The last time I tried writing a movie review, I was a sophomore in college. I barely have time to go to movies in the last few years, unless they are in the middle of the afternoon, and they feature animated characters that my kids would enjoy. But in honor of Academy Award week, I'll give it a try.
The truth is, I've been waiting for months for the movie 'McFarland' to be released. I knew the story about the small school in a rural community in California that built a Cross County power house that won a number of state championships in the 80's and 90's. The school is predominently made up of Latino kids who work in the fields before and after school, and somehow manage to fit cross country
practice into their already packed days. It's a wonderful story, though I was a little worried that the 'Hollywood' treatment, with a major star like Kevin Costner might sell the story short. Thankfully, it did just the opposite.
After seeing the previews, I had a pretty good feeling this was going to be a special movie. And I could relate to on several levels. So I made plans to watch it in one of the first showings on the day it was released, Friday. I saw it at the York Theater in Elmhurst, a town that knows a few things about high school cross country. The York high school team has won a couple dozen Illinois state championships since the 70's. And it turns out the coach, Jim White, says in interviews that his role model for a cross country coach is York's legendary Joe Newton.
In any case, the film did not dissapoint. In fact, it might help inspire a whole new generation of young runners to try cross country. This story begins in a town full of hard working immigrants who have little, but share whatever they have.
When the coach moves to town, because he's been fired from his last job, he is there to coach football. But these kids are not football players, and the head coach doesn't want Kevin Costner's character Jim White, around anyway. But White notices some of the kids running to and from the fields. They seem pretty fast. That inspires him to convince the school to start a cross country team.
It's pretty tough, however, to convince the kids, and their parents, to give the sport a try. They are needed in the fields to help support their families. And the sport is new to them, and their school. It's slow going once they get started. Coach Jim White has never run or coached distance runners.
But the kids are blessed with an incredible work ethic, and natural talent that can't be coached. And Coach White studies up on the sport. Eventually, they start winning. In the movie it all happens in the course of one season. In real life it took several seasons. But, regardless, the team did win it's first state championship in 1987, and went on to win 8 more in the next 14 years.
The kids and coach develop a bond that is much like family. I can relate to that. After seeing the movie Friday night, I ran Saturday morning with my high school cross country coach, as I do most weeks.
In the State final, one of the top runners goes out too fast, and falls back out of contention. But the number 7 runner, who has trailed his teammates all season, rallies to have the
race of his life in the final race, the championship, and manages to pass dozens of other
runners, and finish fifth on his team. The top five runners places count in the scoring in Cross Country. It was another inspiring moment in a movie full of them.
It was also another moment I could relate to in a movie full of them. I was the number 7 runner on my college cross country team, and in my final college race, the conference championship, I ran a good race, and finished 5th on the team. It was the only time my place counted in the team scoring that season.
You don't have to be a cross country fan to enjoy the movie though. One of the best parts of the movie comes as a post-script, before the credits. The real McFarland runners, now adults, make an appearance running as a group, with text under each of their names updating where they are now. None of their family members had ever attended college before. All of these runners attended college. Some on scholarship. Most all are back in the community now working with kids. Running changed the course of their lives. It gave them better lives.
Hollywood can do nothing to improve on the true story. And I feel like going for a run.
See you on the roads.