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Watching App State beat Michigan from the front row

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A few App State fans share their story on how they were able to watch App defeat Michigan in the Big House.

Seth Stratton

On this day 10 years ago Appalachian State upset Michigan in the Big House 34-32. This is the story from App State fans Ryan Ammann (@AppRy), Seth Stratton (@scstratton), Chris Daniels (@TheCADaniels), and a few others who made the trek to Ann Arbor from Boone, and were able to witness one of the biggest upsets in sports history.


Ten years ago, the greatest upset in all of sports happened. A bold statement? Maybe. But watching Corey Lynch block Jason Gingell’s kick to preserve a 34-32 victory over the No. 5 team in the nation (and all-time victorious program) from the front row in one of the greatest cathedrals in all of sports has blinded me to all other contenders. (Sorry “Miracle on Ice.”)

So how did five guys from Appalachian State University get the chance to witness this piece of history up close? Well, it’s a tall tale that gets longer each year.

Being that this is the 10-year anniversary, it seems like a good time to reflect on this once in a lifetime road trip that forever connected Boone, North Carolina, with Ann Arbor, Michigan.

On the Schedule

I got the call after just leaving my parents’ home for a Sunday dinner, and headed back to my apartment about an hour and a half away.

“Did you hear the news?” a friend who I hadn’t kept in touch with a lot since college asked.

“No,” I said, wondering what I had missed at dinner (these were the pre-smartphone days).

“HAIL! TO THE VICTORS VALIANT! HAIL TO THE SOMETHING, SOMETHING! Maize and blue here we come!”

“What?” I exclaimed?

“App is playing Michigan next season!”

I couldn’t believe it. Appalachian State, my alma mater, which had recently became just the second team in 1-AA to win back-to-back championships (Yes, I know Georgia Southern did it on three different occasions), was going to play the University of Michigan Wolverines – my absolute favorite childhood team, which I never really gave up being a fan of, even when moving 800 miles south of my home state to attend college.

My allegiances were immediately torn. I didn’t know how, but I WAS going to have to be in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Sept. 1, 2007. Not only would I have the opportunity to root for my alma mater, but it would be my first game in The Big House as well. Just being at Michigan Stadium to see the Wolverines “touch the banner,” to hear “The Victors” in person, to see that winged helmet—the most iconic in all of college football—with 109,000-plus would be a memorable experience.

I even briefly contemplated trying to put together my own Laura Hawk jersey … though thankfully I quickly came to my senses regarding that abomination.

Little did I know that date would nearly create a wrinkle in time and two distinct time periods – B.M. (Before Michigan) and A.M. (After Michigan).

Tickets Please

I knew I would be at the game somehow, some way. Ticket information for the visitors was still weeks away, but I had already scored probably the best sports ticket I will ever have thanks to one of my best friends and fraternity brother, Chris. His wife was attending a family reunion at her uncle’s house in Pennsylvania. He was a Michigan season ticket holder, but was not going to the game.

After learning that Chris was an Appalachian State alumni, he graciously offered his five front-row tickets so that they would go to use. And seeing as how his new wife wasn’t much of a football fan, he had four others to give away. Before he even finished his question, I stammered “YES, I’ll pay whatever you want.” My money was no good. What a friend! However, there was one catch. I had to wear App State gear and root for the Mountaineers – absolutely no cheering for the Wolverines.

It took me about a half a breath to stammer out “uhh, of course.” This was actually happening!

The Team, The Team, The Team

The plan was to drive to Ann Arbor from Chris’ house just north of Charlotte, with myself, Chris and our other friend, Brooks. We would then drive to West Virginia to pick up our friend Ryan, who was living in Charleston at the time (Ryan, a world-class smart ass, coined one of my favorite phrases when people would inevitably learn that he lived in Charleston – “No, the other Charleston” he would instantly reply).

And meeting us there would be the fifth wheel of our crew, Britt, our globe-trotting doctor-in-training friend who proudly repped the black and gold wherever he went. Britt was that kind of friend that you wanted to share those big moments with – he even flew up from the Caribbean to make it to Chris’ wedding just in the nick of time – and he wasn’t going to miss this game. He was in New Jersey at the time and was planning on driving through the night to meet us in Ann Arbor immediately after finishing a shift at the hospital. Talk about dedication!

We began our journey at Chris’ new home. As most of us were just a couple of years out of college, none of us really had a car big enough or dependable enough to make the 1,200-mile round trip. I asked, nicely, to borrow my mother’s brand new SUV. Our goal was to drive straight through to Ann Arbor, about a 10-hour drive.

What happened on this road trip has turned into the stuff of legend. And to protect those involved, I won’t be able to get into the details publicly. But if you know any of us and want to hear the real story, buy us a beer and be prepared to hear an epic tale. Just know that we didn’t arrive in our hotel room, which thankfully Britt had reserved the night before, until about 6 a.m.

We spent the day before the game catching up on sleep, picking up supplies and detailing my mother’s car (a victim of road trip shenanigans). Finally refreshed, we left for the night to show Ann Arbor how Boone, pre-games. We were kindly invited to visit the University of Michigan chapter of our fraternity and met up with a big group of friends who had also made the trip.

A group of us, about two-dozen strong, ambled down University Avenue, hitting up bar after bar to get an authentic Ann Arbor experience. Fueled with cheap beer and brimming with more confidence than smarts, we strolled through the streets late into the night, singing “Hi Hi Yikas, Nobody Like us, We Are the Mountaineers, MOUN-TAIN-EERS” (the beginning lyrics to our fight song).

The strange looks we got from the mostly quiet, bookish student body, turned plenty of heads. We must have looked like a cross between a bachelor party, a gang of soccer hooligans and the Texas A&M Aggie Yell Leaders – loud and obnoxious surely, but not a threat (both on the field and off).

Gameday

Can you recall a time in your life when you had a particularly memorable life event? Do you remember the weather? Do you remember what you smelled? There are few moments in my life when I can actually remember details like this. But on this first day of fall (meteorological, not astronomical, that is), I can remember details like the exact color of sky, the crisp hint of autumn in the air, and the smell of the well-maintained fairways at the University of Michigan golf course were we tailgated.

Having stayed out way too late the night before, the Noon kickoff was quickly approaching. We grabbed our mini-keg of Bell’s Oberon and met up with the strong contingent of Mountaineer faithful that made the trip. We threw the football between tees and greens – (Side note: Golf courses are an underrated tailgating locale in my opinion, perfect for a pickup game of football) – and chatted with nearby “Michigan Men.”

Not sporting any of the more recognizable colors of their rivals – scarlet/gray or green/white – we were a peculiar site for most Michigan fans. The traveling Apps are a small but rabid fanbase that loves to roll into town, take over a local watering hole for a couple of days, pump some dollars into the local charcoal and pork industries and leave fat and happy, usually with a “W.” This tradition of winning starts with the football program and permeates the fanbase. We have a certain confidence no matter who we play, we can hang with the best in the country. While Vegas wouldn’t even put the game on its books, the feeling among fans that morning was decidedly optimistic. We weren’t just there to collect a check. While most Michigan fans couldn’t find Boone, North Carolina, on a map, we knew the championship-caliber program that had been groomed under head coach Jerry Moore and his brand of easy confidence had matriculated to every player on the Mountaineer sideline that day.

As gametime approached, I met up with some high school friends – all either Michigan alumni or fans – that were intrigued but ultimately unworried about the matchup. After all, this was the Michigan team that was supposed to compete for a national championship – Chad Henne, Mike Hart, Jake Long, Mario Manningham. These were the leaders of the team that narrowly lost the “Game of the Century” the year before -- when 11-0 and No. 1-ranked Ohio State faced 11-0 and No. 2-ranked Michigan.

The Buckeyes edged out the Wolverines 42-39 in an epic game that came just a day after the passing of Michigan legendary head coach Bo Schembechler. Michigan came into the season ranked in the top 5 in the Associated Press’ preseason rankings. Just ahead of the Florida Gators, the Tim-Tebow-led team that just hammered Ohio State in the 2006 BCS National Championship game. So yeah, expectations were high – as they always were at Michigan.

The Playbook

With our seats being on the front row, we had stopped on the way to pick up a marker and poster board. Not being the most creative we started with a simple sign: “#5Michigan vs. #1 Appalachian Underdogs?” Appalachian was ranked No. 1 in the Football Championship Subdivision and Michigan ranked #5 in the Football Bowl Subdivision, respectively. For the second sign, we decided to be clever, but after way too much time trying to determine if “Wolverine” and “shine” rhyme, we decided to go with: “We may go blind from drinking ‘shine, but we love to feed on some Wolverine.” Did I mention we’re not that clever? We did have one sign that we made during the game, but I’ll get to that later.

The Big House

We walked inside the stadium. The largest stadium in the United States of America. A stadium that could fit about the crowds of about three-to-four sold-out, over capacity App State home games in one afternoon. It was epic – 100,000-plus fans, “Hail to the Victors,” the banner – and walking and walking and walking (did I mention Michigan Stadium is huge?) our way closer and closer to the front of the stadium. It felt like we were behind enemy lines.

While the rest of our Mountaineer brethren huddled together under the scoreboard at the top of the south end zone section, we were there to witness whatever happened over the next three-plus hours from the front row. We also were just to the side of the App State bench, at about the 15-yard line, giving us a great viewing point of any scores on this side of the field. We also were positioned directly behind the “Marching Mountaineers,” North Carolina’s Band of Distinction – an awesome description for our musically-gifted students.

Coin Toss

When App State’s captains met at midfield for the coin toss, it looked like a Biblical prophecy in maize and blue. There stood senior Jake Long, the two-time Michigan captain, All-American, future No. 1 overall NFL draft pick, all 6 feet, 7 inches, and 300-plus pounds of him, neck roll and all. And in contrast to Mount Long was Jerome Touchstone, App State’s cornerback – a full 12 inches shorter than Long.

As if the David and Goliath storyline was not evident enough, this stark visual was a reminder that yes, on paper, we had an uphill battle. Now, like David, we were about find out what kind of power we possessed.

The Aftermath of an All Time Upset (ESPY’s be damned)

I’ve never been through a game – let alone any experience in my life at that time – that so vividly brought out the roller coaster of emotions a sports fan can feel. I won’t go through the game snap-by-snap, as you can get all those sordid details here.

After the game, was an experience that’s never been replicated after a win by App. We didn’t really know what to do. We turned around to try to soak in a little glory from some of the trash talkers that were berating us all game long. But they were long gone, off to call for Lloyd Carr’s head on the local postgame show I presume. We tried to soak up as much of the atmosphere as we could.

Should we try to rush the field? This wasn’t our stadium and I’m not sure we would be welcomed by security? We wandered around the stadium until someone finally had the bright idea to finally take a picture of scoreboard. It was a photo I can tell my children and grandchildren about for decades to come. We lingered longer than we should have, and security finally asked us to leave.

Running on nothing but pure adrenaline for hours, we headed back to the golf course. Among the hundreds of App State fans still basking in this historic event were a few Michigan fans drowning their sorrows in warm beers and leftover cheese and sausage. They offered us a beverage and a plate and complimented our team, coach and fans. This was a quite a humbling experience for fans that had seen more wins than any other fan base in the country.

We moseyed down State Street to the local Bennigan’s, trying to regroup as best we could. Chris took a power nap at the table while the rest of us tried to figure out if we should have a celebratory beer or load up on caffeine to try and stay awake longer to celebrate through the night. I think we did both.

We headed back into downtown Ann Arbor trying to find where the App fans were partying. But I think everyone kind of did what we did – wandering around in disbelief trying to make sense out of what just happened. We blasted “Hi-Hi Yikas” throughout the city blocks. There were a lot of awkward looks and a few “birds” thrown our direction. Looks like some Michigan fans had heard that song from our marching band one too many times that day. I think App State has landed on the proverbial “football map.”

We stopped in a brewery and even nicer Michigan fans bought us a round, but by this time, we were running on fumes. We headed back to our hotel room and collapsed in a heap.

The next morning, Britt and the rest of us parted ways and we headed back home. Nearly every other car that we passed in Ohio saw our car stickers and honked at us. For some reason, the Buckeyes were taking particular glee in our win.

Ten years later, some of the details get a little fuzzier while others remain clear as day. I’ve grown to appreciate the amazing vantage point I was lucky enough to have, and the friends with which I was able to watch the greatest upset in the history of college football.

The day, Sept. 1, has taken on added significance for me as it was the day me and my wife got married in 2013. And last year, we welcomed our first daughter, just two days before our anniversary.

Although the argument will continue, and there may be other suitors in the future to lay claim to the greatest upset, I know one thing’s for sure. I bet y’all know where Boone, North Carolina is now, don’t ya?