Matthew W. Cole’s father wasn’t around much during Cole’s high school years. It was the late 1990s, and Cole’s parents were getting a divorce. It was a critical time in the Salt Lake City athlete’s life, and he looked around to find someone he could trust and in whom he could confide.
He didn’t have to look far. Cole found a confidant in his rugby coach, D. Larry Gelwix (BA ’74).
“Larry became a father figure and spent hours listening to me,” Cole says. Even during practices Gelwix would pull Cole aside and tell him to come to his office, typically a nearby tree, the bleachers, a lawn chair, or the side of his car.
“Larry is almost incomparable,” says Cole, now the president of Blue Streak Sports Training in Stamford, Conn. “He was and still is a powerful influence in my life.”
“Playing with [Larry Gelwix] was like having a seminary teacher as a coach,” says Cole. “Oh, he was still fiery, but he taught the gospel on the field in a way applicable to players of other faiths.”
Gelwix actually taught seminary during his early years of coaching, and perhaps some of his approach emerged from the classroom. As a teacher, he challenged students to wrap their lives in honesty and integrity. As a coach, he charges teenage boys to live the same values as they compete in a demanding and, occasionally, bone-crushing game with neither helmets nor protective pads.
“Larry always told us to have respect for self, family, and team,” says John G. Kimball (BA ’93), a former Highland captain and now an executive vice president of Real Salt Lake and Rio Tinto Stadium. “There were not many places instilling those thoughts in 16-, 17-, and 18-year-old boys when I was in high school. He was there for me as he was for the other players. Three years ago my father died, and Larry stepped in and was there for me.”
The First Monday in March
The first Monday in March this year—like every other first Monday in March for the past three decades—dozens of teenagers swarmed a Salt Lake City athletic field for the first day of Highland Rugby practice. As Coach Gelwix walked among the new and veteran players, his gait was confident, his handshake firm, and his smile easy. It was clear he expected another great year. (Incidentally, he got it: The team had an undefeated 2009 season and claimed its 19th national championship.) When the coach began his instruction that March afternoon, he used familiar sayings his players affectionately call “Gelwixisms.” He advised them with such homilies as “Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent” and “If I can’t trust you off the field, how can I trust you on the field?”
Gelwix moved up and down the turf observing his players. Some ran relays around the track. Others heaved lateral passes with a grayish oval ball about the size of a small watermelon. A pack of boys zigzagged rapidly across the field while others entwined their frames into a “ruck.” The never-ending activity reflected the continuous-play aspect of the game.
Several minutes into practice, Gelwix directed one group of players to a corner of the field. They were the All Blacks, or varsity team, and they stood quietly and listened intently as he helped them prepare mentally for the first game. “The team is bigger than any player or any coach, and we put our personal wants and wishes aside for the team,” he told them. “We sacrifice for the team.”
The values Gelwix instills in his team build a strong team culture. Reminiscent of BYU’s Honor Code, team rules require players to avoid alcohol, drugs, and tobacco. They also must live their lives honorably and be prepared for challenging, rigorous workouts.
The team rule is undeviating: “You do not do anything that would embarrass yourself, your family, the team, or your faith.” Players who violate a team rule are suspended, and Gelwix meets with the player and his parents to discuss conditions for returning to the team. If the suspension is for dishonesty, however, the player is suspended for the season.
Impressive as a 98 percent win record is, Gelwix’s success was relatively unknown outside of Utah and the high school rugby world until 2008, when a feature-length movie about Highland Rugby hit theaters. Its title comes from the Highland team motto, kia kaha, Maori for “forever strong.”
The film weaves true experiences of Highland players over the years into a dramatic sports tale. At the center of the story is a troubled athlete whose reckless lifestyle lands him in a Utah youth detention center. When it is discovered that he plays rugby, he is given time off to practice and play with the Highland team.
“All the stories are true,” says Gelwix. “They just didn’t all happen in one season.”
Gelwix first learned someone wanted to make a rugby movie when he received a telephone call from two filmmakers in 2005. They had become smitten with rugby while making a movie in New Zealand, where the sport is a huge pastime. Producer Bradley D. Pelo (’90) and writer David Pliler arranged to visit Gelwix at his travel agency, explaining that as they researched rugby, his name and Highland Rugby kept popping up. They planned a 15-minute visit but stayed nearly four hours.
One Boy or Thousands
The Gelwix legacy continues. Robert T. Nilsen of Salt Lake City, owner of the Café Rio restaurant chain, believes the reason so many teenagers yearn to play with Gelwix is because there is no limit to the coach’s capacity to love—and they love him in return.
“I was on Larry’s team the second year he coached Highland Rugby,” Nilsen says. “I remember thinking he was so old—he must have been about 25—and he gave me one of the great experiences of my life. Larry instilled in me a desire to achieve greatness. He cared about me. He didn’t coach by screaming, but used principles and values and friendship. He cares deeply whether it’s for one boy or thousands.”
Nilsen’s son Josh plays All White, or junior varsity, rugby for Gelwix, and Nilsen says Highland Rugby makes all the difference in his relationship with his teenager. “We talk rugby, love to go to games, and pass the ball in our home, much to the chagrin of the windows and my wife. I just hope Larry keeps coaching. I’ve got 8-year-old and 11-year-old boys just waiting to play with Larry.”
Kimball has a 13-year-old son on the Highland developmental team. “My son decided rugby was for him after seeing the movie. I’m thrilled to have him get to know this remarkable man. I would do anything for Larry Gelwix, and I know thousands of Highland alums feel the same way.”
Full story at https://magazine.byu.edu/article/forever-strong/
—Charlene Renberg Winters (BA ’73, MA ’96), BYU Magazine, Fall 2009