Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Ain't Gonna Be No Rematch.

At this point, the Rocky movies have been sequeled, parodied, and copied so many times that the entire franchise has been reduced to a running joke in many people's eyes. This is really too bad, because at its original core, the first Rocky movie is an enthralling story of the ultimate underdog, given the opportunity of a lifetime, going the distance. By the end of the final round, even with the result of the fight still in doubt, an injured and embarrassed Apollo tells Rocky, "Ain't gonna be no rematch", before being declared the winner in a split decision a few seconds later. "Don't want one", said Rocky.

Appalachian State, 2007. I had that exact thought after watching Brandent Engelmon intercept an errant Armanti Edwards pass late in the 4th quarter, one play after Michigan had finally taken a 32-31 lead. Michigan had trailed for the entire second half against an opponent that few people in the stadium had even heard of before, in a game that should have never been played to begin with. The heavyweight Wolverines were wholly under-prepared and equally unmotivated to play that afternoon, taking punch after punch from the surprising Mountaineers before finally countering with a haymaker of their own, a 54 yard Mike Hart touchdown run, followed by Engelmon's interception on the following play. App State had gone the distance, but Michigan was going to survive. Ain't gonna be no rematch, I thought. Go back to wherever in Appalachia that you're from, and please don't ever come back.

This was my sophomore year of college at UofM. If you'd told me that final exams were going to be cancelled, with an end-of-semester kegger at Mary Sue Coleman's house instead, I'd have said the odds of that happening were considerably higher than Appalachian State hanging around with the Wolverines in the football opener.

Around the second week of August, as I slept back in northern Michigan, I had a dream about the game. My only memory of the dream is sitting in the student section at the Big House, with a vivid image of the scoreboard on the opposite end of the stadium:
Appalachian State 30    Michigan 29
I woke up a little bit shaken, but calmed down quickly enough that I could chuckle about it as I ate my breakfast that morning. There was no premonition shit going on, just a stupid dream. I was heading back to Ann Arbor in a few weeks, and everything was going to be good. 30-29, ha. There was a better chance of Welcome Week running out of beer.

The night before the game, we were partying at our friend Z's house on West Stadium, right in the shadow of the Big House. Someone would try to mention the game every once in a while, but no one was very interested. My friend Hunter yelled out, "Fuck the Mountaineers!!" once or twice, but only got a few polite laughs out of it. Yeah right. No one cares about the Mountaineers. To be quite honest, I didn't even know they were called the Mountaineers until he said that. We tried to figure out exactly how much Michigan was favored by. Vegas didn't even offer a point spread. My brother tried to convince a crowd of people that Appalachian State might not be that awful. "They've won two consecutive national championships", he said. Ha. The wheelchair division doesn't count, big bro. "People need to take this team seriously," he said. "If we can just win by two touchdowns tomorrow, that's fine with me". He was absolutely lying. Anything less than a 40 point win would be a University-wide embarrassment. Someone spilled beer on my Jordans and I struck out with a girl I'd been flirting with. I figured that was going to be the worst part of my weekend.

By the time noon rolled around on Saturday, the indifference towards the football game had worn off, at least inside the Big House. When Michael Hart led the team out of the tunnel and under the Go Blue banner, the student section absolutely exploded. They were one touchdown away from making the National Championship game the year before, and almost the entire offense was coming back. We were in for a special season, even if it was just Appalachian State for now. 109,000+ people in that stadium were fully convinced that the team running out onto the field was about to make a serious run at the National Championship. Michigan took the opening kickoff, ran the offense as if it were a team scrimmage against the third-stringers, and Hart easily scored a touchdown about 3 minutes into the game. It got a little bit weird after that.

Every one of App State's playmakers had a goofy name. Armanti Edwards at QB. Dexter Jackson at WR, but not the Dexter Jackson that was in the NFL, the one that couldn't get a scholarship to a real school. There was CoCo Hilary, cuckoo for his first chance to play in front of more than 300 people. Hans Batichon. Watching The Mighty Ducks had left me pretty confident that a black guy couldn't be named Hans. Jim-Bob Norman at the other receiver slot. Come on. Yet on third-and-long on their opening drive, Edwards threw a quick slant to Dexter Jackson, Johnny Sears had his first of about 9 missed tackles on the day, and 75 yards later, the score was tied. The App State sideline was going nuts. They could have lost 52-7, and on the bus ride back, all they'd be talking about was when Dexter got loose in the first quarter.

It wasn't until halftime that I first thought, "there is a legitimate chance that we might lose this game". The sorority girls had seen enough by that point, most of them sitting down for good and unsuccessfully trying to text each other even as the third quarter started back up. Appalachian State was up 28-17 and getting the ball.

There were all kinds of theories and unsubstantiated rumors going around about how Michigan could have possibly played so poorly against such an obviously inferior opponent. Did Lloyd Carr even show them any film on this team? Did they even know that App State ran a spread offense? Was any time spent in practice preparing for this game, or were they using this tune-up game as a chance to get some extra work in for Oregon and Notre Dame? I watched Johnny Sears play so terribly and show up so out of position throughout the entire game that I thought to myself, "is this guy on drugs or something?" Before the final kickoff, he was so shook that he started running to the wrong side of the field before catching himself and following the rest of the team to the correct spot. He was supposed to be the kick returner. The Mountaineers had two separate possessions with a 31-20 lead, but made their own mistakes to keep Michigan in it.

The one positive takeaway from that game was the determination of Mike Hart. 188 yards and 3 touchdowns, including an impassioned 54 yard run to finally steal the lead back late in the 4th. The scream from the crowd as Hart passed the final defender sounded different than any crowd noise I've heard before or after. It was a scream of pure relief, a joyless, chilling, and nearly hysterical 'THANK YOU' to the savior of the season. Then Engelmon's interception. Then the unthinkable.

People remember the blocked field goal on the final play of the game, but almost forgotten is the series of bizarre instances during the final 4 minutes of that game. Michigan's offense stalled on that next possession, barely ticking down any of the clock, and then getting a first field goal blocked. App State marched down the field, getting a first down inside the 5 yard line with 30 seconds. Their coach then made a horrendous coaching decision that very nearly cost them the greatest upset in college football history; instead of letting the clock wind down to 1 second, he decided to kick a field goal on first down, giving App State the 34-32 lead, but also giving Michigan one more chance. With that chance, Chad Henne found Mario Manningham deep down the sideline to get Michigan back into field goal range for one final opportunity to avert disaster.

I was watching the game standing next to a friend who was pretty new to football. While Michigan set up for the final kick, he asked, "if he misses the kick, do you think there will still be enough time left to try another one?" The polite answer was a simple 'no'. I'm pretty sure I didn't use the polite answer.

The kick got blocked. Ain't gonna be no rematch.

Some of the things I vividly remember about walking back to South Quad after the game:
-20,000 students, including me, were badly sunburned to go along with their sudden depression. College kids don't wear sunscreen, and under any other circumstances, it would have been pretty comical to see that many burned faces all at the same time.
- The guy on the bongos. Anyone who's walked down Hoover Street to get to a game knows who I'm talking about, the bongo guy busking near the IM building who makes up rhymes about the game and the people walking by. He rapped out, "Don't feel bad 'bout the Mountaineers/they're all still a bunch of hill-billy queers." People wanted to laugh at his rhyme, but there was no mirth to be had.
- That was one of the few times that I've wanted to disassociate myself from the University of Michigan. All over a stupid game, sure, but we all know it's bigger than that.

Michigan football has not been the same since.

As with Rocky and Apollo, whether they wanted it or not, a rematch was inevitable. 7 years later, the psyche of Michigan football is still deeply haunted by that day, don't let anyone convince you otherwise. I'm a firm believer in the power of symbolism, and Saturday's game is symbolic.In order to meet their demons head on, Michigan-Appalachian State II needed to happen. And while the first time around was pure opportunity for the darlings from rural North Carolina, now there's at least a seedling of opportunity for the once-mighty Wolverines: while they can never undo what happened the first time these two teams met, a victory (any victory) on Saturday will be a small step towards atonement and escaping a few of those ghosts of 2007.

Take nothing for granted. Go the distance.

Happy college football season.

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