It’s easy to take a sports story, give it the Disney treatment and get an entire theater full of people clapping at the end.
A few glossy revisions to the script. A character added here and a nice plot twist.
I mean, for the nearly 300 people who came out to the AMC Showplace Theater on Monday night for a screening of “McFarland, USA”, they had the chance to speak directly with the man that the movie itself was based on – legendary McFarland High School running coach Jim White who made the drive up from the Kern County community that he still calls his home after five decades – and hear exactly how much of the Hollywood treatment the story actually got.
But it didn’t matter.
In that cavernous room full of athletes and parents – representative of the multicultural melting pot that is California’s Central Valley – White’s story and the story of those McFarland runners that defied all odds represented something that leapt off of the silver screen and became deeply personal.
Hope. Perseverance. Strength.
It seemed highly improbable that you could take a coach from a lilywhite background and put him smack-dab in the heart of California’s farm country and expect him to cultivate not just one team of cross country champions, but build a program that churned so many trophies that he had to give them away at team awards nights because the school didn’t have anywhere to put them.
That’s what happened. And while the transition might not have been exactly as it was portrayed in the movie – he came from Pepperdine, not Boise, and he didn’t get fired from two previous jobs when he made the trip to the migrant-heavy Southern San Joaquin Valley – it was still a stark contrast for a young, white teacher looking to establish himself and his family in a new community.
And that meant learning a new culture.
Here’s where the beauty of Hollywood and iconic sports story for the ages can blend in to your own life, regardless of personal history.
What truly struck a chord in my heart was the character of the mother of three of the boys on the cross-country team – a hard, physical Mexican woman that suffered no fools.
It didn’t surprise he when White said that she was actually upset with her portrayal in the movie because it didn’t show her as tough enough because I grew up with a woman like that – my best friend’s mother immigrated to the United States with her family and had that same fiery drive. I still laugh to this day when I see flip-flop key chains because that was always her threatened weapon of choice – the chanclas – because they never left marks.
I guess it was a different time, and I appreciated seeing that kind of humor in the movie.
But that Hispanic culture — or at least parts of it — were engrained in me as a child. My best friend’s grandfather – and I’m not using that term loosely, the man served as my chapel and my officiant at my wedding, and I have known him all 32 years of my life – used to take him out to the fields where he would buy leftover produce and then take it to markets to sell. To this day I think the best way to eat turkey is with red sauce and tamales. His mother would speak to me in Spanish before I understood their English equivalent.
Before I got married I would see a lot of films – it was kind of my quiet time to myself when I was working and I didn’t quite want to go home yet – and so I’m always searching for something special when I sink into a theater seat. Knowing that the man the movie was based on was sitting 25 feet in front of me only intensified that on Monday, and that my alma mater had put the entire screening together – that Anthony Chapman, the Sierra High School Athletic Director and former track teammate of mine was one of the organizers – had me expecting the world from this.
It delivered. And it resonated.
The longest formal organized race that I’ve ever run was 800 meters and the best I’ve ever finished was third place, so it wasn’t the running that truly captivated me, but the story – the hardscrabble lives of those kids and the dedication they had to that team.
And that coach that dared to stick with something that ended up producing nine state championships in 14 years.
Thank you for coming to Manteca Coach White.
It was truly an honor.