ROCKFORD, Mich. (WOOD) — As the sun started to rise over the water tower behind Rockford’s Ted Carlson Football Stadium, the start of 2019 fall practice came with it.

group of boys in athletic clothes walking down sidewalk
Rockford football players walk out to practice on Monday, Aug. 12, 2019.

The Rams trotted onto the field with t-shirts, shorts and their helmets strapped up to start another run. Everything seemed normal — with one exception. For the first time in 28 years, the Rams’ beloved head coach Ralph Munger was missing from the sidelines.

“He has never missed a day since he took over,” said defensive coordinator Randy VanderVeen. “He’s still here mentally, trust me. He’s thinking about it right now.”

Munger was hospitalized last week with a heart condition. He has since had surgery and is making progress, according to VanderVeen.

“Obviously he’s gone through a lot, but we’re very, very grateful that everything, the surgery went as well as could be expected and he’s on perfect time for full recovery soon, we hope,” VanderVeen said of Munger.

VanderVeen is now Rockford’s interim head football coach. And he is no stranger to how things work in the Rams locker room.

Man instructs two players on field
Rockford interim head coach Randy VanderVeen leads practice Aug. 12, 2019.

VanderVeen has been on the Rams’ staff since 1997, after spending 21 years coaching and teaching for Grand Rapids Public Schools. He’s also coached Rockford girls’ track since 2000.

VanderVeen said because everyone is invested in the system Munger has instituted for so long, team operations are still normal without him, from a football standpoint.

“Our comfort zone is right out here,” VanderVeen said pointing towards the field where players are warming up. “We want to keep things going exactly how they’ve been.”

This season marks the 40th overall that Munger has coached in the high school ranks. He spent his first 12 seasons in Frankenmuth prior to his arrival in West Michigan.

The veteran coach’s numbers speak for themselves. Munger has managed his teams to a 327-107 overall record, which puts him sixth on the list of all-time head coaches in Michigan. In the Grand Rapids area, no one has more wins on their resume.

players begin running down field
The Rockford Rams practice Aug. 12, 2019.

While VanderVeen doesn’t know how long he will serve as head coach, he is prepping the unit to its normal high standards. The Rams have qualified for the state playoffs for 24 consecutive years under Munger. His highlight seasons include back-to-back state titles in 2004 and 2005, and runner-up during the state championship in 2006.

“I’ll tell you first and foremost, Ralph is an incredibly classy guy,” VanderVeen said. “He wants things done correctly all the time. Whether it’s kids in school, our program, no matter what it is, he wants things done correctly.

“I think others have seen what Ralph has done and they really respect him as a human being, not just a football coach,” VanderVeen added.

While the interim head coach hasn’t talked with Munger since his surgery, the message VanderVeen believes Munger would want the team to know is the same as it’s always been.

“Rockford’s Rockford. Be Rockford,” VanderVeen said with a grin.

helmet on sideline of field
A Rams helmet rests on the field during practice Aug. 12, 2019.