Brad Rock: Highland's rugby coach Larry Gelwix readies for a new mission

Published: Saturday, May 28 2011 11:09 p.m. MDT

Highland rugby coach Larry Gelwix who is portrayed in the movie FOREVER STRONG stands at his teams field Sept 30, 2008 in Murray.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Through 36 years, 3,500 players, 20 national championships and a motion picture, Highland rugby coach Larry Gelwix taught — and learned — numerous life lessons, not the least being this: "I found that sleep is overrated."

Good thing for him that sleeping and dreaming aren't always related.

Gelwix wrapped up his long pro bono coaching career on May 21 with a win over United, giving him a national championship send-off. You can't say it was a fluke. Two titles are a confirmation, three are a statement. But 20? That's a decree. If it hadn't been for divine intervention, he says, "I might be going after (title) No. 21 and year 37. But no regrets."

It's hard to regret a dynasty.

From now on, he will be teaching and preaching the word, which is what he's been doing on a different level for nearly four decades. Gelwix leaves in June to become an LDS mission president in Fresno, Calif. The only difference now is that he'll have to avoid referring to zone conferences as scrums.

"I did not see the mission call coming," he says.

Hence, the rugby part of his life is done. He started out by throwing together a team just for fun, and ended up with a 418-10 record and enough championship rings for each of his fingers and toes.

Would he do anything differently? That's like asking DaVinci if he'd like to touch up the Mona Lisa.

"I don't think the basics would change," Gelwix says.

Strange part of this story is that it lasted. He had no clue when he began that it was a decades-long commitment. He thought it was something to keep the kids occupied. The one thing he did know was that it wouldn't make him rich. Being an LDS seminary teacher wasn't lucrative, but it paid more than coaching rugby.

Only six boys showed up for his first practice, five with no athletic ability whatsoever. (Now he has 200 players a year try out.) The talented one, a football player, had already sustained several concussions and had to quit on doctor's orders.

Along the way, rugby and Gelwix gained momentum. He went on to own one of the top travel agencies in the West and his club went from nothing to the subject of the film "Forever Strong," starring Sean Astin and Gary Cole. It was the inspiring tale of a devoted coach, a troubled kid and the struggle to live by principles, yet still succeed.

Now he gets comments wherever he goes, including Italy, where this week he took his final trip as a guide. That's the thing about Gelwix. The man has staying power. Even after he quit teaching and started traveling, he only had one speed: forward. Through the years, he logged approximately 30 hours a week on rugby during the season. At one point, he was simultaneously running his travel agency, coaching the team and serving as an LDS bishop.

That's when he discovered sleep to be a luxury, not a right.

As time passed, former players went on to become doctors, lawyers, journalists, investment bankers, business leaders and pro athletes. Among his proteges: NFL players Haloti Ngata, Stewart Bradley, Marcus Mailei, Fui Vakapuna and current Utah assistant football coach Morgan Scalley.

He even coached Jon Schmidt, a prominent LDS musician, who Gelwix refers to as "a smash-mouth rugby player."

Once during his long tenure, Gelwix considered quitting. Some kids in the 1990s started messing with alcohol and drugs — a clear violations of his rules. He worried he wasn't affecting those players for the better. But other players told him he had changed their lives, calling him a role model. So he stayed on until now, continually urging his players to be, well, forever strong.

He credits his wife Cathy and business partner Mark Faldmo for keeping him afloat. They worked the sails while he steered the ship. Now, he says he's ready to face a new adventure. He figures his old job was a calling, and so is his new one.

His rugby teams exceeded all his hopes, on and off the pitch. "Now," he says, "if (only) the missionaries in Fresno can make me look good."

It shouldn't be hard. Hollywood already did that.

email: rock@desnews.com

Twitter: therockmonster

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