BOULDER, Colo. (AP) – The most powerful, hard-charging runner ever to roam Folsom Field for the Colorado Buffaloes has never officially gained a yard.
She always scores big, though, with the fans and her teammates.
“Heeeeere comes Ralphie ,” the live 1,200-pound buffalo who is guided before games – and again after halftime – by five harness-holding handlers. She hits a speed of roughly 20 mph before disappearing into her trailer in the end zone. She’s become a must-see attraction and long been one of college football’s most distinguished mascots.
The Buffaloes have followed the lead of five versions of Ralphie spanning 340 contests, including 24 bowl games. This Saturday against California, the stage once again belongs to her as the Buffaloes commemorate the 50th anniversary of the iconic tradition. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper even proclaimed Oct. 28 as Ralphie Day .
“As a kid, I would always get mad at my parents when we didn’t get to the game early,” Colorado junior Emerson McKee said, “because I always wanted to see Ralphie run.”
Now, McKee is a member of the Ralphie Handlers , a group of students that cares for the buffalo throughout the year (earning a varsity letter in the process). They feed her (a bale of hay a day ), make sure she has plenty of water (she gulps about 20 gallons) and visit her on the farm that’s located in a secret spot – out of respect for her privacy – about an hour outside of town.
The handlers practice around 20 hours a week, with a chunk of that time dedicated to beefing up in the weight room . Ralphie, after all, is a load to get around that field.
“You can make a buffalo go only where a buffalo wants to go,” junior Keane Lyle explained. “This is the most fun thing I’ve ever done. Hands down.”
The Buffaloes have long had a live mascot on their sideline, with the inaugural one called “Mr. Chips” in 1957. The first Ralphie was donated by John Lowery in 1966 and made her debut during a 10-0 win over Kansas State.
She was an instant hit, with fans breaking into a bleacher-shaking “Buffalo Stomp” after she made her pass. School officials stopped the tradition because the students were causing too much damage to the wooden bleachers. Soon after, though, then-football coach Eddie Crowder was presented with the idea of the team running out behind Ralphie.
He was all for it – and the tradition officially took root on Sept. 16, 1967 , as the team rolled over Baylor 27-7. Ever since, some version of Ralphie has pretty much charged around Folsom Field – except on bad-weather days because her safety “is always our top priority,” said Taylor Stratton, an assistant coach for the Ralphie Handlers.
A quick look at the buffalo who’ve played the role of Ralphie, who’s also run at four conference championship games and 10 regular-season away games:
– Ralphie I: Attended every Colorado home game for 13 years and all the team’s bowl games, including the Orange Bowl game against Ohio State during the 1976 season. According to lore, the officials wouldn’t tell anyone where she was staying for fear someone might kidnap her.
– Ralphie II: Died the night of Sept. 19, 1987, at her ranch and after her run before a 31-17 win over Stanford.
– Ralphie III: Originally named “Tequila,” she was summoned into duty earlier than expected. She made her debut on Nov. 7, 1987, and was part of the team for a decade.
– Ralphie IV: Donated by media mogul Ted Turner. She came with a heart-warming story – separated from her mother at a month old, she was rescued from the jaws of a coyote. Bottle-fed back to health, she was donated to Colorado in 1998 and appeared at six bowl games. Called “Rowdy,” she died last March due to liver failure a month shy of 20.
– Ralphie V: Nicknamed “Blackout,” she made her debut at the spring game in 2008 with 17,800 fans showing up. She just turned 11 and is the current star of the show.
“She’s different than horses, different than dogs, but she gets to know you the same way they would,” said Stratton, a former Ralphie Handler. “She has a personality all of her own.”
About the handlers: They’re selected through a tryout in a program that’s overseen by John Graves, a certified humane handler for cattle and horses who also was the rookie of the year for the squad in 2007.
There are five harnessed spots with Ralphie – the front two positions steer her around field, the loop in the far back controls the speed and the two alongside assist with guidance. The other 10 handlers stick close by to make sure nothing goes wrong on her U-shaped gallop.
She actually looks out for them as well. A few years back, a handler tripped on a slick day and Ralphie stepped around him to avoid contact.
“She’s so athletic and agile,” said Graves, whose program is funded by donations from fans and routinely is inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to ensure they’re conforming to the Animal Welfare Act.
For a noon kickoff, the Ralphie Handlers arrive at her ranch at 7:30 a.m. to load her into the trailer. She hangs out in her pen for a while at Ralphie’s Corral to mingle with fans.
Then, off to Folsom Field for her big day.
She’s led into position on the northeast side of the end zone through a movable pen. The announcer screams, “Heeeeere comes Ralphie!” and off she goes, with the Buffaloes following her lead onto the field.
“Ralphie is the best mascot in college, period,” senior tailback Phillip Lindsay said. “It’s a great thing and the fans love it. We all love it.”