Given how Hollywood likes to tart up the truth (see American Sniper, Frozen, et al.) you probably have a very good sense of what's going on with Disney's soon-to-be released McFarland USA. The Kevin Costner vehicle is based, as they say, on the true story of a boys' cross country team from McFarland High School in California's Central Valley—children of farm laborers who went to school, worked in the fields, and then ran 10 miles in practice—who beat the odds and won the California state cross country title in 1987. It's all very inspiring, with hardworking underdogs, the power of belief, and how one person really can make a difference in this harsh world. The only surprise about this story making it to the screen is that it didn't happen years ago.


McFarland USA, though, is one of the few instances in film history in which Hollywood, in having its way with the story, probably didn't go far enough. The actual people on whom the movie's characters are based are more articulate and better looking than the actors, and the on-going story is sweeter, more inspirational, more enduring and wider-reaching than what director Niki Caro depicted. Yes, they made stuff up, but you wonder why; in this case, truth is even more feel-good than fiction. As a career cynic, I feel bad writing that, and even a bit treasonous. Here's why I had to.

The true story on which the movie is based can be found in Mark Arax's excellent 1997 article, which ran in the Los Angeles Times. In it, he followed the McFarland team and the program's coach and founder, Jim White, as they overcame daily impossibilities on their quest for what was then their sixth straight California state cross country championship. Of course, it was not just about running; Arax described Mcfarland's transition from a small farm town, where migrant workers appeared in April and left in November, to a poor but permanent home for immigrant families who had scraped together enough money to buy houses. When Jim White and his wife Cheryl moved to McFarland in 1962, the population was about as white as they were. By 1980, McFarland was 90% Hispanic.

With no movie theater, one stoplight and few businesses, the two things McFarland was known for were a high rate of childhood cancer and gang violence. In 1980, White, a life science teacher at the high school, decided to establish a cross country program. Not only had he never coached cross country, but he wasn't even a runner. He hatched the unlikely venture having seen some of his students run long distances after an already grueling day. Working in the fields and orchards before and after school, and running as a means of transportation, they certainly seemed to have the necessary endurance.


White recruited kids who didn't know how to win, persuaded struggling parents to relinquish key members of their workforce, bought shoes, provided food, posted bail, stayed late, made home visits, tutored, doctored, counseled, reprimanded, encouraged, and picked up the fundamentals of cross country training along the way. It took him seven years to produce his first state championship team.

The movie condenses those seven years into one season, creating a satisfying zero-to-hero narrative with a Disney-approved happy ending. Arax's article, on the other hand, showed that, while miraculously successful, the McFarland team's troubles were far from over after their amazing 1987 state championship, nor even after, unimaginably, five more victorious seasons. Problems of poverty—drugs, illness, lack of education, gangs, teen pregnancy, even unreliable vehicles—continued to dog the team and the town. The article ended on a decidedly un-Disney note with the half-strength team finishing fourth at the state meet. They'd worked their tails off but it just wasn't enough. In the real world, the rich kids win in the end: there's just too much for poor kids to overcome.



When I heard the McFarland story was being made into a movie—it was originally scheduled for release last November, but was moved back to this week—I knew exactly what it would be like. Heck, it was the perfect setup. I wanted to track down some of the original team members to find out how their lives really turned out.

Jim White still lives in town, though he retired from teaching and coaching in 2002 after an unprecedented nine state cross country victories. I'd heard that at least one of the boys with the last name Diaz who had been on the 1987 team worked at the high school, so I called again and asked for a teacher or administrator named Diaz. The woman who answered the phone laughed and said there were a number of people there by that name, but that she'd put me through to assistant principal Dario Diaz.

With the ubiquitous public address system broadcasting after-school activities and who should report where in the background, Diaz talked easily, passionately, humorously, honestly, and with unaffected love and optimism. I got off the phone an hour later, a believer.

Dario Diaz, assistant principal at McFarland High School on the members of his family who ran cross country …

Three of my brothers were on the 1987 team that first won the state title—David, Daniel (he's basically the hero in the movie) and Damacio. Then there's Diego and Delia, she was the only girl in the family and a great runner. Then I was on the 1992 state championship team, and my youngest brother, Gabriel. We all ran for Mr. White. And we all went to college—that's the Diaz story.


On what they're doing now …

David is a vice-principal at a correctional facility; Danny is a counselor at McFarland High School (he just left my office right before you called); Damacio is a police detective; Diego is a PE teacher in Delano, just down the road; Delia is an elementary school teacher in McFarland; and Gabriel is an assistant principal in Delano.


On the connection between running and success in life …

There is no time out, no half-time, no substitutions—you go out there and you race. It's on you and you don't stop 'til it's over. Your mind wants to give up—it's screaming, screaming to stop. You have to learn to overcome that voice. In a race, you have no more to give, you're outta gas, but you gotta find more. There's some guy next to you who wants it just as bad. It equips you with mental toughness, tenacity. Cross country translates to well to the rest of your life—work, school, college. You know you're mentally capable of handling anything. It teaches you to get the most out of yourself. Of course, there's a lot of camaraderie, it shows you how to be a team player. And running 10, 12 miles every day—you get a work ethic like no other.


On what a fog delay is …

What, they don't have fog delays in Minnesota? We have a lot of fog here in the Central Valley. If there's a lot of fog, it's dangerous for the buses to run, so they delay school 'til 10 a.m. The superintendent makes the call for a fog delay by 5 a.m.

On why he hated fog delays as a kid …


Man, I hated fog delays. My mom would be up early and if she heard there was a fog delay, she'd get us all up and we'd be out in the field by 6 a.m— lettuce, grapes, whatever—'til 9 a.m. Then she'd bring us back, but only one of us got to take a shower. There were seven of us and one restroom ... My oldest brother, and usually my sister, got to take a shower. The rest of us were straight out of luck. We just changed our socks and went to school, stinky, dirty, whatever. Yeah, I hated fog. I hated Christmas vacation, too, because it was every day in the field. The rest of the kids were at home, on vacation. We were pruning almond trees. It's hard and it's freezing but we were all out there, working. Labor Day, President's Day, summer—it was a vacation for all the kids, but for us, it was get down in the grime, get out there and work. Back then, in the '80s, a lot of kids worked in the fields.

Something his mom never said …


She never said, "Look Dario, you earned $40 today." I never saw a dime. My mom used it to buy food, buy clothes.

On living in the now …


My brother Danny was out working—he had a bachelor's degree then, but he was out there working, and he was mad because, here he's educated and he felt he shouldn't have to work in the fields. My mom says, "That piece of paper isn't worth crap out here. Get back to work." It was hard on her, she had a lot of stress, but that's the Hispanic mentality—it wasn't about the future; it was about now, and there were bills to pay. But there was an awesome man named Jim White.

On what was special about Jim White ...

None of the other sports at Mcfarland were good. We sucked at football, we sucked at basketball, we lost at everything. But there was never a coach like him. He had the it factor, or something. I don't know what to call it, but it was in him. He could have coached basketball, golf, anything, and he would have won. We did not want to let him down. We felt like if we let him down ... it would bring us to tears. He made us believe that running was everything, that it was important for us, specifically for us, to win and to win as a team. He made us believe that it was necessary to give that kind of effort, that the pain would be worth it. He was right. At the end of day, Mr. White was the reason we ran. He did something special in our hearts. He loved us, not for winning—he just loved us. That kind of love, you just want to go all out for him. He was invested in you; you gave it back.


Some things in the movie are not true but …

If we lost, we felt horrible, not for ourselves but for Mr. White. Our job was to make sure we won. Disney got the sentiment correct—we won for ourselves, but more so, we won for him.


On how Jim White persuaded parents to give up an essential part of their workforce …

Cross country races are on Saturdays. Guess what? That's a work day. My mom was thinking, why will I let my boys go run some silly race when they could be working? She said, You need to pay me to let my boys run. Mr. White said, Without the Diaz boys, we can't win the race. He was very persuasive. Many times my mom would pick us up from school and take us to the field while the rest of the team practiced. Mr. White would come and find us in the fields and practice again with us later.


On the training program for boys who went to school for six hours and did back-breaking physical labor for another three to four hours during the week ....

Mile repeats, quite a bit of speed work. A total of eight to twelve miles every day was normal.

On winning …


We wanted it more for some reason. When we got on that line, we knew we were going to win. We were confident. If someone is passing you, you better not let that happen. Mr. White didn't do that with the whip—I don't know how he did that. One time we got second place, on a national level, which is very, very good. You would think we'd lost. We did not know how to lose.

A partial list of coachisms Jim White employed …


Champions train, losers complain. Cross country is not how fast you can run but how long you can run fast. If it was easy, everyone would do it. There are two roads in life: run both. There's no glory in practice, but without practice there's no glory. Shut up and keep up. Refuse to lose. Attitude is everything.

Not everyone won ...


There were people who may not have had a good upbringing. White bailed runners out from jail. If they were hanging out with bad people, I remember him going to houses to pick kids up from parties. These were kids four or five years removed from the team. He wasn't a miracle worker all the time—I mean, everyone chooses their own path. But he gave all those guys plenty of opportunities to succeed. He paid for shoes, clothes, tuition, books. At the end of the day, if you fail, it's because you choose to.

On the equitable model …

We can't play football; we suck at basketball; we don't play baseball. All we do is cross country. We started in Division 4 [California has six high school divisions based on number of students]. We were winning, winning, winning, so they decided to punish us. California has this equitable model that's just ridiculous—it's the only one in the nation. Check this out—if you're winning too much, the commissioner moves the school up a division. So in 2003-2004, McFarland ran in Division 3. We beat them. Then the commissioner of our section, Jim Critchlow, moved us to Division 2, and we won. In 2014, they moved us to Division 1. We had our first loss at state in 23 years. Itty bitty McFarland, with 750-800 students, is up against schools with 3800-4200 students. It's just ridiculous, the size of the talent pool we have to overcome: we're racing against powerhouses. It's really difficult. Our kids don't give up; they try their best but ...


On how the alumni are building on McFarland's running/winning legacy …

In almost any city, you'll have a park and rec cross country program with maybe seven kids. McFarland park and rec has 150 kids out for our cross country program, between six and 13 years old. This is a small city, 12,000 people. The kids have bought into the idea that if you want to win, you join cross country. Mr. White had runners who are now coaches: David Diaz and Thomas Valles are the coaches at Mcfarland park and rec. These kids are exposed to, basically, running gods and quality coaching since six years old.


And Mcfarland's girls are getting in on the action …

Yeah, Dede Salcedo is 13 now, in 8th grade. She's been running some phenomenal times—I think she's ranked number one in the nation. She's a product of the park and rec cross country program, been running since she was five or six years old. We can't wait for her to get to the high school.


On what's changed in Mcfarland since 1987 [aside from the town logo, which now shows a runner striding past farm fields] …

There's a different mentality as far as city government is concerned. There's more infrastructure, the mayor is bringing in companies, businesses where our kids can work—after college, of course. There are better laws and unions so kids can't be out there in the grapes any more. There are parks and after-school activities. The city has taken on the challenge of having things for our kids to do so they won't get in trouble. There's a concerted effort by government to make sure our kids have something productive to do.

On one person making a difference …


I think Jim White starting this whole evolution/revolution is very accurate. It was one person's vision, and all of us are reaping the rewards.

photo credit: flickr