LONG-DISTANCE RUNNING is pretty much the most individual sport there is. At least, that's where my head was at in the fall of 2010, when I was approached to write a movie about a high school cross-country team from the Central Valley of California, from the (literally) one-stoplight town of McFarland.
But while researching the project, I sat down with the Diaz family.
David, Damacio and Danny Diaz all ran for coach Jim White on McFarland High's first state championship team in 1987, a journey portrayed in the film, "McFarland, USA." To a man, each of these brothers credits his unique endurance to a childhood spent picking almonds and grapes in the massive fields that stretch out to the horizon in all directions from their town. McFarland has about 12,000 people, 95 percent of whom are Latino -- migrants who have found their way to the Central Valley for more than 40 years to work in agriculture.
The Diazes grew up with more than 10 family and extended family members all crammed into a small, two-bedroom, cinder-block house. Their foreman was also their father, but their true taskmaster was their mother. She was the one who drove them to the fields at 5 a.m., where they picked fruit right up until the school bell rang, and then again in the afternoons after school.
White -- played in the film by Kevin Costner -- wasn't from McFarland. In fact, he had moved 12 times before he turned 18 and wasn't sure he'd ever find a place to lay down roots. This football coach arrived in town and figured out that the work ethic and stamina forged in the fields would translate better to distance running. But there was something else, something less obvious, that would help create an athletic dynasty that would win nine California state titles within 14 years.
It was family.
White didn't just coach three Diazes. He also coached their sister, Delia, and three more brothers -- Diego, Dario and Gabriel -- through the years.
Before each season, White had to plead his case to their parents to let them run. Because, as their father told him in a line of dialogue that ended up in the movie, "Every hour my boys train with you is an hour they don't work with me. That's food off our table."
But the boys were committed to the fledgling running program, and White was a good enough salesman that they still made it to cross-country practice. They just did so at night, after seven hours of school and seven more hours of backbreaking work in the fields. Only then did they "get to" do 10 half-mile repeats at a 2:45 clip straight uphill.
If you've played any sport at any level, then you've probably sacrificed to a certain extent -- running suicides in basketball, Oklahoma drills in football. But talking to the Diaz brothers, and every runner for McFarland, I saw something deeper: a type of bond that forms only when people are pushed to their physical and mental limits. I saw when it stops being about just you, and starts being about the person right next to you -- whether in the fields, or at the two-mile marker in the state meet. For the Diazes, that often was their literal brother. But as the McFarland Cougars continued to train, and then started to win, and then kept winning, every runner in White's program became a figurative brother.
In their races, when they'd hit a wall on that last uphill climb, the McFarland runners consistently dug deeper than their opponent. Did that come from cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, proper running form? Sure. All of that. But it also came from a burning desire not to let their teammates down -- their literal and their figurative brothers.
In professional sports, team chemistry is massively valuable and nearly impossible to intentionally construct. The 2004 Red Sox "idiots," Gregg Popovich's San Antonio Spurs dynasty, or the European Ryder Cup squads -- all of these championship teams have won more than individual player valuation suggested that they should. For a general manager, isolating this trait is the white whale.
The runners of McFarland developed chemistry in the fields, yes, but in their own Latino culture as well. Family is especially important in McFarland, as it is in many ethnic cultures in this country. Nightly family dinners, Sunday church, festive quinceañeras -- these are vital community experiences to be celebrated and celebrated together. And these moments form the cinematic story of "McFarland, USA," just as much as the actual running does. There's a reason for that. Because maybe, just maybe, the community of McFarland didn't just influence White to finally lay down his own family's roots there. It actually helped him put up the championship banners that crowd the front of the school's gymnasium, just a few hundred yards from that one stoplight.
It's worth noting that when I interviewed the entire Diaz family, I did so in their large, comfortable house that was built by hand, on land that the family now owns. Over the years, the Diazes used that work ethic to put one foot in front of the other long enough to achieve success in agriculture, law enforcement and education. And despite never having had a relative make it past the ninth grade, all seven Diaz runners went to college.
As we sat in the living room of that house, I looked up at the high, wood-beamed ceiling at a hand-painted mural of all seven siblings running through the almond groves around McFarland. Their feet are in the fertile soil, their gaze is forward, and they run shoulder-to-shoulder -- right next to one another.
Grant Thompson is a screenwriter based in Los Angeles. He shares "screenplay by" credit on "McFarland, USA," directed by Niki Caro and starring Kevin Costner. It opens nationwide Feb. 20. He ran one year of cross-country in high school in Gainesville, Florida; he wasn't particularly fast.