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A Labor of Love for Boys of McFarland

COLUMN ONE

Racers sought 6th state title in row, running for their families, coach and poverty-battered town.

December 01, 1997|MARK ARAX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

McFARLAND, Calif. — Like so many dreams that come and go here, this one began with the harvest under a brutal sky.

It was a late afternoon in August, 103 degrees outside, and the boys from the McFarland High cross-country team had been at it since 5 in the morning. They had spent the day in long sleeves and bandannas working without words alongside their parents deep in the fields. They were spread across farms for miles around, but the toil did not vary.

They stooped and crawled. They knelt under vines powdered with sulfur and climbed high into trees. They cut, pulled and snapped. Up and down, row after row, the boys lugged the yield of the San Joaquin Valley--grapes, peaches, plums, nectarines, bell peppers and watermelons--until the crew bosses called it a day.

And now the sun was setting and the fields were silent, and they were going back into the orchards, this time in running shoes.

They stretched their calves and hamstrings under a big hay barn at the edge of town, 15 long-distance runners in T-shirts and shorts. Their tall, blue-eyed coach, Jim White, was spooning out drops of a herbal "voodoo juice" to rub away the aches.

"How long do we go, White?" one boy asked.

The group looked up from the exercises, awaiting his verdict.

He was seated atop a worn bicycle, his rickety ride through the fields, and he smiled a wicked smile.

"Until I get tired."

Summer after summer, the footprints hardly change. McFarland High's dream to bring home a state championship begins the same way: The families from rural Mexico finish another day in the fields and hand over their fleet-footed sons to Coach White, aka Blanco. And they watch as he leads the boys back through the fields, to championships and other miracles, too.

With runners drawn from farm worker families too poor to buy racing shoes, the McFarland High cross-country team has won five state titles in a row, a feat unmatched in any sport by any high school in California. They've beaten the rich kids from Carmel Valley and the surfer kids from Laguna Beach. They've beaten prep schools, suburban schools, Indian reservation schools and the big boys from L.A.

Now a new season had come, and the campesinos were gunning for No. 6, running not just for their families and the coach pedaling alongside them, but for this town battered by poverty and mysterious childhood cancers.

They ran past the alfalfa and kiwis and the smelly dairy with its 300 Holsteins and the ditch water silted green, first a jog and then a sprint. One mile, two miles, four, six and eight. From a distance, their stampede hardly a patter, they looked something like angels kicking up dust in the middle of the almond trees, floating on a brown cloud.

They ran 10 miles and then jogged back home. Over the next four months, through summer heat and winter fog on the road to last weekend's state championship meet, they would train 1,500 miles. They'd have run more if White had asked them.

This is the story of a season with the boys from McFarland High, their quest to reign once again as the unlikely champs of California cross-country. It is a journey extraordinary not only for their athletic achievement but for what they had to overcome to even be in the race.

In a town where so much has changed so quickly, the team's remarkable success is one of the few things people can count on. The old McFarland, a thriving little community pierced by Highway 99 on the outskirts of Kern County, has vanished. Gone are most of the Dust Bowl refugees and the small businessmen and farmers who built Main Street and the Pentecostal churches under mulberry trees.

The new McFarland, population 8,011, is something closer to a village transplanted from south of the border. Nine in 10 residents are of Mexican descent. One-third come from the village Huanusco, in the state of Zacatecas.

Families squeeze six and eight children into two-bedroom houses. Roosters peck at front porches, and laundry hangs from ropes strung tree to tree. The sons of farm workers who want no part of the fields, the Myfa Boys and Southsiders, fight over a pitiful turf.

Though it sits at the edge of America's richest farms, McFarland is one of the nation's poorest cities. And for two decades, it has been plagued by cancers striking its children. More than 20 youngsters, many the offspring of farm worker families, have been diagnosed with the disease since 1975--three times the normal rate. Seven children have died.

Government scientists have failed to link the cancers to pesticide contamination or some other culprit lurking in the fields. The mystery has left McFarland in a strange limbo, its main industry neither damned nor vindicated. To many townsfolk, the boys who work and run in the fields are seen as a kind of redemption.

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