Officer Valles, Vice Principal Diaz were part of film’s 1987 McFarland team
By Don Chaddock, InsideCDCR editor
Two California prison employees credit their high school running coach with helping them become the men they are today. Their stories are among those told in the new Disney film, “McFarland USA.”
Based on a true story, the film follows the championship-winning 1987 McFarland High School track team. Two of those runners work behind the walls of two California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation facilities in Kern Valley. The film was shot on location in McFarland in fall 2013 and stars Kevin Costner as coach Jim White.
Thomas Valles, the top runner at the time the movie is set, traded in his track uniform for a uniform of another sort. Today he’s a Correctional Officer at Kern Valley State Prison. In the film, he’s played by Carlos Pratts.
“I had a chance to meet Carlos Pratts and tell him what my kids were doing and my involvement in the community to this day,” said Valles.
David Diaz, who was recently interviewed by Telemundo and other TV news stations about his time on the team, is a Supervisor of Academic Instruction at North Kern State Prison. He’s the education program’s vice principal.
Hollywood comes to McFarland
McFarland isn’t a large town, claiming around 13,000 residents in 2014. In 1990, the population was less than 7,500.
“(The movie) has been a long time coming,” Diaz said. “McFarland has been known as a top running community. Disney signed the movie back in 1999.”
Having a bit of Hollywood in McFarland was exciting, according to Diaz.
“Some of the filming was at the high school or in and around the McFarland area,” he said. “We were able to meet Kevin Costner, Maria Bello, the director Niki Carro and producer Gordon Gray. We were able to meet the actors who portrayed the runners and the whole bunch.”
He said the town’s residents got a kick out of all the activity.
“(The actors and film crew) were there approximately 10 days. It was a total blast to have had our little town of McFarland experience that whole process,” Diaz said. “Think about it – Disney and all of its force was in our humble town and we were able to get up close to them. What an unbelievable opportunity it was.”
Diaz said there were a lot of false starts for the movie so to finally have it completed and ready for release means a lot for those in the town.
“We’re excited and humbled and a little overwhelmed,” Diaz said. “We’re just the little town of McFarland so we’re blessed to have this thing happening.”
“I think the movie brings a lot of pride to the community. For a small town, predominantly Hispanic, for a story to come out about a team of cross country runners who are still involved in the community of McFarland – whether we are teachers or runners or coaches – is a good thing,” Valles said.
Coach deserves credit
Valles and Diaz credit their coach with helping shape them into the men they are today.
“Who we were (back then), and who we are today, is because of (coach) Jim White,” Diaz said. “We want to carry the torch of what he taught us.”
Valles said the coach’s guidance helped shaped them as men.
“He helped us set our sights on something, to take college courses and to strive for a career for our futures and our families,” he said.
Running tradition is alive
Diaz and Valles are still running buddies. Diaz recently completed the 5K Fog Run in Bakersfield.
“I’m still active and I still run,” he said. “Thomas is the head coach of the McFarland Track Club for kids and I help him with that. He does a great job. We are real close. We still enjoy the whole running thing.”
The track club was co-founded by their mentor.
“The McFarland Track Club was founded in 1973 by Jim White and Bob Richie,” recounted Valles. “Mr. White started it with his son being on the team. That club has existed all this time. Mr. White also took us to meets up and down the state. If it hadn’t been for running, we would never have gone to those towns. Now, we take our kids out of state for runs, three to four times a year. We just went to Cross Country Nationals in South Carolina. It’s a joy to take kids. Our kids are involved as well. It gives us a chance to surround our own kids with good kids.”
Valles ran for the club before he went to high school.
“The coach inspired me in different ways throughout the years. When I first met him, I ran for the parks and rec program. He told me out in the hallway if I ever got good enough, he would take me to run in the Track City Classic in Eugene, Ore.,” Valles recalls. “Two years later, he took me. Now, I continue to coach those younger athletes and David Diaz and I continue to take kids to that same meet, 30-some years later.”
How does the movie stack up to real life?
Before the film’s release, about 20 people from McFarland, many of them runners from the original 1987 team, were able to see an advance screening.
“Disney sent a special bus to take us to the studio a few months ago to see the final version,” Diaz said. “It was a fairly accurate portrayal. It wasn’t like when Hollywood does a based-on-a-true-story type of thing. There were some things which weren’t true or simply didn’t happen, but I was content with the movie as a whole.”
One of those not-quite-true sticking points is the depiction of his brother, Danny. A few of the Diaz brothers ran on the team.
“Danny is portrayed as overweight and he wasn’t even chubby,” he said. “But, in the end, he is the hero of the team. That did happen.”
Valles said while it is based on a true story, some of the events simply didn’t happen to the individual runners.
“The movie is based on a 1987 championship team but a lot of other struggles faced by other athletes were put into our characters,” Valles said. “Now, kids doing labor and having to run, that was across the board.”
Cameo of the original team
Valles and the winning 1987 team can be seen at the end of the film doing what they did best – running.
“I went to two of the days of shooting. The first one they wanted to capture a cameo appearance of the original 1987 team running … with my teammates, with the coach riding his bike by us. This was back in 2013 and they had the current 2013 high school varsity team running with us,” Valles said. “They wanted to do this little run that was filmed… and we probably did a few miles for them to get this little piece. They did like 10 takes.”
Many teammates and townsfolk were also extras in a football game scene. Kevin Costner was there, Valles said, and they would move the extras from one side of the field to the other, to be the spectators.
Steps to becoming a Correctional Officer
Valles continued running when he was in college and decided he wanted a career in corrections.
“I was at the College of the Sequoias running and I heard about a prison coming open and that was in 1988. I went to the unemployment office and they were having a workshop. It was standing room only,” he said. “I was a few years away from being able to apply since I was only 18.”
His interest piqued, he started exploring the corrections field.
“I went back to college and sat in on a corrections class and then joined the class,” he said. “And that college class got me interested. I went to college for three years and enrolled in the Coast Guard since in the early 90s there was a freeze in CDCR hiring.”
When he completed his Coast Guard service, CDCR was hiring again.
“I went to the training facility at Galt in 1996. That’s when I joined the department,” Valles said.
He said he enjoys working for Kern Valley State Prison and has been there a little more than a year.
“My partners have fun with this (movie), calling me Hollywood or asking if I need an agent. My career started at Soledad in 1997. Then I was in the first wave who activated the Substance Abuse Treatment Facility at Corcoran,” he said.
How does he like his current assignment?
“Kern Valley is a good institution and has a great staff,” he said. It’s also very close to McFarland.
Valles said while he shies away from the limelight, particularly regarding the movie, he’s grateful for the coach and his running teammates.
“I’m proud to say I was part of that team,” he said.
(Editor’s note: Some websites may not be accessible from a CDCR computer.)
View the YouTube trailer for the film:
See more photos and trailers at the official Disney movie site: https://movies.disney.com/mcfarland-usa