‘McFarland USA’ runner to speak in Salisbury on Saturday

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 27, 2015

By Susan Shinn

For The Salisbury Post

Jose Cardenas has made peace with seeing his life splashed across the silver screen. Cardenas was a member of the California state championship cross-country team whose story is portrayed in the new movie “McFarland, USA,” which was released by Disney in February.

He’ll talk about the ins and outs of the movie, running and more as part of a spaghetti fundraiser Saturday night at the J.F. Hurley Family Y. The event is set for 5:30 p.m. and tickets are $8.

Cardenas is now a staff sergeant with the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Eustis, Va. A Y member has a sister who works with Cardenas’ wife, thus the invitation to come to Salisbury.

Ester Marsh, the Y’s fitness director and active with the Y’s Warriors track team, is thrilled about Cardenas’ appearance.

“Pretty much our whole team is going to be there,” she says. “We saw the movie as a team, but we also wanted to invite local runners and the whole community, too.”

“In California,” Cardenas notes, “the movie is a lot bigger deal.” His former team members are making the rounds, speaking at schools and churches.

Cardenas admits he’s had mixed reactions about the movie.

“I think it’s really inspirational for people, and we did come from humble beginnings,” he says. “We are portrayed as the underdogs, but that’s not necessarily the way you see yourself as a child.”

Cardenas grew up in a Hispanic community, and his team mostly competed against white teams. But his school had a long tradition of success in cross country, which is not how it’s portrayed in the movie.

“For years, McFarland had a strong running tradition,” he says. “We were a poor community, but we were not underdogs in the athletic sense.”

Still, Cardenas says, he knows how a story can change once it hits the screen.

“In the end,” he says, “it’s a Hollywood movie. We were state champs, and we did come from a poor farming town. The cornerstone facts are true, but the story itself is not necessarily very accurate. It’s taken me awhile to warm up to it.”

Jim White, portrayed by Kevin Costner, was the team coach. He was an inspiration and a father figure to the boys, Cardenas says. “We had the right principles and the right attitude. We were good Christian kids, and we put our abilities to good use. We went on to better our lives.”

Cardenas was a reporter for newspapers including the Los Angeles Times and St. Petersburg Times before joining the Army six years ago. Like many such projects, the movie was in the works for years.

“It’s been an emotional roller coaster, but they put together a very good movie for a general audience,” Cardenas says.

He’s looking forward to answering questions about the movie tomorrow evening, and to talk about what’s accurate and what’s not.

Marsh says she hopes the movie will help her runners understand that hard work pays off.

“What we do is nothing compared to what they had to do,” she says. “It was a real eye-opener for our kids, because the kids in the movie picked in the fields before and after school.”

Marsh says she also appreciated the scene where Cardenas took off too fast in a race — and hit the wall.

“It happens to all runners at least once,” she says. “Our kids are so excited about his appearance.”

Marsh praises local businesses for their support. Courtyard by Marriott has donated a room, and Cheerwine has donated bottled water for Saturday. The company also supplied soft drinks for a gift basket for the speaker, which also includes goodies from Catawba College and the Y.

“The community has been real supportive of his being here,” Marsh says. “I think it’s a pretty darn big deal.”

Cardenas and his wife, Melody — who has family in Rowan County ­— attended the movie’s premiere, and got to meet the actor who portrayed him, as well as Costner.

“It was awkward doing the red carpet,” he says, “but it was a lot of fun.”

His wife enjoyed it more than he did, he says.

And Cardenas still runs, but not competitively.

“I’m in the Army,” he says, “so I have to stay in shape.”


Freelance writer Susan Shinn lives in Salisbury.