There were already 31 Appalachian State Mountaineer fans on board when the bus pulled into a Lowe’s Home Improvement parking lot in Belmont to pick up 23 more. Once everyone was in their seats, a guy up front led a prayer. “God is an App State fan,” he said. “You can tell because the sky’s going to be black.”
The party had started about an hour before, when a few seats from the back, a man took a smartphone picture, lovingly, of a can of Bud Select. Then he cracked it open. At 6:41 a.m.
Everyone on board was heading to Montgomery, Alabama, for the Camellia Bowl between the Mountaineers and the Ohio Bobcats. Steve Preston, a 1974 App grad from King, chartered the bus two weeks before. Steve had somewhere to be Friday night and Sunday night, and so a bus that went to the game and immediately came back was his only option. The itinerary was tight: The bus left Winston-Salem just before 6 a.m. Saturday, was scheduled to arrive in Montgomery at 2:30 p.m. for the 5:40 p.m. kickoff, then, immediately after the game, was to head back to North Carolina, arriving in Winston-Salem at 6 a.m. Sunday. It was 24 hours of bus, tailgate, game, bus. The total cost was $80 a person. Tickets to the game were $25. It was possible to go see the bowl game for a grand total of $105.
“God is an App State fan,” he said. “You can tell because the sky’s going to be black.”
Some fans drove down in cars, trucks, and RVs on Thursday or Friday night, hanging out at hotels, meeting other students and alumni, cheering at pep rallies. Some took a sold-out charter flight from Greensboro. But this bus was for the hardest of the hardcore fans: those who wanted to go to the game, and nothing else. The Camellia Bowl was Appalachian State’s first bowl game since 1955, and their first since moving up from college football’s second-tier division to its first. It was the first big game of a new era. Everybody on board wanted to see it in person.
In Belmont, Daphne Urquhart got on. She’s a certified public accountant who drove three hours from her home in Asheville to get on a bus for a 6½ hour ride to Alabama. When she got settled into her seat, a DVD showing the 2005 1-AA National Championship game between Appalachian State and Northern Iowa was playing on every screen. “Never actually seen the TV of this,” she said. “I’ve replayed it in my brain.”
Like a lot of people on the bus, Daphne was there in 2005 when Appalachian State won the first of its three straight 1-AA (now Football Championship Subdivision) National Championships. Daphne didn’t graduate from App, but her son did. He was a freshman in 2005 when the Mountaineers won their first national championship. Daphne piled 10 people into a Ford Expedition and drove over to Chattanooga, Tennessee, for the game. The next year, when the Mountaineers made the title game in Chattanooga again, she went. Same with 2007. Another trip to Chattanooga. Another win.
This trip? “This feels like a trip to Chattanooga,” she said.
At 9:14 a.m., on I-85 somewhere near Clemson, South Carolina, the Mountaineers won their first national championship. Someone in the front of the bus put on another DVD: The 2007 matchup between Appalachian State and Michigan. Some knowing cackling ensued. “Last year, the Mountaineers celebrated a national championship,” the announcer said. “The Wolverines would like to do it this year.” The cackling turned to outright laughing. Early on in the game, when wide receiver Dexter Jackson sprinted to the end zone for a Mountaineer touchdown, a moment later captured on a Sports Illustrated cover, there was cheering on the bus. Cheering for a game that happened eight years ago, but felt like it was unfolding live.
More beers cracked open.
Everybody on the bus knew how this game ended. But the back and forth between the 5th-seeded Wolverines and the underdog Mountaineers was still gripping to watch. Appalachian State jumped out to a 28-17 lead at halftime in Ann Arbor, stunning Michigan with their speed. In the third and fourth quarters, the Mountaineers struggled to hold on, only able to muster up field goals as the Wolverines came alive. There was tension on the bus, because while everybody remembered the final play, hardly anybody could recall exactly how the Mountaineers got there. A mass groan after a Michigan interception. A mass sigh after Brian Quick dropped a touchdown pass. A polite cheer or two after Appalachian State blocked a Michigan field goal.
And then, the final play. Down 34-32 with six seconds left, Michigan lined up for a game-winning 37 yard field goal. After the snap, Corey Lynch ran through the Michigan line untouched, blocked the kick, scooped up the ball, and ran toward the end zone, finally tackled by the kicker as time ran out. “One of the greatest upsets in sports history!” the announcer said. Nobody on the bus heard him. The cheers were too loud.
The bus arrived in Montgomery just after 2 p.m., ahead of schedule. Fans poured out and pulled their coolers from the luggage compartment. Across the street was the tailgate lot. It was overwhelmingly App State, with at least a dozen Mountaineer flags flying. Men walked by with yellow- and black-striped overalls. Kids tossed footballs. Grownups tossed cornhole sacks. Lines at Porta-Potties were long. There were charcoal grills and Low-Country boils, and plenty of beer.
Everybody in the lot referred to everyone else as family. Fans are family. Coaches are family. Players are family. And just like family, they hit the road for big events, no matter the odds. The Michigan game proved that anything could happen. Jeff Cook made the trip to Alabama from Apex. He remembered going to the Appalachian-Florida game in Gainesville in 2010. The Gators walloped the Mountaineers 48-10. “We lost the game,” he said, “but we won the tailgate.”
The Gators walloped the Mountaineers 48-10. “We lost the game,” he said, “but we won the tailgate.”
Down the street, in the parking lot of the minor league baseball stadium, the Appalachian State band and cheerleaders played to fans in front of a stage. Brad Manning and Jennifer Jones of Raleigh, both wearing custom-made yellow and black Santa and Mrs. Claus costumes, stood and listened.
“It’s not just a game,” Brad said.
“This is history,” Jennifer said.
This was new territory for Appalachian State. The Mountaineers won three straight national championships in college football’s lower Football Championship Subdivision (FCS, formerly 1-AA), where teams compete in a playoff but not in traditional bowl games. That success led to the program to make the jump to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). In 2013, Appalachian State’s last season in the Southern Conference and its first season without longtime coach Jerry Moore, the Mountaineers went 4-8. In 2014, the Mountaineers lost 52-13 in a rematch with Michigan, and started 1-4 before going on a six-game winning streak and finishing 7-5. Under NCAA rules, they weren’t eligible for a bowl game. But in 2015, Appalachian State went on a tear. They dropped an early game to top-ranked Clemson, but their only other loss came to eventual Sun Belt champion Arkansas State. A 10-2 record earned the Mountaineers their first FBS bowl berth. Appalachian State’s dominance had returned.
The reward for that dominance felt different. The run-up to those national titles, and those trips to Chattanooga that every Mountaineer fan in Montgomery seemed to have made, was more business-like. By contrast, the atmosphere around this game seemed more like a celebration. The Camellia Bowl — last year’s lowest-rated bowl game — was not a national championship. But it felt like a stepping stone to something more. Something bigger. It proved that the Mountaineers could be more than a big fish in a little pond. Just by being here, Appalachian State won before anyone even took the field.
Just by being here, Appalachian State won before anyone even took the field.
After the marching band stopped playing, the athletic director, Doug Gillin, walked on stage to thank fans for making the trip. “We’ll be on ESPN for four hours today!” he said, noting that the network, which both owned and broadcast the game, wanted a team with fans that would fill the stands.
Moments before, though, university chancellor Sheri Noren Everts was less analytical. “App Nation!” she yelled, “thank you for witnessing history!”
Except for the beer and the hard liquor for sale, the atmosphere inside the stadium resembled an oversize high school game. The stadium, the Cramton Bowl, was spartan. There were no seats, only aluminum bleachers. The Appalachian State side filled up quickly. During the pre-game, a stadium announcer wrongly pronounced it “App-uh-LAY-shun State” and, reflexively, everyone on one side of the stadium booed. They also booed when the Bobcats took the field. One woman shrieked “Yankees!” at the top of her lungs.
Everything else Mountaineer-related got a huge cheer, no matter how small. The marching band performed to a loud roar. The Mountaineers trotted back into the locker room to a loud roar. They ran back out to an even louder roar.
Signs were everywhere, each an effort to attract the attention of ESPN cameras. Brian Layh, who was on the bus, brought a poster hand-drawn with markers by his 9-year-old daughter. “Ohio fought the Law and the Law won,” it read, referring to Mountaineer linebacker John Law. Brian came to Alabama with his friend Scott Flaherty of Raleigh, who missed one of his kid’s Christmas plays to be here. “They were pretty sure my mind was elsewhere,” Scott said. His family told him he should go to the game instead.
Down in front, a fan waved a black Appalachian flag that was zip-tied to a PVC pipe. Yosef, the mascot, posed with fans. Another man dressed in another yellow and black Santa suit watched intently. Earlier, for the National Anthem, he removed his hat, but not his wig.
The game started slowly. Appalachian State led 7-0 after missing field goals but held Ohio to several three-and-outs. But late in the second quarter, the sun had set, the temperature dropped, and events took an ominous turn. Up 7-3 with less than two minutes to go before halftime, Appalachian State’s Taylor Lamb threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown. Then, with just 39 seconds left, the Mountaineers fumbled, setting up another Bobcat touchdown. Halfway through the third quarter, an Ohio linebacker ripped the ball out of Ike Lewis’ hands and returned it 54 yards for another touchdown. The score was 24-7 Bobcats.
The once deafening roar from the Mountaineers side of the stadium fell silent. Every bounce went Ohio’s way. A wobbly punt by the Bobcats at the Appalachian 42 arced way up in the air, drawing laughs from fans, that is, until it hit the ground and rolled all the way down to the 3-yard line. It appeared that a long bus ride home was ahead.
Then the Mountaineers slowly and methodically drove 97 yards for a touchdown, and the crowd got a little louder. 24-14. Then Latrell Gibbs picked off an Ohio pass, and App scored on the next play. 24-21. Then Mondo Williams picked off another pass, and the Mountaineers scored another touchdown. 28-24. Three touchdowns in less than three minutes.
Mountaineer players in street clothes turned and waved their arms to pump up the crowd. But shortly afterward, Ohio punted from Appalachian’s 34-yard line (!) and downed it at the 3. Then Jovon Johnson, the same Bobcat linebacker who ripped the ball out earlier, tackled Marcus Cox in his own endzone for a safety. 28-26. On the next drive, Ohio went down and kicked a field goal to take a one-point lead with just 1:47 left.
Everybody stood. Hands over mouths. Eyes staring.
The Mountaineers started. One-yard run. Fourteen-yard pass. Five-yard run. Timeout. With 60 seconds to go, Appalachian State was still on their side of the field. But something was building.
On the next play, Lamb dropped back to pass, and a hole opened up in the offensive line in front of him. He ran through it. “I saw green grass,” he told reporters later. He sprinted down the sideline and ran out of bounds 32 yards downfield, putting Appalachian State into position to win with a field goal.
Of course the kick was good. Of course the reaction was joyous. Two cans of beer went sailing overhead. Fans hugged. They jumped. They took pictures of the final score on the big screen: Appalachian State 31, Ohio 29. The concrete grandstand vibrated. On a trailer pulled to the middle of the field after the game, head coach Scott Satterfield grabbed the trophy. “App Nation!” he screamed at the top of his lungs, and the crowd screamed back just as loud. A half hour after the game, they were still milling about in the stands and on the turf. Players reached up and high-fived people in the front row. Nobody seemed like they were in a hurry to leave.
“That felt like Chattanooga,” said one of the first fans back on the bus. Another one came in, cradling a huge bottle of Cook’s champagne. Daphne, arms folded over the back of a seat, smiled. There was subdued mirth, tempered excitement after a long day and a long game. As the flags came down and the grills were packed up in the parking lot, the bus slowly rolled out of Montgomery in the dark. The lights inside of the bus went out. The 2007 Appalachian State-Delaware title game glowed on the television. And on the long road back to North Carolina, nearly everybody on board drifted off to sleep.