by Nic Schultz
2007 was the first year of the BigTen Network. I was living in Ann Arbor and our cable provider, Comcast, couldn’t work out a deal to carry the new network in time for the start of the college football season. The Wolverines were playing a Division II team for the first time in the school’s history and as a result, not going to be on ESPN, instead relegated to the new BigTen channel. Therefor, for the first time I could remember, the Michigan game wasn’t on TV in Ann Arbor.
I was trying to explain all this to my girlfriend on that Saturday morning, when she stupidly asked, “What would happen if they lost but nobody got to see it?” I laughed and described to her an Ann Arbor with pigs flying overhead and hell frozen below, all of which seemed much more likely than Michigan losing to Appa-whatever. I should say that I am a huge Michigan fan who was raised by a father who followed the Wolverines’ recruiting even before the internet. ‘Nuff said. Also they had my favorite player since Jim Harbaugh, Mike Hart, who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated that week with Michigan’s fifth place national ranking posted next to him. So as morning drew to noon on that first day of September, 2007, I pulled out my work radio and got excited. Let the season begin!
I quickly learned how to pronounce Appalachian and who Armanti was. The first quarter drove me crazy. My mighty Michigan had only managed a 14-7 lead, and the Mountaineers were mounting drives. They had spread the field and ran a no-huddle, black quarterback-led offense, which always seemed to equal Wolverine-kryptonite. And then it happened. And happened. Between the time it took them to tie the game, and for me to put on proper clothes, App State had taken a 28-14 lead. I don’t remember explaining myself to anyone or even saying bye. Something came over me, and I was in my car, headed for Stadium and Main, just because.
If you’ve ever seen the traffic jams and lawns turned to parkings lots that 110,00 fans can cause, then you’ll understand how surreal it was to drive past the Big House unimpeded and find a free parking spot on my first pass. I walked down the unpaved side of Main Street with my radio in my hand. I hardly noticed a big Lincoln pull up next to me at the light and an even bigger black guy ask me “What’s the count?”. I told him “28-14″ and shivered as the words came out of my mouth. “You trying to go?” He asked. My father had taken me to the Big House a lot as a kid, and we often went at the end of the third quarter when the ushers would stop checking tickets. Michigan Stadium has benches, not seats, so we would find somewhere to squeeze in at the top of the underground ocean of people. I guess this was my plan today, although I hadn’t really thought about it until he asked again, “You trying to go see the game?” I had barely even gotten the “yeah” out before he spread out a Japanese paper-fan of tickets and generously handed me the stub I have scanned for you.
My first impression of the ticket was how impressive it was that I had gotten this fifty dollar ticket for basically just having my five dollar work radio with me. Being a graphic design student, I then marveled at how nice the new layout of the ticket was and how impressive it was that its matte edges glistened so much in the bright sunlight. I then settled on the image in the middle. How ironic that here we were, the team whose greatest player ever (arguably) was a running quarterback, yet was still unable to learn from the lessons taught to us by Vince Young and so many less memorable quarterbacks.
Normally ten rows up at Michigan Stadium would be an unbelievably great seat for me, but as I sat there in the late summer sun and watched the start of the second half, I realized why things were seeming to “just happen” without a lot of thought on my part. I had been sitting in a shady, cool living room, then an equally climate controlled car, and the rush of getting and finding my seat had distracted me from realizing how hung over I was from the Friday night before. I was sitting there, unable and unwilling to travel the 70 rows of steps back up to street level for rehydration. As Michigan came back, I tried to bounce back, in between plays by sitting and taking advantage of the shade afforded me by the standing fans around me. It seemed like a hundred degrees, and the sun was baking me all afternoon but Michigan was scoring and setting the college football world back on its axis. They had shut down the mighty Mountaineer offense and Mike Hart had just reeled off an amazing 54-yard TD scamper. For the first time since the first quarter I even questioned the value of the run. They were after all, just a Division-II school.
With about five minutes to go in the game, the color had just started to come back to my face as the momentum came back to App State. Their offense moved the ball down toward my tenth row seat in the southwest corner of the Stadium. I had a great view of the field goal that gave them a 34-32 lead, but a lousy look at the 46 yard Henne to Manningham prayer that was going to be our salvation. I remember squinting to see the spot of the ball, and quickly doing the math. 20 + 10 + 7 = a makable field goal and a chance to get out of here with only small munitions for the Buckeye and Sparty fan ridicule to come. Twenty seconds on the clock, and we were going to survive.
Then it happened.
I’ll tell you one thing I learned that day: The sound of a football kicked directly in its sweet spot is perfectly cancelled out by the equally booming sound of that ball hitting a hand, when set against the silence of 100,000 people. The little men in Blue and White shirts got larger as they came storming directly for me and collapsed in a pile at the five yard line. It happened. Nobody cheered or booed or even moved for what seemed like forever. Some guy who seemed like the sole representative from the Boone contingent at the Stadium that day, scaled the brick wall separating us and the growing hoard of men wearing unfamiliar uniforms. Watching him spin his shirt over his head like Petey Pablo helped draw me out of my perplexed stupor and affirm the fact of what I had just seen.
I made my way up the emptying metal benches, each step echoing across the hole that Yost dug, Cristler paid for, Canham carpeted, and Schembechler filled every cotton pickin’ Saturday afternoon. When I got to the top of the bowl I looked for a food stand and ordered a water. I drained the contents of the bottle, took three steps and bent over a waist-high plastic trash can. It had been recently emptied and as I emptied my stomach into it, I heard my RALPH, RAlph, ralph echo back up to my buzzing head. I felt better and yet embarrassed, but as I pulled my head from inside the can, I saw nothing but pure understanding and agreement in the eyes of those around me.
I walked to my car feeling the supreme humiliation which I can only imagine one would feel after being caught raping his little sister. That night I had my first instance of the recurring dream where I was driving through North Carolina. During the radio call of game I had found it weird that Jim Branstadder and Dan Dickerson kept referring to Appa-laa-tion State, when I had only previously heard of the Appa-lay-tion Mountains. Being good Michigan Men with voices as unquestionable as my father’s, I had taken to their pronunciation for the school. Back in my dream, where I was stuck driving around North Carolina looking for Appalachian State University. I kept stopping at gas stations for directions and when I would tell the clerk my destination, some would snicker, others fall down laughing. They were all in on the joke, knowing I was from Michigan and had believed in the faux-bourgeoise pronunciation they had fed us. I would wake up startled, with the feeling that some hick school had played us for the spoiled, arrogant “Michigan Men” we were. Exposing us, and leaving ourselves not only to question the winningest program in the history of intercollegiate football, but also uppity belief of Michigan being the “Harvard of the MidWest.”
A last note on the ticket stub. When I got back to my car, I put it in the visor of my car, which periodically I would pull down to shield my eyes from the sun. Every time I did, the taste of water-vomit would tingle at the back of my throat and my heart would stumble a little. It was in my visor on the day I heard that former Michigan All-American and current Detroit Lion lineman Jeff Backus would be coming to the Ann Arbor Sprint store to sign autographs. I decided to stop on my way home from work, and to my surprise, there was no line, and I walked right up to him. To his surprise, as he readied his grey sharpie to sign my autograph, he was looking at the ticket stub that had been the only memorabilia I could find on such short notice. He stared at the App State stub for a couple of seconds, looked up at me, back down, and up to tell me there’s no way in hell he’s signing that. We ended up talking for a while and I believe we share a bond that all Michigan fans have. The bittersweet realization that only the team with the most beautiful helmets, biggest Stadium, best fight song, and most wins ever in college football, could truly make for the biggest upset in the history of college athletics.