After a string of disappointing, dark and/or crass movies, McFarland, USA was extraordinarily refreshing. It’s the inspiring true story of a down and out coach who found himself in a town he didn’t want to be in, taking a job that was beneath him…only to discover there was nowhere he would rather be. It’s the story of his influence on the community as he took a group of kids with no future and no hope and turned them into track stars and collegiate athletes. It’s a movie full of teachable moments and positive themes…and it’s true (based on a true story, anyway)! Here are some ways to capitalize on those themes and teachable moments in the movie.
All things work together for good.
The entire story arch is a beautiful lesson in how even bad things can work out for good. Coach White lost his temper and threw a cleat at an insolent football player. To be fair, he didn’t throw it at him, he threw it near him, but the shoe took a bad bounce off the locker and hit the kid in the face. Coach was fired and no one wanted to hire him. He ended up taking the only job he could find in McFarland, USA, a town of mostly all Mexican immigrants who were “pickers”—they picked the produce in the fields. Just to give you an idea of the town, in his first cross country team not a one of them had a single relative who had completed the 9th grade.
His family didn’t want to be there. He didn’t want to be there. It seemed really bad. Until it didn’t. Within the year, his family had fallen in love with the town. It felt like home in a way no place ever had, despite the fact that they were pretty much the only “Whites” in town (his last name was a little ironic). At the end of the year, when other job opportunities came knocking, he turned them down. In fact, he has since retired, but still lives in McFarland.
The Bible says that “God causes all things to work together for the good of those who love Him and are called according to His purposes” (Romans 8:28). The Bible is full of examples where God takes things that seem to be really bad and uses them for good. Joseph is one of my favorite examples. He was sold into slavery, falsely accused, imprisoned, you name it. But in the end, he tells his brothers who sold him into slavery that even though they meant to harm him, God used it all for good (so he forgave them) (Genesis 5:20). McFarland is just another example of something that seemed bad but turned out to be a good thing in the end.
- It seemed like moving to McFarland was a bad thing for the Whites, but how did it turn out? Have you ever had something that seemed like a bad thing to you at the time, turn out to be a good thing in the end?
- God says He can work anything out for the good. Do you believe that? What circumstances in your life seem like bad things right now? Can you trust that God can use them for good?
Everyone matters…even your last place runner
They needed seven runners to make a cross country team. They had six good runners… six good runners and a chubby-ish kid named Danny Diaz. Danny was a happy-go-lucky kind of kid who was just glad to be a part of the team. He was far happier to be part of the team than some of the team members were to have him on the team. They teased him a little, but Coach White kept telling him he was needed. He understood something about teamwork, and maybe he saw something special in Danny Diaz. “You’re my anchor,” he told him, “and not just because you’re fat. I mean, you are a little fat, but… you’re important.” Danny needed to know that he wasn’t just needed because they had to have a seventh to have a team. His scores were needed. His performance was a vital component to the team’s success. He was their anchor—not just because he was weighty, or because he was dragging them down or holding them back…he was their anchor because he was steady. Danny Diaz was staid and true. He was the engine that could.
Danny wasn’t the fastest. In fact, he was the slowest. But he kept at it. He never quit. He ran and he ran and he ran, in his steady, slow pace. He was faithful and true. The team needed his constancy, just as it needed his example of discipline and determination and faithfulness. We could all take a lesson from Danny’s character.
But there’s more to Danny’s story. In their state meet, one of the runners broke out too fast. Everyone warned him to slow down, but he didn’t listen, and he burned up all his energy. It wasn’t long before he started falling behind. They had counted on him to come in towards the front of the pack. The team had counted on his scores, but it was obvious early on he wasn’t going to help the team…in fact, he was likely going to hurt the team. When Danny saw his team mate falling behind…even behind himself…he knew that it was up to him to make up those points for his team. So slow, chubby-ish Danny Diaz kicked it into gear and busted his butt, passing runner after runner in the final stretch, making up the points his teammate had lost. Covering for not only his teammate, but for the team as a whole.
Danny didn’t win the race that day, but he did win the competition for his team—it was because of his performance that the Cougars won state. That same boy that they teased, that some of the guys didn’t think belonged on the team—he was the difference maker for them that day.
So there are several lessons to be learned from Danny Diaz. Everyone matters, for starters. Had the coach (or the team) not invested in making Danny the best he could be, they would have lost that day. He may not have been the best on the team, but the team needed his best…and for that to happen, Danny had to know that he (and his best) mattered.
Another great lesson is that you don’t have to be the best or the first to be a difference maker. In fact, in this case, the biggest difference maker was the slowest!
Perhaps the lesson that impresses me the most is that love covers over a multitude of wrongs (Proverbs 10:12, 1 Peter 4:8). That’s how the Bible puts it, anyway. When their teammate messed up, when he wouldn’t listen and ran too fast, then ran out of energy and fell behind, the other teammates covered for him. They worked even harder to make up for his mistakes. They didn’t get angry. They didn’t yell or accuse him, blame or shame him. They just covered for him. And in that sense, because they responded in love, his failure was a blessing to them. It helped them because it gave them reason to work harder, to run faster. When love covers over a wrong, everyone is blessed, the one who did the wrong, and those whose love covers the wrong.
- Do you play team sports? If so, are you the star or are you a Danny Diaz? How hard is it to feel like the Danny Diaz’s on the team are important?
- Do you feel like you have to be the best in order to make a difference?
- How did their teammate’s failure help them all succeed even more?
- When someone fails you, what is your normal response? How hard is it to love someone and “cover over” their wrongs? Are you more likely to cover over an offense, or to highlight it and draw attention to it? Which do you think is a more effective response?
Blessed because they’ve suffered.
The “pickers” didn’t feel very blessed. They had to work harder than anyone. They got up before dawn to go work in the fields, picking produce. They returned after school to pick some more. Life was hard. Really hard. They were poor and their families were uneducated. When they went to track meets, the other schools had kids who focused on running. They had specialized coaches and shoes and uniforms. The pickers had discount shoes and cheap uniforms. They didn’t have specialized coaches—their school had never even had a cross country team until that year. They felt like they were underprivileged as people and as runners.
Coach White saw it differently. “They haven’t got what you’ve got. They don’t get up at dawn and work in the fields, and then go out again after school, and then come out to run 8-10 miles with me. These kids can’t even imagine what you do…. You guys are superhuman… You have strength they can’t imagine.” He saw the truth—everything that had seemed to work against them was actually working for them. All those hardships were making them stronger. They had more heart and grit and determination than any of those “privileged” kids.
Stories like this help us understand how Paul can write that God can work all things out for good (Romans 8:28). They help us understand how Jesus can say, “Blessed are those who suffer” (Matthew 5:10). Suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and hope (Romans 5:3-4). Similarly, in James 1:2-4, we see that trials produce endurance (steadfastness) which eventually makes us “mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” We all want to be awesome. We all want to be strong and successful and yet, not many of us want to suffer. The thing is, suffering is the best, most sure route to the kind of character, strength and endurance we need in life if we are going to be awesome at anything.
- What things did the pickers feel set them at a disadvantage? How did those same things actually work for good in their lives?
- What are the things you feel put you at a disadvantage? How might that become a strength for you?
- Have you ever had something bad happen that actually turned out to be a good thing in the end?
Spending a day in their shoes, incarnate.
When Coach White came to McFarland, he knew nothing of its people. He didn’t understand their struggles or their way of life. They kept reminding him of this. “You don’t understand.” “You wouldn’t understand.” Being a crop picker was a way of life, a hard way of life, and it was one that Coach White didn’t understand…until…
Coach White took a Saturday and volunteered to work alongside the pickers, alongside his students and their parents, picking produce from the fields. It was backbreaking labor…a labor he was unaccustomed to. It wasn’t long before his back spasmed and he had to rest, but he kept at it…all. Day. Long. At the end of that day, he’d earned the respect of the pickers, but he’d also gained a wealth of understanding and compassion for his kids and the life they led. He began to understand their mentality, their struggles, their strength. It was a life-changing day for Coach White…and for his students. After that day, they and their parents, were more willing to listen to what he had to say. They no longer complained that he didn’t or wouldn’t or couldn’t understand. They knew that he did understand, at least a little, because he’d lived a day in their shoes. They also knew that he loved him because he was willing to spend a day in their shoes. No one had ever done that before. No one chose to be a picker! But Coach White did, and that meant something to those boys and their families. It meant that he loved them and that he could understand.
What Coach White did is something Christians refer to as “incarnate,” in flesh. He became one of them in the flesh, so to speak. It’s what Jesus did for us when he left his cushy life in Heaven, put on human flesh and lived among us. He did it because he loved us. He did it so that we could never say that He doesn’t, can’t or won’t understand. He does understand. He was tested just as we are and he suffered just as we do. There’s nothing we go through that He doesn’t understand, intimately, because he was God, incarnate.
- How important was it to those boys and their families that Coach White understand their life? How did it change things when Coach White worked as a picker for a day? (For Coach White, and for the pickers, both?)
- Have you ever spent a day in someone else’s shoes so you could understand them?
- Have you ever felt like God couldn’t understand your life and struggles?
- What difference does it make to you that God came to earth and lived as a man? (Think about it in this context!)