High school coach Jim White transformed his community through cross-country
The rains finally let up about 30 minutes ago, and a chilly wind now blows across the tiny central California agricultural town of McFarland. A group of high school boys in running shoes and gray sweatshirts crowd around Jim White as he climbs onto a bicycle. On a wet patch of asphalt, just down the road from the razor wire festooned fences of a local prison, they stomp their legs, trying to stay warm.
“How far we running today?” asks one of the boys.
White, 73, who retired from coaching McFarland High’s cross-country team a decade ago but still shows up for practices, scratches his tanned jaw, glances over at the team’s current coach, then shrugs his shoulders.
“Down the road a ways,” he says. “We’ll meet you there Then we’ll figure out where we want you to go.”
“Okay, White,” several voices shout in unison. The group starts off at a quick pace, laughing as they disappear over a hill crowned with almond trees.
To the locals in McFarland (population 13,500) – regarded as one of the state’s poorest towns – Jim White – known affectionately as “Blanco” – is a living, breathing legend. During his 20 years as the cross-country coach, he not only won an unprecedented nine state championships, but he managed to transform his community by training the young men on his team – mainly children of immigrant field workers – to run fast, work hard and dream of bigger things than picking almonds and avocados.
“I never set out to leave a legacy,” White, whose story inspired the new movie McFarland, USA, starring Kevin Costner, tells PEOPLE. “I just always wanted to do the best I could do and let the guys understand that they need to try and always do the best they can do.”
White first came up with the idea of starting a cross-country team in 1980 after noticing the natural talent of several of his students. Over the years, cross-country provided a ticket out of poverty to runners with talent and focus who were willing endure grueling workouts in the 100-degree-plus summer heat – often after putting in a dozen hours working in the fields with their parents. Dozens of his runners have ended up going to college or into the armed forces, then returning to work as teachers at local schools or guards in one of the area’s many prisons.
“Jim has inspired the kids here to reach for personal and career goals they never would have otherwise,” explains McFarland’s mayor, Manuel Cantu. “He’s got an integrity about him that the kids respond to, and it inspires them to move forward.”
Adds Joel Lopez, 35, the team’s current coach, who ran for White during the mid-1990s: “He’s just one of those guys who, when you are around him, you want to run hard and make him proud of you. He’s one of those rare individuals who makes you want to strive to be the best, no matter what you’re doing.”
Although the team runs year round, the most intensive portion of the training season begins in the middle of the summer, smack dab at the height of the Central Valley’s picking season. On those days, the temperature can often shoot up to 105 degrees or hotter.
Many of White’s runners would rise at 4 a.m. to head out into the fields with their family, often putting in 12 hours of back-breaking work before returning home to get some rest. Then, around 6 p.m., they would head back out into the fields. But instead of climbing rickety ladders up into pistachio trees or cutting bell peppers from tangled vines, they’d be dressed in shorts and running shoes.
White would meet up with them on those blistering hot evenings, point in the direction he wanted them to run, then pedal his bicycle as fast as he could to keep up. The workouts were brutal, but he and his runners knew these summer training sessions made all the difference.
He pushed them hard, he says, not only to make them physically strong, but to toughen them up mentally.
“I guess what I was trying to do is teach them the lesson that hard work will take them a long way, to try and get them to see that there’s a bigger picture out there,” he tells PEOPLE. “Some of them had this attitude that college is too hard. When I heard that, I’d always say, ‘Well, cross-country was too hard when you first started, but you learned to adapt because you learned to work hard and accept it. That’s what you have to do with anything in life.’ ”
White’s mantra of hard work paid off for his runners, who see him as something much more than a coach. “He was a father figure,” says former team member Johnny Samaniego, 42, who now coaches the girls’ basketball team for the school. “He was the first person to take me to a bowling alley, a pizza parlor or to the movies.”
Coaching, for White, who could often be found digging into his own pockets to pay for running shoes and even food for his cash-strapped runners, was a 365-days-a-year endeavor. “These kids are like our own kids and grandkids,” says his wife Cheryl, who tirelessly supported her husband with his coaching efforts over the years.
Even Oscar winner Costner was impressed by the man he portrays in the new Disney film. “Jim White represents the very best of the best, a quiet, graceful man who somehow let these kids know what was possible,” he says. “I was proud to get to play him.”
For more on Jim White and his team, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands now