Man of the hour Larry Gelwix

Highland High rugby coach stays on top of his game

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 7 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

Highland High rugby coach Larry Gelwix, who is portrayed in the movie "Forever Strong," stands at his team's field Sept. 30 in Murray.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Larry Gelwix, the former LDS seminary teacher and unofficial Man of the Hour in Salt Lake City, says he is enjoying his brush with fame, and so it would seem.

He dipped into his savings to take his family to New York for the premiere of "Forever Strong," the movie about Gelwix and his Highland High rugby team. He attended another premiere in Los Angeles and still another one in Utah.

He has been interviewed by radio, TV, newspaper and magazine reporters from Texas, California, England, New Zealand, Argentina, New York and Chicago. When a local reporter called the other day, he was making the rounds of Salt Lake TV stations and had to check with a PR man to find an opening in his schedule.

"We're having a lot of fun with this," said Gelwix, whose cell phone vibrates every few minutes during a two-hour interview.

Gelwix is the real-life coach who is portrayed in "Forever Strong" by veteran actor Gary Cole. In his day job, Gelwix owns a travel agency. In his evening job, he coaches high school kids.

For 33 of his 58 years, Gelwix has coached Highland's powerhouse rugby team. It's probably inevitable that rugby, one of the world's most popular sports but no more than an afterthought in America, would have its turn for a movie treatment, since every sport from horse racing to cheerleading has already been featured.

Gelwix joins Don Haskins ("Glory Road"), Herman Boone ("Remember the Titans") and Jack Lengvel ("We Are Marshall") as coaches whose stories are told on the silver screen.

The answer to your next question: "I am thrilled with the movie," said Gelwix.

The project began nearly three years ago when screenwriter Dave Pliler and producer Brad Pelo became so smitten by rugby while filming a movie in New Zealand that they decided it would be the subject of their next movie. Despite rugby's status in America as football's ugly stepbrother, Pliler and Pelo wanted to tell an American story. After consulting rugby aficionados and searching the Internet, they noticed that the Highland club was the one name that surfaced repeatedly.

Why wouldn't it? In the past 24 years, Highland has won the national championship 18 times, finished second five times and third once. The team is so good that when they finish second, Gelwix is asked, "What happened?" Its won-loss record is a mind-boggling 379-9 against high school-aged competition. It is 48-17 against college teams.

Pliler and Pelo called Gelwix and requested a 15-minute interview at his travel agency in Bountiful. It turned into three and a half hours.

"That was the genesis of 'Forever Strong,"' said Gelwix.

· · · · ·

At that point, they didn't know what story the movie would tell. Once a week for nearly two months, they convened groups of current and former Highland players in Gelwix's Salt Lake home and, with cameras running, simply told them, "Tell us stories." The movie is a collection of stories gleaned from those interviews, woven into one season. All of the characters are based on real players, although some are composites of several players wrapped into one player.

To capture Gelwix on the big screen, they put a microphone and camera on him during practices and games. Cole also spent time with the coach.

"I was thrilled with the way Gary Cole portrayed me," Gelwix said. "Many of my players and their parents say he captured my mannerisms. Most of the things he says in the movie are things I say all the time."

In the basement of his Salt Lake home, Gelwix has a trophy case the size of a walk-in closet that is packed floor to ceiling with trophies and medals from three decades of rugby victories.

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