Once John Kimball had everything he wanted, he started to wonder what was missing.
As a young, accomplished athlete and recent high school graduate in 1986, Kimball moved from Salt Lake City to California, where he found the waves and the independence he longed for. Although raised Mormon, he had no plans for a church mission, choosing instead to surf and work.
"I was kind of that kid who
wasn't going to go," he said. "I was one of those kids who had to touch the stove before I learned."
Kimball was content, but it didn't last. He remembers being in a restaurant one day when he started doing some "soul searching" and walked right into a jarring thought — that this happiness was temporary.
He then thought of two influential people he knew who were always happy regardless of circumstances. Both had something he didn't.
The men were his father, Jim Kimball, and his former rugby coach, Larry Gelwix. The missing element was the gospel.
"It was something that I'd never really given a try," Kimball said.
In a true leap of faith, Kimball eventually decided to serve a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While speaking at his farewell, he told the congregation that he didn't know if the church was true or not, but he intended to find out. Now more than two decades later, Kimball says the gospel is "burned" onto his soul.
To this day, he remembers a quote from his former coach that helped form that imprint. Gelwix once told him, "You have two years to serve the Lord, and the rest of your life to think about it."
"It stuck with me my whole life," he said.
Kimball's story is one of many to emerge from Highland Rugby, which for 34 seasons has been making an impact on numerous fields. A program that has churned out 19 national championships has also produced company presidents, college graduates, fathers and returned missionaries who learned life lessons from a demanding coach who was also their friend.
For the competitive yet affable Gelwix, seeing players like Kimball succeed away from rugby is the most meaningful reward.
"That's the payday," Gelwix said, "when you see them grow up and make good decisions."
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Rugby is unrelenting, and Highland is usually the team left standing.
Kimball doesn't know of any sport that's more physically demanding than this one, which combines sustained running with "getting your block knocked off."
But Gelwix's teams tend to endure — and win. Since the program was instituted, Highland Rugby has compiled a varsity record of 392-9. The club clinched its most recent national championship May 16 in Pittsburgh.
Gelwix runs a program that he calls "very difficult," both emotionally and physically. The players must adhere to a set of rules that are non-negotiable and include, among other things, avoiding alcohol, tobacco and drugs. The conditioning program is demanding, and players are constantly moving in practice to get in adequate work — or "reps."
"We stretch the kids beyond what they think they can do," Gelwix said.
But even in this bruising contact sport, Highland's coaching philosophy isn't about conflict — it's about relationships.
Gelwix doesn't believe in negative motivation or intimidating players by yelling and screaming. Instead, he tries to "capture" their hearts. Otherwise, "they will not be standing with you."
Several of Gelwix's former players say getting hold of their hearts was simply a matter of time.
Kimball, who is now the senior vice president of business operations for Real Salt Lake, says Gelwix "earned the right to have me really listen and pay attention to him by investing time.
"It wasn't just me," Kimball said. "I thought I was special. Come to find out he was doing the same thing with 30 other kids. He made everyone feel like he was their best friend."
Matthew Cole, president of Bluestreak Sports Training in Stamford, Conn., played for Highland from 1996 to 2000. He says Gelwix acted as a father figure after his parents' divorce.
Cole remembers Gelwix pulling him aside for a talk after his freshman season and encouraging him to work hard and withstand the temptations that would come his way over the summer.
"I'd never had a coach like that," Cole said. "He cared more about you as a person than he did as a player."
Highland's team rules are stringent and players are held accountable, but Mark Cook remembers a coach who was also flexible and patient. Cook played for Highland in the early '80s, during which time his father passed away.
"Suddenly, I had to work a lot and I couldn't make it to every practice and I couldn't even make it to every game because of this new life schedule that was thrust upon me," said Cook, who now works in sales consulting for the corporate side of O.C. Tanner. "He was very understanding."
Cook says that whenever a player needed to talk, Gelwix would walk a few yards away and say "step into my office." To this day, the coach tries to meet with each team member one-on-one during the season, and it's usually not about rugby.
Being both a friend and coach is not difficult, Gelwix says.
"You love them and serve them first," he said. "When people know your heart and motives, they can deal with anything you say, including corrective action."
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For Gelwix, Highland Rugby has been a vehicle for teaching "life lessons."
It began in 1976, when Gelwix was an instructor at the LDS seminary adjacent to Highland High and also coaching football and wrestling at the school. He decided to implement rugby as a spring activity and found "personal satisfaction" in melding principles such as integrity, commitment and hard work with athletics.
"I saw immediate results," he said. "Sports can be the great schoolmaster."
Several former players say Gelwix has an inherent talent for teaching young men. They describe him as colorful, down-to-earth, genuine and humorous. John Schmidt, who is now a professional pianist and composer, says his former coach is "unusual in his ability to be an influence and be an example."
"Larry Gelwix had a gift," Schmidt said. "I saw him turn a lot of guys' lives around. … He spoke the language of guys that age."
Gelwix says he simply found a formula that works.
"I am not Saint Gelwix," he said. "I'm no Pied Piper, but this philosophy, I understood early. And it's built upon correct principles that work and always will work."
The team's principles, called the "Six Success Reps," focus on, among other things, horizontal leadership, discerning right from wrong, setting goals, realizing potential and having no regrets. Gelwix says they are founded in the gospel but applicable to all individuals regardless of religion.
The coach says that Highland Rugby, a non-sanctioned, self-funded club team, is strictly nondenominational. But Gelwix, a returned missionary and former LDS bishop, doesn't shy away from religion. He encourages players to follow their faith, no matter what it is.
The team has a prayer before each game, which is called "the word." Gelwix tells those who are willing to pray, "If you're a Catholic, I want the best Catholic prayer that you have. If you're a Baptist, I want the best Baptist prayer. If you're Jewish, I want the best Jewish prayer you have. If you're a Mormon, I want the best Mormon prayer that you have."
Because of the school's location, many of the players are LDS, and several have gone on to serve missions. Highland Rugby has been an influence in that area as well.
"If that's a boy's choice, I'm so happy for him because he's going to be stretched again," said Gelwix, who served in the Central States Mission. "And I believe that his Highland Rugby experience flat-out is probably the best missionary preparation that he will have. Because it's tough."
Scott Sutton, who lives in Salt Lake City and works for Simmons Media, still has a Book of Mormon that Gelwix presented to him prior to his mission in Portland, Ore. It came complete with a team picture and signatures from teammates, and for Sutton is a tangible symbol of what the coach is about.
"That's Larry right there," he said.
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Gelwix, who will turn 59 soon, refers to all players past and present as "the boys" — even those who are in their 50s.
"They're still boys to me," he said.
When filmmakers pitched the idea of basing a movie on Highland Rugby, the coach had some stipulations. Among those was that "Forever Strong" had to be about the players, whom Gelwix considers the real story behind the program.
"It is infinitely easier to turn out a championship team than it is to turn out a championship boy," Gelwix said. "And we're all about turning out championship teams. We love the competition. But we want to turn out championship boys."
Gelwix is competitive, but the 34 years he's spent as a volunteer coach for a sport often seen as obscure are about more than just rugby. They're about being the type of coach he never had.
"Growing up, I never felt good enough," Gelwix said. "I tried to overachieve to compensate for feeling like I never measured up. I guess I wanted to be the coach that I wished that I'd had, that I needed. I needed a coach to tell me I was OK."
Gelwix says he tries to keep in touch with his former players as much as he can, and it's been gratifying to see them make good decisions, overcome obstacles and achieve great things.
And he's still coaching them.4 comments on this story
Bob Nilsen, who played for Gelwix in 1977 and went on to become a Harvard graduate and the president of Burger King, is now president and CEO of Cafe Rio. He maintains a good relationship with Gelwix and says the coach will offer up ideas, praise and critiques after visiting one of his restaurants. Gelwix has also been a guest speaker at training and team-building functions for Nilsen's company.
"I don't think it's unique to me," he said.
Nilsen thinks Gelwix's motivation comes down to "good old-fashioned service." While the movie has put the coach in the limelight recently, Gelwix has been quietly serving for years without fanfare, Nilsen noted.
"I think he's done it because he loves it," Nilsen said. "He's found an area where he could make a difference. … I just think he gets a total kick out of doing it."