When The Big House Comes Crumbling Down
Unit #42 / 413 - Saratoga National Historical Park
For a long period of history, the sun never set on the British empire. Because basically, their military was unbeatable.
If I was comparing this to college football--and I'm going to 'cause it's the fall and I just watched Nebraska play from my iPhone in a Panera Bread parking lot--the British empire would basically be Alabama. Or Florida State. Or pick your dynasty.
I'm going to go with Michigan.
Why Michigan? Because as a dynastic team, there came a day in September 2007 when the legendary Big Ten school hosted a little known, lower division university in their stadium: "The Big House."
That team was Appalachian State and like most schools from the FCS division, they were expected to be murdered by 5th ranked Michigan. So massacred in fact, Las Vegas bookies didn't even take bets on the game.
It was like David and Goliath, and even the slingshot wouldn't put its money on David.
To add a peanut gallery to the mix, this was the first game broadcast on the newly formed Big Ten Network.
The world was watching. At least the world of college football.
My childhood best friend and I at a Nebraska Cornhuskers football game
With a set up like this, were you one of the 107,000 fans in The Big House that day, you'd expect to be in the parking lot by halftime, finishing your cooler of drinks as Michigan pads their stats.
However, on that historic day, halftime was not the blowout Michigan fans expected.
They weren't even in the lead.
Starting the third quarter at a 17 - 28 disadvantage, the Michigan Wolverines had to fight their way back to a 32 - 31 lead, only to have an Appalachian State field goal put them behind once again, 32 - 34 with 26 seconds remaining.
But 26 seconds, in college football with a powerhouse team playing at home: that might as well be two minutes. Coaches, players, and sportscasters at this level are trained to handle this pressure and deliver points.
So in a final attempt to win the game by 1, Michigan snaps a football to the placeholder's hands, it leaves the kicker's foot en route to 3 points, and propels through the air into the waiting arms of an Appalachian State player; blocking the ball and winning the game for David.
Shockwaves reverberated through the world of college football. A dynasty team had lost the most unexpected of games. ESPN's SportsCenter led their sportscast with the story and Sports Illustrated made it the following week's cover story.
Appalachian State became only the second FCS team to defeat a ranked FBS team, and knocked Michigan out of the AP's Top 25 Poll: the only time a top five team had fallen that far as a result of a single game. Six years later, Appalachian State rose from the ranks of the FCS and joined the FBS: the top tier of college football leagues in the United States.
Many pundits called this game the greatest upset in college football history, and it's for that reason I bring it up now. Because 230 years before that, on a fall day not unlike that September game in Ann Arbor, David beat Goliath. Except this time, Goliath was the British Empire, and David was some pesky colonies who had the nerve to claim they could play in the top division; that they could be independent.
What makes Saratoga National Historical Park such an integral part of that story has to do with the Campaign of 1777. During the Revolutionary War, British Gen. John Burgoyne believed it was key to English victory that they separate the New England colonies from the rest of America. Having gained control of Montreal during The Seven Years War, it seemed an easy way of accomplishing this was by taking troops into New York state via Lake Champlain and eventually seizing every fort along the Hudson River. Essentially, isolating Connecticut, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine by blocking their access.
And General Burgoyne was having great success at his plan. Just as Michigan had won Big Ten Championships in 2000, 2003, and 2004, the British plowed their way down the Hudson, taking Fort Ticonderoga and a number of other Forts until they reached the American camp near Saratoga, New York.
There, in battles begun on September 19 and October 7, 1777, the Americans took on the behemoth British Empire.
And like Appalachian State did on September 1, 2007, the underdog won.
It was the first time in British history their army had been captured outright, and the world now knew Goliath was beatable.
This American victory sent such ripples around the globe that in 1999 the NYTimes magazine called it the "most important battle of the millennium." While that important battle didn't win the war for the burgeoning United States, it was a turning point for the revolution, helping coax France into an alliance and eventually turning the tide on the Brits.
Proving that, just as Michigan dropped from the Top 25, the sun could set on the British Empire; at least in upstate New York.
Saratoga Highlight (You Can Do)!
1. Feel the History You Just Saw
Start at the Visitor Center with the park's orientation film and a look at the battle exhibits that explain how everything went down in 1777. Then by foot, bike (my recommendation) or vehicle, follow the park's 10 mile, one-way loop which points out significant battle spots.
There are 10 pullouts, but if you're short on time I recommend Number 2 (the Neilson House, the only remaining original structure on the battlefield) and Number 9 (the only overlook you can actually see the Hudson River).
Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations. What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)
Vermont to New Hampshire to Maine to Massachusetts
-Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park
-Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site
-Appalachian National Scenic Trail
-Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument *New NPS site added 1 week ago*
-Saint Croix Island International Historic Site
-Acadia National Park
-Adams National Historical Park
-Boston African American National Historic Site
-Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area
-Boston National Historical Park
-Cape Cod National Seashore
-Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site
-John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site
-Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site
-Lowell National Historical Park Minute Man National Historical Park
-New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park
-Salem Maritime National Historic Site
-Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site
-Springfield Armory National Historic Site
The journey thus far: