Thomas Valles was one of the runners who competed and won the cross country CIF State Championship in 1987. While the Disney film "McFarland USA" depicts the inspirational story of the team and coach Jim White, Valles said it took years for him to come to terms with some of his struggles.
“I started this sport not knowing what it was going to do for me,” he said.
The story of Vallas is similar to the depiction in the film, except for a few details.
“He said, 'Jump in here.' So I did and I started running with this pack of runners.”
Valles began running with White while in seventh grade. He said coach White saw potential in him that even he didn’t notice and that moment changed his whole life.
“I was never fearful of disappointing my parents, but I didn’t want to disappoint Mr. White.”
In the movie, Valles is depicted as the team's top runner, who struggles throughout the film. Valles said that for a long time after the movie came out, he found himself in denial and saying it was all Hollywood.
While some moments were dramatized and fictional in the film, Valles says eventually his work as a correctional officer made him realize how his life could have turned out.
“They have similar stories as mine. They grow up in a broken home, there’s alcohol abuse, drug abuse, domestic violence and I realized, had someone not intervened in my life I would have been an inmate.”
That someone being coach White.
After high school, Valles continued his running career at College of the Sequoias and Cal State Bakersfield. It was thanks to his teammates and their encouragement that he finally decided to share his story with the younger generation, not knowing he would impact them the way coach White did for him.
“They come up, they shake your hand, well I had one young man come up to me and say hey you know I appreciate you sharing your story with us because you know, your story growing up back then is my story today.”
This weekend Valles will be marking a big item off his bucket list as he competes in the New York City Marathon. He will be running in order to raise money for the Parent Project. To support him and his team, click here.