Now you can find this movie on Disney Plus!

Story By A Govea


“I really knew nothing about McFar- land’s success or their first title. I just knew I loved to compete but football was my sport. Mr. Lopez and I were discussing the history surrounding the story and the quite good, inspiring, exciting movie, McFarland, USA. Ruben Ozuna, McFarland High coach Jim White’s assistant, got Joel Lopez involved in running. Although not portrayed in the movie about the Southern California school and Jim White, Mr. Ozuna invited 8th grader Joel to compete in an annual relay race in Lake Tahoe. This was in the summer of 1993. And compete, Joel did. He went on to McFarland High, where he won numerous awards, such as All-League Runner, All-Valley, Most Valuable, among others, and he was the athlete with the highest GPA. I then asked Mr. Lopez about his relationship with the now legendary coach Jim White, portrayed in the movie by Kevin Costner. He noted that in movie Mr. White rode around in a what looked like a lowrider or for sure a kids bike, it was a regular beach cruiser, it became a tradition for the team to chip in and by him a new one every year.“ He was like a father figure to me. My greatest memory of him as a runner was at my McFarland Senior Banquet, when he called me his friend. This meant more to me than any award or championship.”

Mr. Lopez said he spent a lot of time taking care of Mr. White’s house, feeding his chickens and watering his lawn, when he was out of town. “I felt he trusted me and that meant the world to me,” Mr. Lopez said. And now their relationship has come full circle. Joel Lopez is McFarland’s head cross coun- try and track coach. It’s almost like a son taking over the family business from dad. Mr. Lopez’s feelings have not changed much; Mr. White remains a mentor and a friend. Mr. White now retired spends his time speaking around the country about how relation- ships contribute to success. Mr. Lopez admitted that his coaching style is much like Mr. White’s. “I challenge my runners to give me their best through positive reinforcement. I treat them all as individuals,” Mr. Lopez said. “I try to have a real rela- tionship with each runner; I treat them much like I would my own children. “McFarland’s winning has resulted in the team being moved up to Division 5 status, for much larger schools than McFarland. It translates into McFar- land playing teams from schools with five times the student population of McFarland.

The reasoning behind this required redistricting, as we would call it in Texas, seems too simple: Mc- Farland wins too often! Mr. Lopez’s winning teams have led to him being dubbed Coach of the Year several times in the last seven years. “At times it feels like a David versus Goliath but our team is up for the challenge” Joel said. Although Mr. White has con- tinued to be a friend and role model, another person has come to be like Mr. Lopez’s big brother – “and a role mod- el to our whole team,” Joel Lopez said. That someone is Mr. Ruben Ozuna.If we asked him for anything, and he knew it would have a positive effect on us, he would never deny us,” Mr. Lopez said. Mr. Ozuna was one of the original runners on the team, starting in the early 80s, not 1987 as portrayed in the movie. Mr. Ozuna went on to become Mr. White’s right hand man. But when asked by movie producers if he wanted to be portrayed in movie, Mr. Ozuna said, “No.”

I believe that speaks volumes about Mr. Ozuna’s character and what’s truly in his heart. He’s not unlike many of the silent heroes in our own community. Clearly, Mr. Lopez, his staff and, of course, his athletes have continued McFarland/White/Ozu- na’s winning tradition, not unlike that portrayed in the movie. How does Mr. Lopez’s students feel about the movie? “They were excited and proud, all pos- itives. As for me, I was also proud,” he said. “It also made me nervous and put more pressure on us to succeed.” The McFarland-area community voice a lot of pride, and the community has had something of an invasion of tour- ists since the movie’s release. Mr. Lopez said about 40 percent of the movie was shot on location, such as scenes on the track practice field, at the carwash and the store, a block from Mr. Lopez’s mother’s home. He said all the visiting actors and Disney mov- ie-making personnel treated everyone in the McFarland area with respect. Many of the actors came to the school and spoke to Mr. Lopez’s classes; Mr. Lopez doesn’t just coach; he teaches biology and has taught English lan- guage development. The actors who portrayed Danny and Victor in the movie were former students and runners for McFarland, in 2011 and 2012. Mr. Lopez was offered a part in the movie, but the offer came during track season. So he, not unlike his immediate predecessor, Mr. Ozuna, chose his team over the bright lights of Hollywood. Coach Ozuna is now teaching PE in Middle School and spending as much time as he can with his own kids. Some of Mr. Lopez’s coaching assistants and some McFar- land runners at the time of filming were hired as extras in the movie.

Mr. Lopez has taught all the subjects in the middle school curriculum during his 16 years of coaching and teaching. His teaching philosophy mirrors his approach to coaching: Build an effec- tive, trusting, honest relationship first and then teaches the general concepts and the details. The student and the runner come first; then come the run- ning and/or the academic subject. “The greatest lesson Mr. White taught me was have a personal relationship with each individual, and all else will fall into place,” Mr. Lopez said. Coach Lopez still has ties with all involved in McFarland’s success in addition Johnny Samaniego and David Diaz are his Compadres. In closing I decided to get a lot more insight on Mr. Lopez’s thinking, so I asked him the following questions; What do you think is the most import- ant issue effecting our community’s progress? “The ability for our community to work together as a whole” What would you say to youth strug- gling to stay in school?

“Find something you love or someone you look up to and spend some time with them” Learn there are ways to get involved in positive actives”” Take a chance on the good stuff.” What would you say to parents?

“Provide as much positive reinforce- ment as you can, spend quality time with your kids, have a lunch or dinner date with your kids and ask them, how they can be of help. “In closing Mr. Lopez said “Success comes in many forms. It’s not neces- sarily measured by how much money you make or how many championships you win. It’s all about relationship one shares with each other, It always brings out the best in us” (Joel Lopez has been married to his wife Isela his High School Sweetheart for 18 years and they have 4 daughters Grace, Sarah, Emily and Joelle and he counts them as his biggest supporters)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Skip to content