Christ has led 'McFarland USA' runner

Thomas Valles, who was portrayed in the 2015 Disney film "McFarland USA" spoke to St. Marys Memorial students and community members in two speeches on Tuesday. His message was accepting Jesus Christ during the rough times of his life.
Managing Editor

Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

That is the scripture Thomas Valles has known throughout his teenage and adult life while growing up in McFarland, California

Once a coast guardsman, police officer, coach and now speaker, Valles will forever be known as the man portrayed in the 2015 Disney movie “McFarland USA” starring Kevin Costner.

Costner played Valles’ cross-country coach and mentor Jim White and Carlos Pratts portrayed Valles. The 51-year-old Californian shared his life experiences, his acceptance and love for Jesus Christ and filled in some of the gaps that were not in the movie on Tuesday at Memorial High School. 

Growing up, the Valles household was a broken one with an alcoholic father and a mother who was beaten. Eventually, Valles’ parents divorced — which he cited was what saved his mother’s life.

“My home life was a wreck after that,” he added. “We didn’t think we had much when my dad was around, but we had even less when he left. 

“My brother and sisters made poor choices, my sisters started having babies at a young age — and when my friends heard about my sisters having babies at 13, 14 and 15, there was nowhere I could hide.”

White recruited Valles to run on his travel cross-country team and eventually be a leader on the team that ended up winning the 1987 state title. Since then, the program has won nine state titles.

As an eighth grader and with his parents still together, Valles said when he got home, his siblings were upset because his parents were fighting. Distraught, Valles walked toward White’s home when he came across a bridge and began contemplating his life to relieve the hurt he was feeling. 

“That night Mr. White came driving over the bridge and he ‘said Thomas, what are you doing out here?’” Valles recounted. “I told him my parents were fighting again and I couldn’t take it anymore. All he said was, ‘Thomas, Jeremiah 29:11, ‘For the Lord declares he has plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ That was the first time I had heard that scripture and Mr. White helped me through that night and he helped me get through a lot of things in my life.

“So the summer I graduated from eighth grade, I took that step forward to the altar call and I surrendered my life to Jesus Christ when I got baptized. And I made that step because knowing that I don’t have to be perfect, but I have to be an example as Mr. White was an example for me.”

After dealing with struggles off and on throughout his high school life, Valles remembered a time where he felt hurt again and this time he waited for a train to take the hurt away has he walked head down on a train track.

But Valles had an outlet.

The Whites. 

He found himself walking five miles to the next town over where Cheryl White’s preschool class is located to escape the pain.

From 1992 to 1996, Valles served in the United States Coast Guard where he was stationed at Yerba Buena Island. There he conducted maritime law enforcement search and rescue in the San Francisco Bay. 

“Several of my missions through my four-year enlistment was recovering jumpers from those two bridges [the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge],” Valles said. “Most people did not have the opportunity that I had for somebody to intervene in their lives. To let them know that their life is more than they thought. 

“I did of it time and time again by Mr. and Mrs. White.”

In 2006, Valles’ neighborhood had been dealing with a series of burglaries and a couple of men suspected of the burglaries lived a few houses from Valles and his family.  

Before heading out to a family friend’s cookout, Valles was going to confront the two men, but ended up in a shootout where Valles was shot multiple times. 

Valles said he had several visions in his mind as he tried to process what had happened after the shootout.

“I was praying to God, give me strength, let me get through tonight — this cannot be the way it ends,” Valles recounted. “Jeremiah 29:11, ‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ God helped me through that night.”

Since then, Valles has been involved as a running coach and has helped as a volunteer with White at McFarland High School.

Ten years after the shootout, Valles coached the son of one of the men who shot him, Gary Evens, but Valles forgave him. Two years ago when Evans lost his father, Valles offered Evans his condolences.

“I reached out and I shook his hand. This is the gentleman that shot me in 2006 and God forgave him that night. How could I not forgive him?” Valles said. “How could I not forgive him? How can you not love somebody you see and love Christ, which you have not seen.

“I rarely share it [that story] and it’s usually just to law enforcement. And in law enforcement community I have a lot of my partners who had a feel that they would have never forgiven this man and I told them that I can’t live my life like that because I know hurt, I’ve been hurt. 

“I felt hurt. … Even though my father struggled as an alcoholic — he fell short of being a great dad — I do appreciate he did give me everything he could with what he had even though his struggled. I am not perfect. I struggle as a father, I struggle as a husband. So only through Christ can we mend these things.”