A look at the real “McFarland USA” kids and coach Jim White

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Thomas Valles, of the McFarland Cougars 1987 team, hoists the California Southern Area championship trophy. Victor Puentes is just to his left. David Diaz is behind Victor wearing a white t-shirt and McFarland hat. Jim White is to Thomas’ right and Gary Adams is to White’s right.
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Coach Jim White and his wife, Cheryl, with team member Thomas Valles at the 1987 California Southern Area cross country meet at Hart Park in Bakersfield. Eliu Garza, also a McFarland High runner, is at right with the camera.
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Victor Puentes (left), Thomas Valles (center) and Damacio Diaz (right) just before the start of the California Southern Area meet in 1987. Luis Partida is behind Victor and Jose Cardenas is directly behind Thomas Valles.

I received a nice surprise today when my pal, longtime Bakersfield Californian photographer Felix Adamo, found these photos I shot of the 1987 McFarland boys cross country team. They were requested by People Magazine. This is the team featured in the movie “McFarland USA,” which opens to general release on February 20. There is much excitement and anticipation in McFarland about the film, which stars Kevin Costner as coach Jim White, and as I mentioned in my previous posts that dealt with the enormous heartache this town endured in the 1980s – “Show the world what has happened to my son,” “Prom night, a crash and six teens lost” and “McFarland’s never-ending heartache  – this close-knit town deserves some good will and national love. Because Thomas Valles, McFarland’s top runner in 1987, is the focal point of all these photos, this was most likely a profile I was assigned to shoot of him in advance of the state championship meet. These photos, by the way, are from the California Southern Area meet held at Hart Park in Bakersfield, probably November 1987, and if I remember correctly, it is the meet before the California Interscholastic Federation section championship and the California state championship, which the team went on to win, and is a focus of the film.

The real Thomas Valles in 1987.
The real Thomas Valles in 1987.
This photo by Henry Barrios is from the Kern Invitational in October 1987. Thomas Valles runs in the center and Johnny Samaniego to his right. Danny Diaz is behind them.
This photo by Henry Barrios is from the Kern Invitational in October 1987. Thomas Valles runs in the center and Johnny Samaniego to his right. Damacio Diaz is behind them.
I also shot this photo of the 1988 team. McFarland's cross country team was a bright light for a town enduring unspeakable tragedy at the time, including the infamous child cancer cluster, the accident that killed two members of the girls team and an emerging culture of gang activity and violence.
I also shot this photo of the 1988 team. This might be both varsity and junior varsity runners, some of the kids look pretty young. McFarland’s cross country team was a bright light for a town enduring unspeakable tragedy at the time, including the infamous child cancer cluster, the accident that killed two members of the girls team and an emerging culture of gang activity and violence.

Update, February 19, 2015: I found these additional photos from my coverage of the 1986 South Area championship at Hart Park. This race occurred two and one-half weeks after two teammates on the girls team, Silvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez, were struck by a car and killed while practicing. It’s not part of the movie, but the team was, obviously, grieving and impacted deeply.

Still grieving following the deaths of Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez from the girls team, a parent arranged to have the boys arrive at the section championships in a limo. From left: Thomas Valles, Victor Puentes, Johnny Samaniego, Damaci Diaz, David Diaz, Amador Ayon and Luis Partida.
Still grieving following the deaths of Silvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez from the girls team, a parent arranged to have the boys arrive at the area championships in a limo. From left: Thomas Valles, Victor Puentes, Johnny Samaniego, Damaci0 Diaz, David Diaz, Amador Ayon and Luis Partida.
Aaron Mears and Kevin Larson, two runners from the Bakersfield High Drillers, wish the McFarland runners well before the start of the Southern Section championships. The gesture is in contrast to the film, which portrays McFarland's opponents as snobby rich kids who look down on the runners. McFarland runners in this picture are (from left) David Diaz, Victor Puentes, Thomas Valles and Luis Partida.
Aaron Meares (far right) and Kevin Larson, two runners from the Bakersfield High Drillers, wish the McFarland runners well before the start of the South Area championships. The gesture is in contrast to the film, which portrays McFarland’s opponents as snobby rich kids who look down on the runners. McFarland runners in this picture are (from left) David Diaz, Victor Puentes, Thomas Valles and Luis Partida.
The McFarland runners take off at the start of the Southern Section championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield, California on November 13, 1986.
The McFarland runners take off at the start of the South Area championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield, California on November 13, 1986.
Thomas Valles runs in the 1986 CIF Southern Section championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield.
Thomas Valles runs in the 1986 CIF South Area championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield.
Thomas Valles runs in the 1986 CIF Southern Section championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield.
Thomas Valles runs in the 1986 CIF South Area championships at Hart Park in Bakersfield.
The real 1987 California state championship McFarland Cougars. Photo provided by Dolores Plata Rodriguez. From left: Thomas Valles, Victor Puentes, Damacio Diaz, Johnny Samaniego, Jose Cardenas, Danny Diaz and Coach Jim White. Luis Partida is not pictured.
The real 1987 California state champion McFarland Cougars. Photo provided by Dolores Plata Rodriguez. From left: Thomas Valles, Victor Puentes, Damacio Diaz, Johnny Samaniego, Jose Cardenas, Danny Diaz and Coach Jim White. Luis Partida is not pictured.
Here's another image of the 1987 California state champion McFarland Cougars, this one provided by Jim and Susy Beltran. Bottom, from left: Thomas Valles, Danny Diaz, Victor Puentes, Jose cardenas. Top, from left: Johnny Samaniego, Luis Partida, Damacio Diaz and Coach Jim White.
Here’s another image of the 1987 California state champion McFarland Cougars, this one provided by Jim and Susy Beltran. Bottom, from left: Thomas Valles, Danny Diaz, Victor Puentes, Jose Cardenas. Top, from left: Johnny Samaniego, Luis Partida, Damacio Diaz and Coach Jim White.

Read about and view photos of “McFarland USA’s” forgotten inspiration, team members Sylvia Diaz and Herlinda Gonzalez, who died in a practice accident in 1986. Without these two beautiful young ladies, there would be no “McFarland USA.” Click here.

To see additional photos of the McFarland boys and girls teams competing in the 1986 Kern Invitational five days after the tragic accident that took the lives of their teammates, please visit the post “McFarland’s never-ending heartache.”

Also check out the incredibly moving real photos from the beach scene depicted in “McFarland USA” from the personal album of Silvia Diaz.

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12 thoughts on “A look at the real “McFarland USA” kids and coach Jim White

  1. Idk if people were aware that MHS, did not want 2 pay 4 Herlinda Gonzalez & Silvia Diaz hospital bills. I know bcuz Mr. Gonzalez had come 2 my office 2 bring in his work insurance, which his insurance didn’t pay much. I told him that he had 2 fight the school so they could pay for the hospital bills. He said he didn’t want 2 hire lawyers or have 2 deal with all that. However, I believe the Diaz family did go 2 court & the school paid them an undisclosed amount. I think the school should’ve paid because it was during school practice.

    1. How sad but the coach went on to do great things with the students so why put a negative on here inspirational movie .Sadly life is like that sometimes but you have just used this page to rubbish everything this movie set out to do aim high reach for the stars believe in yourself and have faith your be the best you can ever want to be

  2. Finally a great movie, no mayhem, no killing, no swearing, no hanging boobs..this puts some of the other lollywood trash where it belongs… In the trash…..

  3. Excellent movie. Our family has watched it three nights in a row. Excellent, no trash or language. I wish it had told a little more about the truth of Blanco and who he was and why he was there. We all have opportunities to inspire every person we meet every day.

    It reminds me of another good one, Glory Road. Good men and woman can make a huge difference in the lives of others.

  4. GREAT GREAT GREAT MOVIE! I love it so much…these are people we need the HARD WORKING MEXICANS in this country! those boys were heroes to many. Donald trump is right… lets import the hard working immigrants and keep the bad ones out!

  5. This was the best of the best. Well acted and tremendously inspirational. I want all of my. Grandchildren to see this wonderful film. The message is so clear, never give up, even when the odds are against you. . It’s also a testament to parents, don’t lower the bar for your kids, always aim higb.

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