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.
After Jim meets Principal Camillo (Valente Rodriguez) on his first day of work, he begins his new job as a life science/PE teacher and assistant football coach. During his first PE class that day, Jim meets the Diaz brothers: Danny, Damacio, and David (Ramiro Rodriguez, Michael Aguero, and Rafael Martinez). Before the class ends, their mother forces the brothers to leave class to go work in the fields. Later, Jim shows that he genuinely cares about the students when he prevents the ambitious football team’s head coach from putting an injured player, Johnny Sameniego (Hector Duran), back into the game despite Johnny’s importance to the team. The head coach complains to Principal Camillo and has Jim removed from his post as assistant coach. The player, Johnny, is also kicked off the team. Meanwhile, Jim settles into his neighborhood and learns about the troubled life of one of his other students, Victor Puentes (Sergio Avelar), whose uncle just got out of prison and whose father is still in prison.
While Jim and his daughter Jamie watches the boys in his PE classes run laps around the track, Jamie makes a comment about Victor and Johnny being incredibly fast runners; Jim agrees, and has an epiphany: to start a cross-country team. Principal Camillo agrees, reluctantly, and Johnny is recruited as the team’s first runner. Johnny helps to recruit other students: Victor, the three Diaz brothers, Jose Cardenas (Johnny Ortiz), and Thomas Valles (Carlos Pratts). Thomas, who was suspended for fighting a kid that made fun of his pregnant sister, is given a chance to avoid suspension if he agrees to join the cross-country team. The runners begin their training with doubt about their white coach, whom they nickname Blanco. The odds seem stacked against Jim, who is just as inexperienced at coaching cross-country as the boys are at running it.
In their first meet in Palo Alto, the boys endure mockery from the other more experienced and well-funded teams, and they suffer the humiliation of finishing in last place. Jim doesn’t want their spirits to sink too low and takes responsibility for the loss, saying it was “on him”. Despite the setback, the boys stick with Jim and continue training. Jim works overtime to train them harder, but he begins to experience more challenges: his home life is strained when he forgets his daughter’s birthday cake and misses her celebration, and later he finds the depressed Thomas on a bridge about to jump off. Jim has to talk him off. Despite winning their first race against local powerhouse Clovis, the father of the Diaz brothers pulls them from the team to pick in the fields. Jim begs the father to change his mind and even spends a day working in the fields helping them to convince the father to let the brothers stay on the team. The father agrees.
Despite all the setbacks, their hard work pays off, and the team does well enough in their next race to qualify for the state championships. At the qualifier, a coach slips an offer to Jim to leave McFarland for a full-time job at a large, wealthy school. On the way home, Jim stops by the beach in Cayucos and lets the runners have an afternoon of fun there because they’ve never seen the ocean before.
Meanwhile, the White family builds a bond with the McFarland community. Jim’s wife Cheryl makes friends with Javi’s girlfriend (Martha Higareda). Lupe has Javi fix Cheryl’s car after it breaks down and gives Cheryl a free manicure in her salon while she waits. The community teams up with the White family to raise money for better uniforms for the cross-country team, and they throw a delightful quinceañera party for Julie’s 15th birthday. Jim buys Julie a nice dress and has a wonderful time with Julie at the party, even dancing with his daughter who is overwhelmed with joy.
At the end of the celebration, Lupe and Javi take Julie in a traditional “parade” of cars down the boulevard. When gang members show up and harass them, a fight breaks out and Julie is pulled to safety just before getting injured. Jim is so distraught by this incident that he begins to seriously consider leaving McFarland and accept the job offer at the wealthy school. The team and his family learn about this new job possibility and become upset.
The state championships arrive, and the entire town of McFarland comes to support the team. By this point, the team and the sport have become the great pride and joy of the community. As the race begins, something goes wrong right away. Jose, one of their key runners, starts out too fast. Jim sees this and knows that Jose has put too much into the start of the race and will likely fall back at the end. However, just when it seems like the team will lose, Danny, the overweight runner on the team who typically never finishes fast enough to score points, picks up speed and reaches the finish line fast enough to secure the needed points for McFarland to win the championship. As everyone is celebrating and hugging, Jim goes to the Palo Alto coaches who had offered him the job and turns it down with one word: “McFarland.”
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.
- A journalist who covered the 1987 race remembers this moving moment when Thomas Valles, who is a prominent character in the film, ponders the deaths of Sylvia and Herlinda before the championship race: “Here was the star runner, just a kid, bringing his hands to his face in prayer and keeping them there for what seemed an eternity before the start of his race… The loss of Sylvia and Herlinda followed their teammates into 1987, the year of the boys’ first state cross-country victory.”
- One of the runners, David Diaz, said this to the same journalist about the tragedy’s effect: “The tragedy that happened to McFarland cross-country that year (1986), I believe, catapulted many of us to run with more heart in the following years. Sometimes a setback like that brings people and teams closer and more intimate with each other, and we found ourselves running for McFarland, Mr. White, and most importantly, for each other.”
- During the eighties, McFarland had a larger white population. It was not predominately Hispanic as depicted in the film. And White wasn’t the only adult who looked after the kids. As one of the runners said: “McFarland was a more balanced community of Latino and white residents then. Besides Mr. White, other good-hearted adults looked after the town’s needy youth.”
- 1987 was a tragic year in many ways for McFarland, which made the team’s cross-country title even more meaningful for a community struck by grief. Besides the tragic death of the two girls on the cross-country team, there were many other tragedies in the same year: on Valentine’s Day, a car crash claimed the lives of six teenagers, four of whom were from McFarland. Another accident killed McFarland’s football coach and several beloved students from the school. In addition, McFarland’s mysterious cluster of cancers, which rapidly claimed the lives of several children, happened around the same time and gained national media attention.
- The emotional trip-to-the-ocean scene in the film really did happen, though not in 1987. It is also true that most of the runners had never seen the ocean before. The actual trip, which included stops at Morro Bay and Cayucos after an Atascadero race, was even more moving than what we see in the film because it included the girls’ team. Photographs taken from the album of Sylvia Diaz (one of the girls who died in 1986) are some of the last pictures that those two girls took with their teammates. The album has been published and can can be viewed online.
- Some of the runners who were on the 1987 team were not depicted in the movie. One runner, Luis Partida, was replaced with David Diaz, the brother of Damacio and Danny Diaz. The director, Niki Caro, chose to do this because she wanted to feature more family in the story. In truth, David Diaz had graduated the year before the team won the state championship.
- Jim White and his wife Cheryl have three daughters. The film only depicts two. Their oldest daughter, Tami, is not depicted in the film. Julie and Jamie are also depicted younger than they were in 1987. During that year when the team won the title, all three daughters were actually in college in Texas.
- Danny Diaz, who is depicted as overweight in the film, was not overweight in real life. However, his come-from-behind clutch running performance in the 1987 championship that secured the title for McFarland really did happen.
- The final climactic race in the film happened exactly as it happened in real life, including all of the drama. Jose, who was one of the top four runners for the team and a key scorer, really did start the race too fast, a very unusual move for a runner who had just recently ran the same course perfectly. And when Jose lost his steam and fell behind in the end of the race, the other runners really did pull off the unexpected, and they made up the difference, which included Danny’s dramatic come-from-behind performance as we see in the film.
- In a piece written for the LA Times, runner Jose Cardenas said this about the final race: “In the movie — and reality — McFarland did barely win state when our usual sixth man, Danny Diaz, whose place in races had not counted all season, moved up to fifth, the last runner whose place counts. Disney Pictures can thank me, I guess, for creating some true drama… To this day, I don’t know why I went out uncharacteristically fast. If I had run as well as I did the previous week on the same course when we won the regional championship, the state race would not have been a nail-biter. We would have crushed the team that finished second.”
- The running scenes in the orchards were filmed on-location in McFarland, in the same place where the real team trained. Many other shots of the town and high school were also filmed on-location. The rest of the film was shot around Los Angeles and in Camarillo, California.
- The film depicts McFarland’s opponents as snobby, rich, and rude to the poor McFarland team. In reality, their opponents were more friendly and respectful.
- McFarland didn’t have low riders in 1987, as depicted in the film.
- In one of the 1987 races, an opponent from Bakersfield’s Centennial High School is shown. However, Centennial High School was not formed until 1993.
- Gang problems, as depicted in the film, were a real issue in McFarland. Jim White recalls an incident where his cross-country runners were shot breaking up a fight, and one of the boys was killed.
- McFarland won a state-record of nine championships with Jim White as coach.
McFarland has won 25 section titles from 1987-2013. McFarland’s team trains year-round, though their most intense training is in the summer, with brutal Central Valley temperatures often above 105 degrees and sometimes as hot as 115 degrees.
- White really did go and work in the fields and pick crops with his runners to show support to them and their families, as it is portrayed in the film. He also did find Thomas Valles on a freeway overpass and help him deal with his family problems.
- The mother of the three Diaz boys really did forbid them to run cross-country at one point.
- The team really did call Jim “Blanco” as a nickname.
- Jim White and his wife Cheryl, depicted as kind, caring people in the film, were that way in real life. He would often buy shoes and food for his runners. His wife Cheryl, who tirelessly supported her husband and his coaching, described the runners this way: “These kids are like our own kids and grandkids.
- McFarland, though unique with its amazing story, wasn’t the only underdog small town cross-country team in that area to do well. Shafter, California, a town that neighbors and competes with McFarland in sports, also had a remarkable cross-country team that excelled despite its small school size and limited resources.
- [Author’s Note]: A good friend of mine growing up, Jordan Lewis –now the head coach of Shafter’s cross-country team– competed against McFarland during many of the Jim White championship years, and he knows Jim personally. Jordan’s father, Terry Lewis, was the head coach for Shafter during those same years. Jordan wrote this about why McFarland had such an edge during those years:
“Clearly Coach White is a big reason why they had so much success. If you listen to how the runners speak about him (including current runners), you can tell he made a lasting impact on their lives. They knew he truly cared about them, and the guys would work extremely hard because of the respect they had for him. Second, there was a lot of good old-fashioned hard work. If you read some of the stories, some of them are pretty crazy. Running 8-12 miles a day, and going to school, AND working in the fields as much as time allowed. Finally, it eventually became something the whole town was involved in. The town and running are synonymous. It’s amazing how everybody is connected to it. I’m sure there is some embellishing going on in the movie, but it truly is an amazing story.”
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.