Open Letter to Jose Cardenas, One of “McFarland, USA”‘s Real Life Champions

Dear Mr. Cardenas,

This past weekend I saw “McFarland, USA,” a movie about one phase of your life, growing up in the agricultural town of McFarland, California.

You and your friends worked in the mornings before school and on the weekends in the fields picking vegetables and fruit, just about the hardest (and most important) work anyone can imagine. Then you spent afternoons running miles upon miles upon miles.

A day later, I read in your essay in the L.A. Times that your State Championship race was “one of the biggest disappointments in my youth.” Your long-held regret stirred the nurturer in me, and although you are a grown man, a journalist, husband, father, and Army sergeant, in my mind you are still that high school kid, and I can’t help my motherly instinct to tell you how I see what you did that day, and what lessons you have taught me and my children.

You saw the film as being about your disappointment. I saw the film as being about your tenacity, determination, loyalty, perseverance, athleticism, and strength. The movie was about much more than a state championship race, it was about the people you became.

(Spoiler alert for movie fans who aren’t aware that Disney movies have happy and dramatic endings).

But let’s talk about that race. You set out sprinting, on fire to prove something. You pushed too hard; you didn’t last. Even that teaches everyone who sees your story to see these truths:

1. No one is perfect. You are a father. Your child will strive, and will sometimes fail. You will guide her through heartbreak or disappointment by scrolling through your youth, looking for a moment that fills your reservoir of empathy. That race is going to heal your daughter’s heart some day.

2. Keep going. You didn’t like your race performance. You moved on, kept running, went to college and graduated, creating opportunities that didn’t exist before.

3. Give others a chance to shine. Your personal disappointment gave another teammate (who, according to the movie, had nothing to offer the team but keeping his faster brothers on the team) his first chance to make a difference.

4. Try to see differently. You saw your “mistake” of setting out filled with fire and speed as failure; we thought you may have inspired your teammates to run faster, push harder than they otherwise might have.

5. Pace yourself. Sometimes we are overcome by adrenaline and ambition. We push too hard and flame out. It’s a chance to pause, slow down, get our bearings before we get up and go again at a kinder pace.

6. Have a team. When our fire burns out, we need friends to help carry us for a while.

I was born in a family where everyone goes to college. I took it for granted that I would go. You were born in a community where that was not true, but with the blessings of a great coach and other adults to point the way to other paths, you made that your reality.

You close your essay with this glimpse of forgiveness: “‘McFarland, USA’ suggests my teammates became winners in life. And by that measure, maybe I can let go for good the sour memory of the state race. A caption says what became of me, a sort of champ in my own life, too, I guess.” Mr. Cardenas, there’s nothing to guess about.

After McFarland, U.S.A. at the El Capitan Theater in Hollywood.

Apres enjoying the glamorous, one-of-a-kind El Capitan Theater in Hollywood, California.

P.S. By the way, these are me and my kids — two sons from the ‘burbs and a foster daughter from Guatemala — the ones you are helping me to teach that anything is possible if they work hard enough.