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Valles of Disney's 'McFarland, USA' visits Bonsall West Elementary


Last updated 11/6/2019 at 5:28am

Christine Eastman photos

Thomas Valles takes questions from children at Bonsall West Elementary, Oct. 28.

Special to Village News

"Imagine being in a rowboat. The goal is to get across the river. Sometimes the current is with you and sometimes it's not. You have to use those oars to make it across and it's going to get hard. But you have to do something or else you go backward and get in trouble." That's what cross-country legend Thomas Valles of Disney's "McFarland, USA" told hundreds of star-struck children at Bonsall West Elementary Oct. 28.

This was no ordinary motivational speech. This was an intimate visit from a celebrity who broke barriers to help his team win the first ever California CIF Championship in 1987.

To say the least, any team that came out of McFarland was the underdog and would be the last to be expected to place – let alone win – any type of tournament. Yet this would be the first of McFarland's nine CIF Championship wins after the long-defunct cross-country program was resurrected by McFarland High School's famous Coach White, portrayed by Kevin Costner in the 2015 movie release.

Valles, the fastest runner of the McFarland High School Cougars with a stunning mile time of 4:18, kicked off the event with a private screening of "McFarland, USA" at Bonsall West Oct. 27.

Cross-country athletes were invited from surrounding schools to watch this true story come to life on the big screen. Oct. 2 was reserved for a motivational speech for Bonsall West children that had moms swatting tears away and children stretching their hands high in the sky waiting to ask Valles about life, running and lessons learned.

After graduating high school, Valles went on to serve 25 years as a California State Penitentiary correctional officer, where he actually ran back into a fellow teammate, Victor, who had gotten into trouble. He's happy to report that Victor got out on good behavior and now leads a sober, productive life as an arborist in, yes, McFarland. Another cool nugget is that fellow running mate Johnny is now carrying the torch as McFarland Middle School's PE teacher.

This 'against all odds' story speaks not only to all children, but to children from disadvantaged backgrounds whose communities lack opportunity, have problems with gangs, drugs, alcohol and the like.

McFarland, California reflects North County's agricultural heritage being a rural agricultural town located near Fresno where cotton, sugar beets and potatoes are farmed. It's a place where parents are pickers and children are expected to run (literally) straight to the fields after school to help out. There are limited opportunities for things like travel sports clubs, ceramics classes, dance classes or music lessons. But there are many opportunities for hard work.

Valles himself openly told the audience of his upbringing in an impoverished home with an alcoholic father who abused his mother, a boy who had learning disabilities and says he became a serial drifter – bouncing back and forth between good influences like cross-country and gangs, drinking and thug life.

But that one constant in his life was Coach White, and Valles says of his commitment to remain in McFarland, "I'm still there because I want to be that one person for other children that Coach White was for me." He continued, "Coach White was the first person I remember saying, 'I'm proud of you.'"

Bonsall West girl talks to Thomas Valles about cross-country

Interesting fact: Coach White himself was never a runner, nor had he coached a team before. He had always been an administrator. So, he'd hop on his bicycle and ride alongside the boys while they ran.

So, how did this opportunity all come about? Bonsall West's sixth grade math teacher Cesar Guzman happened to be in the area, stopped at McFarland High School, tagged his location on Facebook and it went straight to Valles. Next thing he knew the PTA was raising money to host Valles.

After a 20-minute Q&A, Valles autographed posters and left the children with a final piece of advice: "Remember, we are all capable of more than we think we are, whether it's in the classroom or in life." Then he got in his car and flogged back to McFarland to make his high school girls' cross-country team practice at 5 p.m. and run 7 miles with them.


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