‘Dream Big’: The real ‘McFarland’ track stars share their story

HARLINGEN — They were migrant workers, struggling to make ends meet by picking oranges, grapes and garlic.

Thomas Valles, 47, and his fellow athletes from McFarland, California, spoke to Harlingen school children yesterday about the value of education and perseverance.

They relayed their own journey from migrant workers to star high school cross country athletes, which became the inspiration for a movie starring Kevin Costner.

“Dream big,” said Valles. “We were in your shoes. If we can do it, all you have to do is listen to your parents and teachers.”

They were speaking to migrant educators, migrant children and their parents at the Harlingen school district central office. They’d just finished addressing students at Harlingen High School.

One teacher in particular stood out in their minds — coach Jim White, who developed a cross country track team in McFarland and helped many boys in the area find a positive direction.

“He was like a second father to us,” said Johnny Samaniego.

Valles, Samaniego and the other five athletes became the California State Champions in 1987. Photographs from the period show a much leaner Valles, Samaniego and other runners in their red uniforms. The photographs identify them as the McFarland Cougars 1987.

So compelling is their story it was made into the movie “McFarland USA,” which also starred Maria Bello. The movie was released last year.

Valles and Samaniego are actually portrayed in the movie, which they said was about 65 percent accurate. They acknowledged the realities of making a movie which will attract viewers while telling the story accurately.

Several track teams over many years were combined into one year in the film.

Hector Duran played Samaniego.

“He came to my house trying to get it right,” Samaniego said with emphasis, appreciative of the young actor’s efforts to portray him as accurately as possible.

“People saw it and they said, ‘Oh, my gosh, that’s Johnny,’” he recalled.

Samaniego and Valles are now on a speaking tour which included Harlingen High School South.

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