For video footage of legendary cross country Jim White’s question-and-answer session with members of the Sierra High community, visit http://www.youtube.com/mantecabulletin
Jim White walked into the theatre unannounced, starting a quiet corner conversation with Sierra High athletic director Anthony Chapman.
All around him, students, coaches, teachers and administrators hurried to their seats unaware that coach White was, well, coach White.
That shroud of anonymity wouldn’t last long.
Soon, the lights dimmed and the silver screen sprang to life. Soon, a captivated capacity crowd would learn the full impact of a man who many knew simply as “Blanco.”
White is a legendary coach who turned a high school cross country team in a small Central California farming community into a state power. If you thought that was a mouthful, chew on this: His McFarland High School boys cross country teams won nine CIF state championships in 14 seasons, dominating opponents with better resources, bigger talent pools and fewer natural obstacles.
White and his wife Cheryl settled into the last bank of seats in the first tier of AMC Showplace’s largest theatre. He wore a McFarland polo and bright yellow running shoes that seemed to glow in the dark. He looked like he had just stepped off the trail, though it’s been years since he coached in that capacity.
These days, he plays to a bigger crowd.
Disney latched onto this story, plucking it from the pages of Runner’s World and Sports Illustrated and broadcasting it to the world. For two weeks, the movie-making giant turned its cameras and booms on the city of McFarland, collecting the images, personalities and stories that would become “McFarland, USA,” a box office hit.
On Monday, Sierra High found itself in rare company. Few can say they’ve watched a movie with its spark; with its creator. Yet, there was “Blanco” — signing ticket stubs in the lobby and answering a wide array of questions.
White was Sierra’s honored guest, returning to a corner of the valley that helped raise him. He graduated from Franklin High in Stockton and still has family in the area.
It was those familial ties that led White here. His great niece, Taylor White, is a freshman at Sierra High. That was the foundation for Chapman and White’s negotiations, which hardly classify as such.
Unfazed by Hollywood’s spotlight, White agreed to a private screening and question-and-answer session without compensation. He wanted to meet and speak with the families and students of Sierra High.
In return, administrators made it possible for about 300 to gain free admittance, finding money in a Friday Night Live grant to rent the theatre.
“I looked at it as an opportunity for our kids to meet someone who had an opportunity to make an impact on other kids. The fact that he has an athletic background makes it’s even more powerful, because we have a pretty strong athletic program here. I felt we’d have some kids who’d identity with that story,” Chapman said.
“We have a substantial minority population, too. I thought this would be another opportunity for them to see they can make it too, regardless of their background and the things they’ve been through.”
Talk about a return on investment. A $1,000 worth of tickets yielded a priceless experience.
While his head-coaching career has come to an end, White left the crowd on Monday with a few lessons — messages he hopes weren’t lost in Hollywood’s fluff and liberties.
White has gained a strong appreciation for the sacrifices the student-athletes of McFarland High and other small farming communities have to make on a day-to-day basis. In the movie, three of his top runners — the Diaz brothers — pick the fields in the early morning and again at night, working for their father. In between, they find time for school and cross country.
In hopes of keeping the Diaz brothers on the team, White immersed himself in the family and the picking culture. He worked the fields with the boys and developed a close kinship with the parents.
“There are two that are shown really well in the movie,” White said. The first is “the hardships the Hispanic kids go through. I think that’s shown well and hope they understand that message.
“The other is the kids and the relationship we had. I think he (actor Kevin Costner) does that well. I cried with them and I cheered with them. I went to their services. In fact, I conducted a wedding ceremony for (runner) Damacio (Diaz). I was the preacher. “
The last message resonated with every character, big or small, whether it was the life and grind of “picker,” a white family’s acclimation in a Hispanic town, or a first-year cross country team’s maiden voyage in a sport dominated by the blue bloods and deep pockets.
McFarland’s championships and community are propped up by the pillars of perseverance and attitude, White said. His legacy isn’t so much nine state championships or the mantle of architect, but the psychological impact he had on a community often passed over and ignored.
Through running, he’s helped student-athletes change their stars.
He taught them to believe; he gave them the tools to tackle every hill, real or metaphorical.
“I never even played checkers and tried to lose. So I didn’t have problem motivating myself. I just had to turn that into the kids, and you do that by talking about their attitudes,” he said. “‘Look at what you’re doing. You’re working the fields. You’re tired and now we’re running in the same fields.’
“That has to carry over into the classroom. That has to carry over into your jobs. That has to carry over into your whole life. That’s the only thing you can really control is your attitude.
“I preach that — attitude, attitude. Everyone has a problem somewhere along the line. It might be her. It might be with her. It might be your parents at home. It might be your teacher at school. Your job or your profession. You’re going to have difficulties in life. The key is 90 percent of that can be controlled by you. You have to control your own attitude, young people. That’s the key.”
They arrived unable to pick the man out of a crowd. They left enamored, his story and face burned into their memories.
For a few hours, legendary cross country coach Jim White ran with the Timberwolves, and many have the signed ticket stub to prove it.