Disclosure: This is part of a sponsored collaboration with Disney and Walt Disney Pictures. I received an all-expense paid trip from Disney so that I could gather and share this information. However, all experiences and opinions are always 100% my own as this post is written by me in its entirety.
Whenever I would take J-bird to the local park as I child, he would always run towards the baseball fields or basketball courts. He wasn’t all that into the swings, slides and traditional playground equipment you typically see children hanging out on. He always wanted to be with the big boys playing sports. My earliest memory of an instance like this was when he was about three years old and he jumped right into a pickup baseball game at the park, with boys far bigger and older than him. They entertained him by letting him swing at a few balls, and were quite impressed at his skills. As soon as J-bird was old enough I enrolled him in the local Little League organization, and so began what would occupy his life, and mine, for the next 12 years.
Baseball wasn’t his only sport, he played basketball, soccer, football, even golf. Lacrosse, rugby, boxing, you name it, he tried it. Sports kept him active, fit and motivated. Sports provided him with confidence on the field and off, as well as leverage in life. For a teenager in high school sports can make or break a young man. For J-bird it helped to push him to strive for bigger and better things in life. It helped him do well in high school, Captain of his school basketball team, and it pushed him to want more, including attending college. Although he isn’t playing any sports for his school, his love for sports hasn’t changed. In fact, it’s grown in other ways. Just last week he told me that he wants to change his major from Criminal Justice to Sports Management. He made sure to point out to me that I know that sports has always been a passion for him.
There are many kids out there that live and breathe for sports. Those sports help them to excel, sometimes in ways that otherwise couldn’t. Getting to chat with the real life inspirations behind the McFarland, USA film was an honor. As I relayed my story about my son to the Diaz brothers and Mr. White I choked up a bit trying to suppress tears because I really wanted to know how participating in a sport impacted their lives during high school to move on in the future?
Damacio quickly chimed in to say that although they were “already tough kids and were used to working hard”, his brother David, the eldest of seven siblings, always encouraged his younger siblings to play sports. “Matter of fact, he ordered us and he forced us and he made us play sports” continued Damacio. Sports taught them discipline, gave them character and most importantly good sportsmanship. They traveled out of the state, out of the country – in essence, sports helped them get outside of their environment. Sports helped get them to college, with some of them even competing while there.
The Diaz brothers, as most of the families in McFarland did, were pickers. Families worked together night and day to sustain their livelihood. Something as big as a movie depiction of your livelihood can surely change your community, especially in a small town like McFarland. Fortunately those changes were all positive. The community grew and filled with even more love.
Danny was quick to give us his thoughts on that change, “growing up in McFarland we didn’t have much. There’s nothing to do in McFarland. When we were growing up, maybe seven, eight, nine, ten thousand people is the population. It’s grown a little bit in the last two, three years, but not much has changed. It’s poor community. You’re driving on 99, the freeway, and you blink and you’ll miss it. And there’s not much to do there. We don’t have the big malls. We don’t have actually any malls.”
There aren’t any big grocery stores. And if it weren’t for sports the kids of McFarland would just be hanging out on the streets. Coach White brought a program to the community that didn’t exist before and the whole community is embracing it and is extremely grateful for it.
Coach White added that there have been a definite positive change in the community, “we have changed our city logo, we are no longer the Heartbeat of Agriculture, we are now represented by a silhouette of a runner.” Their new logo says “Tradition, Unity, and Excellence”, which was created by a McFarland student. “So, that’s a big change”, added White.
Sometimes a movie can twist a story around so much that it changes the premise. Fortunately the director, Niki Caro took the time to get to know the real people of McFarland and did an excellent job of portraying the culture of the town. The movie delicates exactly how the life of these boys happened, showing clearly the tight knit families working together.
After he graduating college Danny returned to the fields working, “because that was, in our family, what was expected until he got hired and, and got his job”, explained Damacio.
The Diaz boys admit though that their mother was given a softer tone in her character portrayal, that she was actually much stricter in real life. Coach White said “when Mrs. Diaz saw this film the first time, she came out and she said I love the film, but they didn’t make me strict enough.” To this day they continue to live in a loving but very strict environment.
The Diaz brothers still run together from time to time. David is still running competitively in races and also coaches. Damacio and Danny still run sometimes up to five miles a day but mostly just to stay in shape. Even their children who are now in elementary and high school, all compete.
McFarland didn’t have much to offer by way of training grounds, so Coach White would seek out training spots that would get the boys ready for meets. Even using the Almond mounds as hill training. Sometimes even driving up to 600 miles out East of McFarland to run hills.
It took 15 years before their story actually came to life. Coach White signed with several companies to tell his story, but it’s wasn’t until Disney took it on that he felt comfortable knowing that the story wouldn’t be littered with nonsense that had no place in it. The original script was awful and when Disney resigned them, they immediately got a better script writer. And that’s the real story we get to see, with the exception of Mrs. Diaz being cast in a softer light compared to the precious scripts in which she was portrayed a bit tougher to make this a family film.
Coach White had more influence over the story line than the Diaz brothers since they only provided their story in interviews. Danny added, “once you, give them your story, obviously you sign with them. Then they can do whatever they want. So, with myself, they made me chubby in the movie.” But he’s just excited to have been included in the movie because the teams that came after his were better and they could have chose any of those other teams, but instead decided to go with first year that McFarland won the state title out of the overall nine championships.
And although Danny was depicted as a chubby slow runner, the seventh man that never counted for the score, he knew he had to do something to make up for his running mates drop in the race. For the first time in his life Danny became the fifth man in the race and helped to capture the state title.
The following season brought more joy as McFarland ranked number one the entire season, beating out top runners from well endowed schools with real training. Danny went on to say “it was 1988 and I was a senior at that time and my brother, Damacio, was a junior. And we were running number one all year long. And, uh, low and behold, Mr. White, during Thanksgiving break, uh, when we have no school, he had an emergency. He had to take off to Stockton to, to be with his family with a family situation and he left us there to, to train on our own. We didn’t train. We played basketball and we got fifth that year. We should’ve had first. So Mr. White never went back to Stockton never again.”
Coach White was very inspirational to the Diaz Brothers. Coach White “was there as a person that we can rely on.” said David. With the support of Coach White and their parents the Diaz brothers were pushed to further their education even thought it wasn’t encouraged as much in the late 80’s growing up in McFarland. Even Mr. Diaz told Coach White “I want them to get their education, so I will go back and get my education” and he did. He got a GED 1990. Simply unheard of in their culture.
The Latino culture is a very proud one. And in McFarland they believe in the saying that it takes a village to raise a child. And that is still happening in McFarland to this day.
Danny explains “it does take a village to raise a child. In our case there’s seven of us and my dad worked a lot of hours. My dad worked ten, twelve, thirteen, fourteen hours a day sometimes and we come from large families. My dad has 13 brothers and sisters. My mom has 12. So we have a lot of uncles and everybody has a lot of kids. I have seven kids myself. And all of us have a lot of kids if it’s not for the help of our cousins and our uncles and our friends and our church it’s really difficult during these times to raise a child. And then to keep him on the narrow road or that straight road is tough. So I’m always looking out for their kids. They’re looking out for my kids and we’re trying to police each other, because, it’s very easy to get distracted and go way off course.”
Damacio added, “same thing happened back in the day when we were kids. Our father never could ever go watch us race. We were racing big races and trying to accomplish big things, so we looked at Mr. White as our dad. He literally would buy us shoes, feed us, counsel us, console us when we lost, that kinda stuff. And so, we have a great dad. We love our dad. He is amazing. But Mr. White was our second father. He did a lot of things for us that our dad couldn’t, because it financially just wasn’t available.
The combination of having Coach White and a community that came together to support a group of inexperienced and under-equipped, young Latino runners to become cross-country state champions.
Although Coach White retired in 2002 after 25 years of coaching and 40 years of teaching in McFarland schools, you can still catch him riding his bike alongside many of his original team running in the evenings with the newest bunch of McFarland runners.
And many of the original runners have given back to their community by becoming teachers in the local school district, still working the fields and raising their families in McFarland.
Just this past weekend, over 200 volunteers gathered in McFarland Park to give area kids a new playground. The group of volunteers included McFarland, USA cast members, filmmakers and even the real life Jim White. Because it takes a village to raise a child.