Humble Champions

“I didn’t understand it at the time,” says Danny Diaz, whose story is told in Disney’s McFarland, USA. “He started prophesying that my name would be known throughout the entire world…. Little did I know, God’s voice spoke to him and told him.”

In 1987, youth pastor Saul D. Gonzalez took the teens from his church in McFarland, California, on a winter retreat. One evening after a moving message, Saul invited his students down to the altar. Danny and his friend Eli whispered every step of the way, stifling their laughs. As they shuffled down the aisle, the retreat speaker, District Director Johnny Mendez, noticed their playful behavior and walked over. “I want to pray over you guys,” he said. Though confused and surprised, they didn’t dare decline the offer. As Johnny prayed, Danny listened—eyes closed, hands raised. “Danny, your name is going to be known throughout the whole world,” Johnny said. Danny and Eli glanced at each other with raised brows and subtle shrugs.

Within the year, Danny and his cross country team became the first from their small town—stocked with prisons and almond fields—to win the state championship, and Danny Diaz became a little more popular.

“Nothing’s happening”

Danny received occasional media attention following the race—but his name was hardly known throughout the world. “Every now and then I would think about my name and think nothing’s happening,” he says. Still, Danny received abundant praise from his family, his pastor, and his coach—Jim White. “Our coach was always encouraging us, telling us we could do bigger and better things,” he says. Each of the seven runners went on to college—a phenomenon for McFarland—and many returned to McFarland High School as teachers and counselors. Danny became a counselor and spends his time encouraging students, just as Coach White did for him.

Years later, Danny’s friend and pastor Saul Gonzalez relocated to Bakersfield’s Cornerstone Community Church, and Danny and his family followed. “Pastor Saul is just amazing,” says Danny. “He’s been a brother to us, and I’ve really been blessed by his ministry.” Danny joined the worship band, along with some of his brothers, and his life gradually settled into a routine. As time progressed, Johnny’s prayer was nearly forgotten.

When Disney Came

More than 20 years after the 1987 team won the state championship, Disney came to town. They wanted to make a movie about the unique and inspirational boys, now full-grown men. “It still didn’t register,” says Danny, unaware of how the film would alter his future. But Coach White knew change was coming. “These young men weren’t ready for what they were going to receive at that time,” he says.

In 2015, the Disney film McFarland, USA shared their story with the whole world. Danny vividly remembers the night of the premiere and his excitement in seeing family and friends portrayed in the film, with occasional cameos from genuine McFarland residents on the streets and sidelines. Then the calls and the interviews started. People from Malaysia, Argentina, China, Holland, Honduras, Chile, Nicaragua, Russia, South Africa, and all over the United States. “And then it clicked,” says Danny. “I remembered like it was yesterday what Johnny Mendez told me.” “Danny Diaz” was trending on Google. The movie’s soundtrack included a song titled “That’s Not Danny Diaz.” Thirty years after Johnny’s bold and prophetic word, the name “Danny Diaz” was known throughout the world.

From the Fields

With each new interview and invitation to speak, Danny has wondered why. Why his name and his story? “I just feel humbled, really,” he says. “I don’t deserve all the attention.” But Danny’s humility is also his answer. “If a field worker can make it, champions can come from anywhere,” he says. Danny has used his reputation to encourage others, no matter their circumstances, and share God’s name above his own. “God chose all this for a reason,” he says. “I give honor and glory to Him for this opportunity.”

Today, the Diaz family and Coach White are still astounded by how God has used them for His glory. “I feel like this movie was in God’s plan,” says Coach White. “Now, these men can go out and talk to groups, churches, people.” God chose ordinary young men, plucked from almond fields in a town of 7,000, and He molded them into champions, ambassadors for His glory. Pastor Saul comments, “This story, if anything, has helped strengthen people’s faith in God and strengthen the community’s faith in God.”