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Doug Robinson: Highland Rugby lives on despite abrupt end

Published: Tuesday, June 5 2012 11:09 p.m. MDT

Highland rugby player Morgan Scalley runs while playing for Larry Glewix in 1998

Larry Glewix photo, All

SALT LAKE CITY —

Remember the famed Highland Rugby team?

Highland, the legend?

They won the national rugby championship 20 times and finished second five times in 36 years. They are to American rugby what Mac is to gadgets.

Remember them? They were the team started by Larry Gelwix, a local businessman and seminary teacher turned coach who began with six players, only one of which had any discernible athletic ability.

He and his assistants developed a culture that espoused respect, integrity, hard work, commitment, brotherhood and beating the snot out of opponents (but then helping them up, thank you). They changed young men's lives.

They were such a feel-good story that a movie was made about them — "Forever Strong."

Remember them now?

Well, they're gone. Done. As in they closed up shop. They vanished overnight, like Blockbuster.

It's a complete mystery. Well, until you call Jeramy Evans, a former Gelwix assistant coach and player. He can explain what happened — and then it's still a mystery.

According to Evans, this is what happened: When Gelwix was called last year by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to serve as a mission president in Fresno, Calif., he didn't know what to do with his team. It was his labor of love, his baby. He had built it from the ground up, piece by piece. It had consumed more than half his life. It had taken most of his free time for almost four decades. Who could run it as well as he had? Who could he entrust the club to?

No one, it turns out. He and the Highland board of directors voted to end it. Highland Rugby is now a foundation; there is no Highland team. If that doesn't make sense, let Evans try to explain it.

"It's hard for people to understand," he says. "It's weird. It's different. We don't understand. Part of it is pride. Larry created something great. He didn't want someone to ruin it. But I don't really know why he did it this way. No one knows."

Evans continues: "It had to end someday, but he loved it so much that he didn't know how to say he had to go. Finally the day came, and he couldn't divorce himself from it. It's very difficult to understand, but I believe he just had a hard time letting go. He and his wife had been doing it for 36 years, and it's a lot of work. You sacrifice hours during the week and your weekends and you're constantly thinking about it the rest of the time. He was ready to be done with it and this was how he did it."

As a foundation, the club will donate any money that it generates via donations or the movie, etc., to assist rugby in general, as well as Highland alumni. As a club, the team has moved on — to another team.

Most of the players and coaching/support staff have formed a new club known as Trybe. The club fielded 137 kids and three teams this past season. The varsity team finished second to Herriman in the state championship game and sixth in the national tournament. It wasn't a bad season, except when compared to the Team Formerly Known as Highland.

"We didn't want the boys to just go away and not have a place to play," says Evans, who is president and head coach of Trybe. "We had to come up with the new team."

Evans found himself becoming as committed to the job of building a new club as Gelwix had in Highland's infancy. He worked 20 hours a week with the team, in addition to working his fulltime job in international sales, practicing five days a week — or twice as much as many teams. It's the Highland way.

The Trybe also doesn't turn away any kid who wants to play but can't afford the fees. Evans and his staff find a way to put the kid on the roster, many of them subsidizing the players out of their own pockets (Evans himself spent thousands of dollars of his own money).

The new club espouses the same virtues as the Highland club, which brings us to the name. The players voted to name the team the "Trybe" — as in a tribe of brothers — but changed the spelling to "Trybe" because a touchdown in rugby is called a "try."

It is all a strange turn of events for rugby aficionados. Whenever the Trybe showed up for a game, there was some confusion. The Trbye was Highland in almost every way, except with a new name and a new coach. But Gelwix still has a hand in things.

"We were in almost constant communication," says Evans. "Larry is very supportive, as always."

Email: drob@desnews.com

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