Colorado's buffalo tradition more than just a sprint

Saturday, October 31, 2009 | 6:36 p.m. CDT; updated 6:01 a.m. CST, Sunday, November 1, 2009
Ralphie, the live buffalo mascot at the University of Colorado, leads the players onto the field before the game and at the beginning of the second half.

BOULDER, Colo. -- Steam surrounds Rob Hamilton’s hands as a huge tongue enjoys the salty taste of his sweat-soaked leather gloves.

It emerges from a head covered in coffee-colored fur that turns tan just below the neck, a product of a coarse new winter coat. Not quite as harsh as steel wool, Hamilton says, but not far off.

It’s 32 minutes before the run, and Hamilton, a junior at the University of Colorado and one of 14 student handlers of the school’s live buffalo mascot “Ralphie,” is crouched in front of a makeshift pen, his hands cupped around the 1,000 pound buffalo’s snout, trying to calm her down.

She’s extra feisty today. She’s bucking and kicking more than usual. That spunk is what got her here. That, and the coffee-colored coat. They were the deciding factors in a 2007 makeshift buffalo beauty pageant that got her off a New Mexico farm and into buffalo lore.

But in less than an hour five of Hamilton’s teammates will be clinging to a set of ropes, sprinting step for step with a three-year old buffalo that weights almost a ton. And if you ask them, she runs fast enough when she’s in a good mood.

Ralphie’s run onto the field has been a part of Buffalo football for 42 years, and is one of the great traditions of college football. But while it only takes 20 seconds for Ralphie to tear around Folsom Field, it’s just a part of a day-long production.

It’s 24 minutes before the run when nature calls on sport’s most famous buffalo. Calls of “Rookieeeee” are instantly heard. Hamilton, one of the lesser tenured members of the group, takes the shovel and goes to work.

“Seniors don’t touch shovels,” senior Annie Lawson said.

Thankfully, the crew has already eaten, their traditional breakfast at a greasy spoon nearby called “Butcher Block.” Ralphie makes it easy to lose an appetite.

Lawson knows all about shovel patrol. She was a freshman her rookie year, the lowest of the low. Ralphie handlers pay their dues. And it’s before they even sniff a chance at “poop duty.”

The group is considered a varsity sport at CU, and includes a tryout process that’s more in-depth than some government background checks.

First, there’s a paper application. After that group is pared down, it’s a sprint test.

“Gotta make sure everybody who gets on the team is fast enough to keep up with her,” senior Steven Green said.

And finally a round of interviews. Because if you want to be a Ralphie handler, you better be good in the spotlight.

“Most of our job is really talking to fans and being social and telling people what we do,” Green said.

Any buffalo experience required?

“Buffaloes?” he said. “None. My wildlife experience before I got here? I had a Yorky in high school, a little five-pound dog. It’s a little bit different.”

Just a little.

It’s 14 minutes before the run and grad student and former CU linebacker Sean Tufts runs in place in the north end zone, pushing his knees up toward his chest. Knees up. Always knees up.

Tufts doesn’t even know if he’ll be running. Nobody knows. Well, some do. Rookies rarely run.

“And if they do, it’s in the back,” senior Cole Schindler said.

Schindler doesn’t have to worry about that. He’s been around for years. And he’ll be back for another next fall, taking an extra semester just for one more season with Ralphie.

But rookie or not, everyone has to be ready. Their coach makes the announcement 10 minutes before kickoff, and in the meantime there is stretching and jogging to be done.

It’s 19 minutes before the run, and the initial stages begin. A blanket sewn by program director Kevin Priola’s wife is thrown over Ralphie’s back, “Go Buffs” on one side, “Beat Tigers” on the other.

Each of Ralphie’s ropes is tied on. A group of five handlers checks the knots. There are often questions about Ralphie making an escape, but the response is usually a laugh. What buffalo would run from dozens of acres and their own Adams County ranch?

“She’s the diva of the buffalo world,” one freshman knot-checker said.

The ropes are called “leads,” but Lawson prefers “tow ropes.” See, running with Ralphie is barely running. While Ralphie IV was a slightly slower model, Ralphie V gets with it.

“You’re actually being pulled faster than you can physically run,” said Priola, who ran as a student from 1993-1996 before coming back as director. “It’s almost like you’re a cartoon character with your legs in the air.”

It’s four minutes before the run, and the group runs sprints up and down the north end zone.

It’s two-and-a-half minutes before the run, and the group of five has been selected. John Graves and Tufts in the front. Green and Schindler in the back. John Delva at “loop.” The loop is the brake, the runner in back who’s not a runner at all. He’s a hapless anchor.

The excitement builds.

“The moment he says your name, that’s when the adrenaline comes,” Schindler said.

Tufts runs in place again, driving his knees upward. Knees up. Always knees up.

The rest of the group makes its run onto the field to cheers. Each acts a spotter, protecting the run from players, cheerleaders and whatever else may stumble into Ralphie’s way.

It's 30 seconds before the run. The group of five take hold of the leads. Graves crouches.

“Let’s do it girl!”

Ralphie flies out of the pen, charging towards her 25-mile-per-hour peak. The cowboy hats fly off by the 30-yard line. The first turn goes smoothly. But then the second turn. The one after the peak is reached. The one that Priola says is like being whipped around on water skis after a hairline turn. One of Delva’s hands slips off as they reach the final straightaway back toward the trailer. He tightens his grip. Graves slips as he hits the turf. Ralphie rumbles into the trailer. The door is slammed.

Just another day.

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