This is part of a series of articles looking back at the 1987 CIF-State Cross Country Championships, the first in California.
- - -
Google 'McFarland USA fact vs. fiction' and you get quite a few options that separate the true story of the upstart cross country program at the rural Central California high school and Hollywood's spin on it in the 2015 film starring Kevin Costner as coach Jim White.
Yes, McFarland is an inspirational story.
Yes, the McFarland High boys did win a team title at the first CIF-State Cross Country Championships held in 1987.
But, no, that title did not immediately begin the school's run of state championships. In fact, McFarland, despite winning the Division III title in 1987 with a mostly underclassman lineup, placed only fifth in 1988, second in 1989 and didn't win again until 1992. That was the true beginning of the program's championship run to eight more titles.
As part of our series looking back at that first CIF-State Cross Country Championships in 1987, we also wanted to provide some clarity between Hollywood's version of the story, depicted in the popular McFarland USA, and the McFarland High boys cross country team coached by Jim White.
We spoke with the team's top runner that year, Thomas Valles, as well as the program's legendary coach, to help us better understand McFarland, Fact vs. Fiction. What we are reminded of is that McFarland USA is based on a true story but it is not a documentary. Hollywood's fictional fingers are all over how the story is framed but in the big picture, the film captures the essence of the main characters and the story quite well on the big screen.
Below we tell the story of White, Valles and the 1987 championship team and point out areas of Hollywood fiction.
Coach Jim White
Jim White attended Franklin High in Stockton and Magic Valley Christian community college in Idaho before completing his education at Pepperdine. He was a baseball player, a pitcher, in high school and in college.
In 1964, after graduating from Pepperdine, White was hired to teach middle school science in McFarland. He later taught woodshop and physical education. White has lived in McFarland ever since. He and his wife Cheryl met at Magic Valley Christian College in Idaho. They raised three girls (not two as depicted in the movie) and recently celebrated their 59th wedding anniversary.
White, 79, said his experience at Franklin shaped his path toward McFarland. He said the high school had 4,000 students and he "felt like a number." He also said he didn't have a relationship with his baseball coach and questioned why there couldn't have been a better relationship. He said he told his mother that he wanted to go somewhere small, somewhere where he could have an impact.
McFarland was that 'small' then and is still today. In White's time, the town's population has slowly grown from fewer than 4,000 to just over 15,000.
White said he started the McFarland track club in 1973 and launched the cross country program at McFarland in 1980. It soon became a dominant program among small schools in Northern California.
White coached for 23 years from 1980 through 2002 and he came back for one year in 2003. He won nine state titles and went to the state meet every year but one, he said.
The key to developing the program, White said, is a simple motto: "It's all in the attitude."
"Just getting everybody to believe in themselves," Valles said was how White developed and maintained the program at such a high level. "He just had high expectations of us.
"He was our second dad. We grew up not having a whole lot, every single person on our team. He was the one who introduced us to bowling, to miniature golfing, to going to the beach for the first time. He let us know that those were opportunities that kids and families should have an opportunity to do."
"Some of the boys had never been to the ocean," White said. "Some had never had a sit-down dinner with forks."
White would take his teams to train in Yosemite at elevation.
"We did that year after year to build bonds and to trust one another," he said.
White retired in 2002 but returned to coach the 2003 team. His team's won nine CIF-State cross country titles, five in a row between 1992-96 and three in a row between 1999-01. Nine boys state titles is tied with Jesuit (SJ) for the most boys team titles in state history.
1987 State Championships
Coach White said the genesis of the '87 championship team began in 1986 in conjunction with the approval by the CIF Federated Council of the first statewide championship meet for cross country.
"We were a very good team in 86," White said. "We ran at Mt. SAC and everywhere we could find competition that could make us better. We knew we had the potential coming into '87. That made us work harder. ... We were undefeated in '86 and now we had the opportunity to have a state championship team. Let's not slack off."
White said the team would run in the heat of the summer when temperatures were into the triple digits.
"But we'd try to run in the shade in the almonds," he said.
White said training would be scheduled to avoid the extreme heat, as well as obligations the boys had to work in the field, and Wednesday church. On occasion, he said, the boys would have to work in the fields on a Saturday morning before going off to a meet that afternoon.
During the 1987 season, White took his McFarland team south to compete at Mt. SAC where it dominated. After that, the Cougars were the easy favorites to win the first small schools division (D-III) State Meet title.
"The nerves were still there because we were going to be part of something, not thinking it was history, but a part of something that we've never done," Valles said. "We're going to go out and try to win the state title."
Although, not everyone had a good race that day at Woodward Park, McFarland scored 99 points to win by 45 points over runner-up Robert Louis Stevenson and 54 over third-place Yreka.
Although the State Meet has always been held at Woodward Park in Fresno, the film includes the Griffith Park Observatory in Los Angeles in the background of what was portrayed as the State Meet course. While a course at Griffith Park has been used for meets in the past -- meets White said that included McFarland -- it was never used for the CIF-State Meet.
That day at Woodward Park, McFarland's top four were dominant.
Valles, a senior, placed seventh overall and second among scorers. Sophomore Johnny Samaniego was 12th overall (sixth in scoring). Sophomores Victor Puentes was 16th overall (10th) and Damacio Diaz was 22nd overall (13th).
McFarland had four in (31 points) before Stevenson's No. 1.
But then it was nervous time. Jose Cardenas, McFarland's expected No. 5, was not in the picture. Eventually sophomore Danny Diaz crossed in 91st (68th) to close out the scoring.
"Danny, he passed up Jose out there somewhere," White recalled. "He had to be wondering, 'Hey, what am I doing up here?' This was out of the ordinary."
What you don't see in the film is sixth runner Luis Partida, who was replaced on the team in McFarland USA by David Diaz, who had actually graduated in 1986. Both Valles and White said the movie producers preferred the idea of three Diaz brothers on the team rather than just two.
(David Diaz and Amador Ayon were both seniors on the 1986 team and didn't get the chance to compete for a state championship. Ayon is the current McFarland boys coach. David Diaz remains actively involved in the program, Valles said.)
Immediately after the race, Valles said he was taken with a group of top finishers for awards and media but didn't know if the team had actually won.
"Jose Cardenas had had a bad race," Valles recalled recently about his teammate who was the team's seventh runner that day, finishing 148th. "We had no idea, with him not performing that day, if we'd actually won it.
"I was getting interviewed by the Bakersfield Californian (newspaper). They asked me if I was happy with my place. I told them I was but our goal is to win as a team."
Valles said he asked the McFarland principal if the team had won. The principal shook his head.
"He didn't know but I took it as if he had said no," Valles said.
While still being interviewed, Valles said he noticed his teammates hugging and crying.
"I abruptly stopped the interview and took off," he said about joining his teammates. " 'What's going on?' They said we won! And, man, I just started crying, started crying tears of joy.
"I looked over at the reporter and I said 'We won. We won.' I'm getting goosebumps now. ... That was pretty amazing."
"It was a great accomplishment," White said. "We achieved what we set out to do. We were going in the right direction with our training ... they just started believing in whatever I was saying. It was a great honor to win that first one."
Despite a strong group returning from the '87 championship team, McFarland only placed fifth in 1988. Samaniego was 17th, Puentes 26th, Cardenas 37th, Damacio Diaz 43rd and Danny Diaz was 85th.
White said he left Stockton to visit his parents for Thanksgiving. Durning the season, the boys are not supposed to play basketball.
"As soon as Mr. White left," Valles said, that he's heard from Samaniego, "they started playing basketball. The whole team. Their legs were shot by Friday, the day before State."
"(That) fixed it where I could never see my parents on Thanksgiving," White said.
The team placed second in 1989 with Samaniego placing eighth and getting on the podium.
Fact vs. Fiction
The film does an excellent job of capturing the essence of the challenges of the small migrant farming community but not everything on the big screen is quite like it happened in real life.
Did the boys have to get up with the sun to work in the fields only to return later in the day to train there? Yes. Did they run over piles of almonds to simulate hills? No. Did Coach White ride his bike as the boys ran? Yes. Did he ride a pink girls 'Barbie' bike, or was it only Costner? The actor rode the pink bike, not the coach.
"I didn't ride the Barbie bike," White said.
But he did say there was a "low-rider" bike with his nickname "Blanco" on it. Yes, the nickname the boys gave him, as depicted in the film, was real. In fact, it is memorialized at the 12-acre Jim White "Blanco" Park in McFarland.
The film also shows a chubby runner named Danny Diaz rallying late to secure the team title. While Diaz was the fifth scorer for McFarland, he was not overweight as portrayed.
"Thomas didn't have anger management and Danny wasn't fat," White said when asked about inaccuracies in the film. "Neither did I throw that shoe at that young man. I guarantee I wouldn't have missed."
White, the former baseball player, was a right-handed pitcher. Added Cheryl: "With him being a pitcher, he would have been straight on."
Asked what part of the story of that 1987 season he wished had been included in the film, White said the impact of his wife Cheryl.
"Things that Mrs. Diaz did (in the film), that's what Cheryl was doing. She was the real (team) mother ... hugging their sweaty bodies when they came in."
Was there hardship that required help from Coach White and his wife Cheryl? Definitely.
"I can't speak for everybody, I can speak for myself," Valles said. "When the movie came out, I was kind of in denial. 'That's not even my life story. It's all Hollywood.'
"But as people started asking me about the movie and telling me 'Hey, Thomas, but didn't this happen? Didn't you get into this fight? Well, yeah, that happened. What about this one? Did that happen? Yeah, that happened.'
"After awhile, I realized there is some hints of my true story."
In seventh grade, Valles said his PE teacher (White) introduced himself and said he coached cross country and track.
"I didn't really know what those sports were," Valles said.
Valles explained that White had observed him going for a six-mile jog-walk record "trying to be the top guy.
"(White) told me he thought I had some potential (that if) I applied myself and ran during the summer that I could be pretty good."
Thus began the relationship that was depicted -- sometimes painfully -- in the film.
"I grew up in a broken home," Valles said. "My parents divorced. When I say Mr. White became my father figure and Mrs. White became my mother figure. I grew up with domestic violence and that's what I knew. I thought that was normal. I didn't grow up telling my parents I loved them. I didn't do that until I met the Whites. I actually realized what true love was. It was tough growing up in McFarland."
The Whites had three daughters. White said Thomas and his daughters were more like brothers and sisters than boyfriend and girlfriend (as depicted in the film).
"You try to offer them the same thing we offered our girls," White said. "That's how we developed that. We treated them just like our kids.
" 'You're actually doing things for us that our mom and dad don't do. That's OK. We're doing it for our kids, we'll do it for you.'
"Thomas was at our house almost every day."
Today, Valles coaches girls cross country coach at McFarland and travels around to speak and share his story. He recently retired as a California State Correctional officer supervising adult males. There were times while doing that job that he said he thought about what might have been had it not been for Jim White and cross country.
"I started hanging around the wrong kids," Valles said. "I was blessed that I got the opportunity to be apart of something that kept me off the streets of McFarland. ... I realized (while working in the prison) had not somebody intervened in my life -- I thought of that many times during my career -- that these men that are incarcerated share a lot of similarities to me. They're men of color. They grew up in broken homes. There was alcohol or drug abuse in their homes. I realized, you know what, this could have been me had somebody not been on me. That was my running family, my brothers, my teammates, Mr. White."
"Thomas he made a big impact on our life," White said. "We did what we could to help him. (He had a) poor relationship with dad. You just do what you can do."
The film portrays Danny Diaz as chubby.
"That bothered him for awhile," White said. " 'Everybody in the world is going to think I'm fat and I wasn't fat.' "
White said Diaz was about 110 pounds as a sophomore in 1987. But the depiction of him in the film prompted him to make a t-shirt showing him as he actually was: "This is the real Danny Diaz."
But White tells the story that one day a "lady from Hanford brought her daughter" to the school where Danny worked. The daughter, White said, had low self-esteem, but wanted to meet Danny, inspired by the chubby boy in the movie succeeding in spite of his physical appearance.
"She wanted to meet Danny Diaz," White said. "She was crying and hugging Danny. ... 'Danny made a big difference in my life.' "
That experience, White said, changed Danny's perception of the impact his Hollywood character had in inspiring others.
"(It is) things like that that have touched our lives," White said.
The film shows White taking the team to fields for simulated hill training on mounds of raw almonds.
"We couldn't go out there and run those things," White said. "That's their livelihood. They're not going to let kids run all over them."
"That was Hollywood," Valles said. "We didn't really train like that."
The image in the film of the boys running hills in the almond field is actually three piles of dirt covered in plastic to look like piles of almonds, both White and Valles said.
"We did have hills," White said. "You saw the hills at the end of the movie."
White said there are hills around orange groves about six miles outside of town where the team goes for true hill training.
Legacy of 1987 Team
"The best part wasn't winning a state championship or winning medals," Valles said, "it's what we did afterward, our education, our careers, my family.
"All my teammates are still here. They're all professionals. Education, law enforcement, business owners. We're still here hopefully trying to make a positive difference in our communities."
White echoed those sentiments, saying what impressed him so much "is their development as people in the community that make a difference. They want to make a difference. Let's do it because it's the right thing to do.
"David and Danny (Diaz) are in education. Johnny is an educator and is still coaching."
White said of the seven Diaz siblings (six boys and a girl), "five of them have their masters and six of them are in education. That's the legacy I see with that time. Those kids were good students. They worked hard. They came back. They still live in McFarland and still want to make a difference in the community."
Where Are They Now
|Jim White||Coach||Retired - living in McFarland. Public speaker.|
|Thomas Valles||Senior - Placed 7th||Retired as a correctional officer. Girls XC coach at McFarland. Public speaker.|
Soph - Placed 12th
PE teacher at McFarland MS. McFarland HS varsity girls basketball coach.
|Victor Puentes||Soph - Placed 16th|
Runs his own business as an arborist.
|Damacio Diaz||Soph - Placed 22nd||Retired from law enforcement. Following in father's footsteps working in the agricultural business.|
|Danny Diaz||Soph - Placed 91st||Counselor at McFarland HS.|
|Luis Partida||Senior - Placed 110th|
Was enlisted in the armed services. No contact since high school.
|Jose Cardenas||Senior - Placed 148th|
E-7 Sergeant First Class - United States Army.
Teammate updates and McFarland photos courtesy of Thomas Valles.
Jim White coaching photo by Kirby Lee/Image of Sport.
- - -
Were you an athlete, coach, organizer who took part in the first CIF-State Cross Country Championships in 1987? We'd love to share your memories of that meet and that experience. Feel free to email firstname.lastname@example.org.