When the Disney machine rolls into your farm town to tell your high school team’s story — you know, the one where you toiled as a kid for hours with your migrant worker family, pruning trees, picking peaches, raking walnuts and hoeing weeds, then you raced home to practice a grueling 6-mile run called for by a coach building against-all-odds champions, oh that little story? — it’s thrilling and humbling.
Just ask Danny, David or Damacio Diaz, who, along with their 1987 cross country teammates are portrayed in the new movie, “McFarland, USA,” about the unlikely rise of a high school cross country powerhouse from California’s Central Valley fields fueled by Hispanic and Latino migrant workers. Led by a legendary coach and father figure Jim White, McFarland teams became a track dynasty in the late 80s and 90s. The film, which opens Friday, is based on the 1987 team’s journey.
Originally approached in 2001, the movie eventually came to fruition and “we’re so excited and elated,” says Danny Diaz, when reached in McFarland with his brothers for a phone interview. “The whole community was excited to have A-list actors like Kevin Costner and Maria Bello here [playing Coach White and wife Sheryl].” He speaks of director Niki Caro visiting their parents’ house more than a year ago and of meeting Costner during a filming in Orange Cove. He laughs, remembering Costner’s remark they were better looking than the actors playing them.
“He did his homework. A couple days later he still remembered my name, so not only is he a good actor but a good student,” adds David Diaz.
But this story isn’t about the actor who’s played in movies set in fields like “Field of Dreams” — or the real coach who built it and they came. And it’s not about the Diazes and teammates pacing through a field. The tale lays in the town of McFarland, with a population of 12,420, 32 percent below poverty level, according to the 2010 census. The real message here, the brothers say, is one of optimism: McFarland is a town where hope is alive. A place where it is possible to build a better tomorrow.
“McFarland is a city that believes. There’s always hope,” David says. “We wake up every morning believing in a brighter day. That’s how people born and raised here, that’s how we all are.”
“We didn’t know we were without,” remembers Damacio, a Bakersfield police officer and the father of six. “Our parents were field workers who got up at 4 a.m. every day, six days a week and went to work. By the time we were 7 ,8, 9, we were also getting up on Saturdays, working for 10, 11 hours in the fields. On days where school didn’t start till 10 a.m. [because of delays], we would get up at 5, work for three hours, go to school, then go back to work in the fields again, which was normal for us.”
With the temps rocketing to triple digits in the summer, it’s a rough run for even seasoned athletes, much less teenagers training in the same fields where they work.
“We were working fast,” says Danny, a school counselor in McFarland and dad of seven. Their mother said they could go home earlier if they finished their rows. They did, so they could get to practice — more running.
“There wasn’t a Saturday when we weren’t working,” he says. “And when there was a race on Saturday, Mr. White would have to go beg [our parents] to please please please let [us] go to the race.”
The boys’ rigorous routine and fierce repetition of school, work, practice, homework—and no money for shoes, or food at meets—left little breathing room to dream big.
“What I really thought about the most was getting out,” admits Damacio. “The field work was brutal. I hated working in the fields. I really didn’t like spending our summers working without doing whatever everybody else was doing, like swimming in pools. For me and my brothers and sister, we learned very quickly, if we don’t do something with what we have available to us—school, church, education—you end up working in the fields.”
They’re proud of their parents, who he calls “humble, hard-working people.”
“Working in the fields taught us work ethic and discipline, some of the same things running was teaching us as well,” says Danny. His parents taught education as their way out. All 7 Diaz children graduated from college.
They credit Coach White as “the glue,” to bonding the teammates and modeling leadership and citizenship. The Whites also helped financially and served as quasi-parents, teachers and friends. [story]
David, a vice principal at North Kern State Prison’s school, says the high school teammates still run: Among the seven, they’ve ran half-marathons, triathalons, Iron Man, Boston Marathon and even ultra-marathons. (Danny jokes he runs to the bathroom a lot.) They give back, through coaching, and they’ve had kids run for McFarland.
Yet the Cougars of today are not without the controversy gripping many a school. According to Danny, “they’ve taken us out of our rightful division,” moving the more than into another division “to give other schools a chance to win.” Their 840-student school is now competing against schools with more than 3,000 students, a larger pool of talent. Though McFarland hasn’t won a state title since 2001, it “seems like a drought, but not really, we’re still a powerhouse,” says Danny.
What advice do they have for high school students in tough circumstances?
“Living in the greatest nation of the world, the United States of America, there are countless opportunities for you to find your niche, to find what you love,” says David. “You created that dream. Your subconscious did. Your dream came to you somehow, so try to achieve it. You will attain it … so I wouldn’t listen to the noise, you will get there with God’s help and good follow-through.”
Danny, who helps at-risk youth, stresses kids need goals and work ethic. “Winners can come from anywhere,” he says. “Winning is intentional. It requires you to sacrifice, to do that hard work, whether it’s studying for the test or running early in the morning or after work, you have to purposely set your mind and your heart to accomplishing these goals.” Even if you don’t win, just giving it “your best effort, you’re going to win in life. It’s going to pay off for you.”
Echoes Damacio: “If you’re going to commit to doing something, do it right…whether it’s for school, sport or job, go in there with the intent to do well…If you do that, every single time, things are going to happen.”
And then maybe someday you’ll find yourself living your own dream, coaching your own child, telling a story about how just yesterday you were pulling weeds, racing from tree-to-tree in a field. Only now that field holds a Hollywood director and crew, and Kevin Costner is driving up in his SUV, getting out, shaking your hand and telling you you’re much better looking than the guy playing you.