GR Christian’s co-head coaches tackle unusual roles in unique season

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — With a piece of paper full of plays rolled up in his hand and sweat dripping from his brow, Kirk Sundberg let out a deep sigh.

The stress in his face was apparent, yet he presented a smile that suggested he was relieved. After all, his Grand Rapids Christian High School football team was back on a practice field in the latest development of an uncharacteristic season.

When asked how his team was dealing with the mid-August stoppage and then the OK from the state and Michigan High School Athletic Association last week to restart, he offered an analogy:

“When you’re in high school and you’re hanging out with the pretty girl for the summer and she kind of calls it off, you move on until she comes back when school starts and says, actually, let’s date,” Sundberg said. “You get that back and forth with your emotions. We’re excited but there’s a lot to think about so we’re trying to keep that mentality with our guys.”

Players, parents and coaches alike have been juggling those emotions in the off-again, on-again 2020 season. You’re told to go to practice one day, the next it’s taken away and shortly after you’re back on the field. 

For football, practice resumed Tuesday. The first game day is just a week and a half away. It’s a more unique beginning for high school football in Michigan than ever before. And for the Eagles, it’s got more added twists.

Grand Rapids Christian football practice resumes on Sept. 8, 2020. (Andrew McDonald/WOOD TV8)

Sundberg is joined by co-head coach Reuben Riley in the only varsity program in West Michigan to offer their style of coaching. Riley has been on the staff as an assistant, while Sundberg is an Eagle graduate. In the midst of a pandemic, both agree it’s good to have another brain to bounce ideas off of when making decisions.

“It’s not just one guy trying to figure out what’s going on, it’s two like-minded individuals,” Riley said. “It’s been a relief to have another guy to figure this stuff out with.”

While they team up at the top, they also have their own rolls. Sundberg is the offensive coordinator while Riley does a lot of player personal and game management. They also have a defensive coordinator in Alex Smith.

The two coaches replace Don Fellows, who after years at the helm of the program moved on to take over at Union. While Fellows is taking over a team with the longest losing streak in the state, he didn’t leave the Eagles on a down year.

Grand Rapids Christian just earned its second consecutive O-K Gold title while finishing 7-3 in 2019. Fellows left the school with a 80-30 record overall. Riley was a part of that success as an associate head coach, compiling a 31-11 record.

Riley is a graduate of Creston High School and the University of Michigan, where he played college football, earning an All-Big Ten selection in 2005 and an honorable mention All-Big Ten in 2006 as an offensive lineman. He played professionally for Carolina, Miami and Washington. 

Even though this isn’t how Riley drew it up, he’s happy to have the chance to coach this season.

“You have to be lighthearted, so I joke with our guys it’s been like having your foot on the gas and break at the same time,” Riley said. “We’re just trying to be consistent for our kids and have the right attitude and play wherever we can.”

Sundberg, on the other hand, had to move his life back to Michigan for this job. He most recently served as the head coach at Valley Christian High School in Arizona. In two seasons, he went 17-7 with two postseason appearances. Before his arrival, the team was 3-7 in two years. He also coached in Colorado at Valor Christian High School for seven years, where his teams went 83-13 overall and won five state championships. Sundberg played football at Wheaton College. 

While their roads are different, they both find themselves in a situation they enjoy: coaching a school that means something to both of them. They also have the same task in getting a team of high school boys ready to play in a game in less than two weeks of consistent practices. 

“Emotionally our guys had to check out of football. Some were getting part-time jobs or playing other sports just to have something to do,” Sundberg said. “It took a minute to channel the excitement and really come to grips with what (getting started) meant. Luckily I’ve got a partner who hasn’t been a wrinkle to work through, we’ve been on the same page. It’s ended up being (having two head coaches) the easiest part of the whole deal.”

Sundberg admitted to having late nights of planning for his team, and Riley has dealt with the same challenges. However, they are both working for the kids, and that’s what it’s all about. 

“They’ve been chomping at the bit all summer just wishing and hoping and honestly there’s still some parts for them that are surreal,” Sundberg said. “They’re looking around like, ‘Will we actually get to play football this year?’ So there’s giddiness, but we’re all still figuring this out.”