Two hours before Colorado football plays Oregon State, Ralphie looks downright docile except for the occasional moments when she reminds everyone that she’s a 5-foot, 1,200-pound mammal capable of bucking you from Boulder to Nebraska.
It’s 10:30 a.m. Saturday and Ralphie, the University of Colorado’s buffalo mascot, is chewing on grass as CU fans filter inside an alumni tailgate to pose for pictures in front of her. In two hours’ time, Ralphie will make her traditional horseshoe run around Folsom Field, the performance that marks the Best Entrance in College Football. For now, she stands inside a metal enclosure getting photographed like she’s a local celebrity.
Ralphie Handlers, a group of 15 CU students who survived a rigorous process to work with Ralphie, surround the enclosure and guide fans who want pictures with her. They tell inquiring minds a little about Ralphie and let them get close — but not too close — to the metal bars.
A boy wearing a white T-shirt walks up to the enclosure with his father. He looks 7, maybe 8. They pose for the picture when Ralphie headbutts the metal bars. She does it lightly, but it still makes the bars rattle.
“Jeeeeeeez,” the boy says as he walks away.
“He wanted to play,” his father says with a laugh, not realizing that despite the masculine name, Ralphie is in fact a female.
Ralphie is mostly calm throughout the alumni tailgate leading up to the game. Still, there are flashes like this when she’ll remind you why she’s exciting to the tens of thousands of people who gather at Folsom Field for every Colorado football game: raw power.
The first buffalo to run at Folsom Field was Ralphie I on October 28, 1967.
She — all the Ralphies are shes — galloped around the football field before CU fell to Oklahoma State 10-7 on homecoming.
The tradition stuck.
Almost 49 years later, Ralphie V stands inside her trailer in the northwest corner of Folsom Field. It’s 11:45 a.m., about 45 minutes before kickoff. Ralphie’s day began at 7 a.m. That’s when the Ralphie Handlers, led by program manager John Graves, arrived at Ralphie’s ranch in Adams County to begin preparing her for the day.
The exact location of the ranch is undisclosed. It’s been that way since students at the Air Force Academy kidnapped Ralphie I in 1970.
EDM and rap music pump into Folsom Field as game time approaches.
Ralphie Handlers change out of their cowboy boots and into black Nike football cleats. Ralphie can reach speeds up to 25 miles per hour; traction is important. So is getting your blood circulating. Ralphie Handlers go through stretching lines almost as if they were the football team, doing high knees, side-to-side shuffles and karaoke.
Anywhere between 50 and 70 students try out every spring to become Ralphie Handlers. Usually, there are five or six spots available on the crew of 15. Applicants are required to write essays and run timed 300-yard dashes. Those who make the cut are athletic, comfortable around animals and good with people.
“We need someone who’s good with the public because a lot of what we do is PR,” explains Graves, who started working with Ralphie 10 years ago when he was a student. “Talking with fans, interacting with fans. Things like that.”
Sophomore Lewis Schiebel is in his first year as a Ralphie Handler. He’s an engineering major from Denver.
Schiebel decided to become a Ralphie Handler when he saw Ralphie run at one of CU’s kickoff events freshman year. He didn’t have much experience working with animals beforehand. He’d ridden horses but nothing as intense as running stride-for-stride with the largest mammal in North America.
(This is why Ralphie is always a female. Male buffalo are a foot taller and some 1,000 pounds heavier than the females, and they’re just too strong to control.)
“It’s a little nerve wracking because you’re going fast, and it’s a big animal,” he says. “But you have confidence in yourself and in your team. You’re not scared, but you’ve got a little adrenaline for sure.”
Both teams head to their locker room with 20 minutes to go before the game starts.
That’s when Ralphie comes out from her trailer and into the metal enclosure. Ralphie bucks as the last of the Oregon State players and coaches leave the field.
“Ralphie’s already pissed,” a man wearing an Oregon State polo and black visor says.
Ralphie Handlers lift the cage up and guide her toward the opposite side of the end zone. Ralphie starts her run in the northeast side of the stadium, runs a horseshoe pattern around the field and finishes at the northwest side.
It’s almost time now.
CU’s fight song plays, then the national anthem. Ralphie’s black tongue dangles out the side of her mouth as her handlers untie the ropes latching her to the enclosure. They huddle up, and then Graves bends down and says something to Ralphie.
“HERE COMES RALPHIEEEEEE,” a voice shouts over the loudspeaker.
AC/DC is playing when the enclosure finally comes apart. Five handlers — two in the front, two in the back and one directly behind the buffalo — hang on as Ralphie rumbles out the gates.
You understand now why they spent so much time stretching. Ralphie can move. Ralphie Handlers have popped hamstrings before trying to keep pace with her. Ralphie sprints toward the 30-yard line, hooks a right and then another as she completes the horseshoe. Ralphie Handlers run alongside the five who are controlling the harnesses, which help Ralphie know which way to go.
Ralphie sprints into her trailer. Sweaty Ralphie Handlers make sure the back door is closed and walk away as roughly 46,000 people lose their minds. Colorado (4-1) goes on to win the game 47-6.
“What a rush,” one of the handlers says.