McFarland team forming and winning the state championship in the same year (1987). In reality, White had been coaching the cross country team for seven years (since 1980). 1987 was the first year that the state cross-country championship race was offered to schools.

  • McFarland also had a superb girls’ cross-country team. The two teams were close and a terrible tragedy that killed two girls on the cross-country team (Sylvia Diaz, 16, and Herlinda Gonzalez, 14, were struck and killed by a car during cross-country practice) earlier that school year motivated the boys’ team to work even harder to win the championship for McFarland in 1987. Neither this tragedy nor its dramatic influence on McFarland during the 1987 championship were mentioned or depicted in the film.
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Where Are They Now?

Thomas Valles attended and ran for the College of the Sequoias after he graduated from high school. He had always wanted to be in law enforcement eventually pursued that career, starting in the 1990’s. He served four years in the Coast Guard and did maritime law enforcement. He then worked at an institution in Soledad, California, followed by a job at the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility in Corcoran, California. Currently, he is a correctional officer at Kern Valley State Prison in Delano, California. He has a LinkedIn profile but it does not contain much detail. After work each day, he routinely goes straight to cross-country practice to work with the kids on the McFarland Youth Track club. He also occasionally travels as a motivational speaker and in the course of doing these promotional appearances, he has seen the movie eight times. He has a wife and a daughter.

Johnny Sameniego and the six other runners were all close friends and in an interview for the movie, he mentioned that they all grew up living within a quarter mile of each other and did everything together. They were a family. After graduating high school in 1990, Johnny went to College of the Sequoias and competed as a runner from 1990-1992. He then transferred to Cal State University of Bakersfield (CSUB) from 1993-1995. Samaniego ran for the track and field team at CSUB because they didn’t have a cross-country team. He competed in the 1,500-meter and 800-meter races and was a part of the team that won the conference in 1994. Samaniego currently holds CSUB’s 18th best time in the 1,500-meter race. He now works as a physical education teacher at McFarland Middle School.

The Three Diaz Brothers: Danny, David, and Damacio
After high school graduation, Danny Diaz attended Bakersfield Junior College and Fresno State, then became a teacher and counselor at McFarland High School. He remains an active and well-loved member of the McFarland community, often working with youth. On the day he met Kevin Costner during the film shoot, Costner shook his hand and said, “You’re better looking than the actor who’s playing you!” Danny was never overweight as portrayed in the film but rather, quite the opposite. He is in excellent physical shape and he continues to exercise even though he no longer competes.

David Diaz also went to college and is now the North Kern State Prison Supervisor of Academic Instruction. He also coaches the McFarland Youth Track Club as an assistant to Thomas Valles, who is the head coach. David Diaz and Valles are still running buddies, and Diaz recently completed the 5K Fog Run in Bakersfield. “I’m still active and I still run,” said David in a recent interview. “Thomas is the head coach of the McFarland Track Club for kids and I help him with that. He does a great job. We are real close. We still enjoy the whole running thing. Now, we take our kids out of state for runs, three to four times a year. We just went to Cross Country Nationals in South Carolina.” In an interview for the film, David also mentioned that he is a person of faith and that faith was a big part of the team. David has a Facebook page, but there hasn’t been any updates posted since 2014.

Damacio Diaz went to college, then became a police officer and a 17-year veteran of the Bakersfield Police Department as a detective. Damacio Diaz recalled fondly in an interview for the film that he would often jog with his dad, Paul Diaz, who worked hard for his family. Damacio eventually returned to McFarland and was active in the McFarland community, was loved by many, and excelled at his job as a police officer. Tragically, in November 2015 he was arrested for bribery and drug charges, including assisting a drug dealer. His arrest was a big shock to the community because he had been so well-loved and respected. In June 2016 he plead guilty and his sentencing will occur in September 2016. In a public statement, Damacio said that he regrets the decisions he’s made and the lapse of judgment that led to the crimes, and that this was not the person he really was. He faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Jose Cardenas became a writer for the Los Angeles Times and at the time of the film’s release, was serving his country in the military. He now lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia with his wife and daughter, where he is a staff sergeant in the Army. Jose wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times in March 2015 describing his experience with the McFarland team. It drew national attention because for him, the final race portrayed in the movie was one of the most painful memories of his life – his mistake of starting out too fast put enormous pressure on his team to make up the points.

In response to his essay, Laura Nicole Diamond wrote an open letter to Jose to encourage him and let him know how an inspiring example he was to people. Jose read the blog post and responsed: “Thank you Laura for your take on my essay. Appreciate your different philosophical way to look at things. I enjoyed your essay as well.” Jose has done speaking engagements as well since the movie’s release.

Victor Puentes, one of the brightest students on the team, went to college but then had to leave school when his mom got sick. He returned home to take care of his mother and during that time, he began to experiment with drugs. As his addiction became worse in the ’90’s, he got in trouble with the law and served time in a penitentiary. Upon his release, he returned to college to continue his education and landed a quality job on a ranch. He states that the movie has changed his life and helped him become a better person.

Jim White and his wife Cheryl still live in McFarland. Jim retired in 2002 after 23 years of coaching and continued to serve as a volunteer coach occasionally. The students that Jim coached have grown up to become coaches themselves. His alumni now coach the cross-country programs for the elementary, junior high, high school, as well as McFarland’s Parks and Rec teams. Since his retirement, he has also traveled the country as a motivational speaker and to help promote the movie. He still follows local cross-country avidly and despite the artistic license of the film, he enjoyed the movie greatly. According to an interview, both he Cheryl, “have seen the movie three times and cried three times.” According to People Magazine, even Oscar winner Costner was impressed by the man he portrays in the new Disney film. ‘Jim White represents the very best of the best, a quiet, graceful man who somehow let these kids know what was possible,’ he says. ‘I was proud to get to play him.’

Here is an interview where Jim talks about the experience of filming McFarland, USA:

The McFarland Cross-Country Program was bumped to Division I competition in 2014 even though McFarland’s school size is much smaller than the typical Division I schools. Subsequently, McFarland High School missed qualifying for the 2014 State Meet for the first time in 24 years; many feel the school is being punished for its success.

KGET TV-17, an NBC affiliate in Bakersfield, California, created this Emmy-nominated segment that tells the story of McFarland High School’s legendary cross country program and the family, and coach, that helped mold a town.

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