Cross-country puts McFarland on the big screen

McFARLAND, Calif. (KFSN) -- Heading south on the 99, you've probably seen it: "Welcome to McFarland."

It may seem like any other small, Valley farming town, unless you know about competitive running -- specifically cross-country. That is where McFarland is king and Jim White is the man who helped them earn that reputation.

"It's not about the X's and O's, it's not about your training, it's how you relate to the kids," said coach Jim White. "Are these kids going to be willing to give you 100 percent?"

For the past three decades, the runners of McFarland High have given coach White 100 percent. In return, he and his wife, Cheryl, gave them a second family.

"Well, in the Bible it says, 'do the best you can' so we were living our life doing the best we could, and helped the kids become that part too," she said.

Banners inside the gym tell the story of their success. They've been league and Valley champions year after year. And silhouettes outside the gym -- nine-time state champs. It's what's made them the pride of McFarland, and thrust them into the national spotlight.

"McFarland USA" is the movie starring Kevin Costner as coach Jim White. It tells their story: a group of Mexican-American kids who run their hearts out, training in the same fields where many of them work. The movie follows the 1987 team -- the first year McFarland won state. Johnny Samaniego and the three Diaz brothers were part of that team.

"To realize and accept that there is a story being told around the nation about us, our lifestyle, our love for running -- it's very exciting," said Damacio Diaz. "It's very humbling for us."

We first profiled the coach and his team in 1997. By then, the program had already won the admiration of people all over the country -- inspired by a team from one of the poorest towns in the state -- outrunning kids from some of the richest schools. After the L.A. Times ran a piece on McFarland, movie producers came calling.

Almost 20 years later, Disney finally made it happen. Film crews were in McFarland for two weeks early last fall, and we were there when Cheryl and Jim got a sneak peek at the movie trailer.

"I think where it gives credit and to the hard work these kids have put in to develop, to be an inspiration to other kids," remarked coach White.

The '87 team is equally proud of their coach.

"For me, Mr. White has long deserved all this attention and accolades," said David Diaz.

And they're proud of what their team accomplished after graduation.

"My other brothers who were on other teams -- that has always been a contention that they think they had the smartest team but we have the titles, we have the degrees," said Danny Diaz

All of them are professionals and many of them also coach, but when they first met Kevin Costner, he noticed not just their smarts but their movie-star good looks.

"He said you guys look better than the actors," laughed Johnny Samaniego. "Good looking guys, that is exactly what he said. So Kevin Costner came out and he shook everybody's hand. Most of us had our phones, trying to get pictures, video. To us, he was just an average Joe who made us feel special."

That special feeling is spreading all over McFarland. Signs now pay homage to the runners and a gazebo will soon be dedicated to coach White or "Blanco," as his runners affectionately call him.

"Everybody is extremely proud to say, 'I was on that team, I ran with Mr. White.' It's brought a lot of pride to everyone who was here," said Damacio Diaz.

Disney is the parent company of ABC30.

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