Mark Nelson said he remembers the first time his Highland Rugby team played Utah State University.
“I was so afraid that we would literally get killed by these college players that I was physically shaking before the game from fear and apprehension,” Nelson said.
He said his coach, Larry Gelwix, seemed convinced his Salt Lake City high school club team could compete and beat USU.
Larry Gelwix talks with Vladimir Sosa, a senior majoring in operations management and human resources.
“The first five minutes of our first game were terrible,” he said. “Three of my teammates were literally carried of the field from injuries that included a broken leg and a dislocated collar bone.”
Gelwix didn’t falter. He encouraged them on and, after their “initial shock,” the team started to play hard, Nelson said. They won.
However, the real victories, if Gelwix is to be believed, happened later in Nelson’s life as he reaped the benefits from applying the principles Gelwix taught him.
“I remember him putting his arm around me,” Nelson said, “and telling me that he is expecting big things out of me in life, that I had the potential to do amazing things.”
Nelson said he went on to become student body president at the University of Utah, to get his MBA from Harvard and to found his own private equity fund and consulting firm, “Value Added.”
It’s not that Gelwix doesn’t like to win. It’s clear Gelwix is proud of his teams; in 33 years of coaching, his teams have earned a 379 – 9 record. He is quick to give credit for those wins to the young men he has coached. The USA Rugby association has held national championships for 24 years and Highland Rugby has won 18 national championships, placed second five times and third once.
Gelwix’s rugby success was the inspiration for the movie “Forever Strong,” a film that was released in fall 2008 and is due out on DVD in May 2009. Gelwix said the movie combines true stories from several seasons and puts them all into one season.
Gelwix has demonstrated that the principles he teaches generate results in the business world too. He is the CEO of Columbus Travel and former CEO of WinAir. Larry was one of the principal owners of Morris Travel. he and his partners sold Morris in 1995. He is the “Getaway Guru” on KUTV, 2 News This Morning, and on his syndicated radio program “Travel Show” airs throughout the Intermountain West.
Bob Nilsen is a former player who went on to become president of Burger King and chief operating officer of Taco Bell. He is now the president, COO and owner of Café Rio.
He said Larry has “the whole package” when it comes to leadership. “He is not an in-your-face coach, but he captivates your mind, your passion – you want to win for the man, you want to excel and you want to live a good life.”
Several former players told stories of Gelwix visiting them at home to help them work through hard times that had nothing to do with rugby.
“When players need help in their personal lives or with their athletic abilities or anything, Larry is there to help,” said Anthony Cannon, a senior at University of Utah. “I admire that a lot.”
John Kimball is now the senior vice president of business operations at Réal Salt Lake. He said he still teaches and applies what he learned from Gelwix in his work.
"The principles the coach taught make perfect sense in business," Kimball said. "He taught us to leave it all on the field. He taught us to be unified as a team and focus on a worthy goal. He demonstrated leadership by caring about individuals. If you could get just those three principles into play in a business, it would drive performance unlike anything the world has seen."
Gelwix keeps former players involved by asking them to write letters and send pictures to players who will be wearing their jersey numbers and playing their positions.
“He made me want to work; to want to sweat and die for the team,” said Andrew Carver, who is a freshman at Snow College. “It was an honor to play for this team. To wear the same jersey as so many before you have.”
Before major rugby contests, the team does the Haka, a Maori choreographed war chant on the field. They do so knowing hundreds of former players around the world are stopping at the very same time to participate with them.
Gelwix often says if his coaching were just about Rugby he would have retired years ago. He says he finds it most rewarding when a player tells him that, “You changed my life.”
“When you change one person’s life,” he said. “you change generations.”