NORMAN, Okla. — Next to the Sooner Schooner in the northeast tunnel of Gaylord Family-Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, Devin Newsom hops around in anticipation. He looks like the players on the opposite end of the stadium. It’s 10 minutes before kickoff, and the Oklahoma RUF/NEKS are waiting for the drumbeat.
And it’s taking forever.
“Here we go!” Newsom cries as he steps back from the two Welsh ponies with hooves painted red and white. “Boomer!”
His 13 mates, wearing matching red polo shirts and white pants, each throw a fist into the air. “Sooner!” It’s repeated until they finally end with “Texas sucks!”
In a moment the RUF/NEKS will lead the two-pony wagon before a pulsating stadium — one in which the University of Oklahoma has a winning streak older than, one RUF/NEK jokes, the Xbox.
“It’s a rush,” RUF/NEK president Joe Kent said. “Not many people get to run out in front of 85,000 people with the most recognizable mascot in college football. Whenever the ponies run out, the crowd roars and is just on high. That’s why these guys join.”
Founded in 1915, The RUF/NEKS claim to be the oldest all-male spirit group in America and the second oldest in the world — after a cricket club in England. The only time the club disbanded was during World War II, but it has basically been on double-secret probation for 95 years. The group got its name when an elderly female spectator shouted, “Sit down and be quiet, you rough necks!" An ongoing history book chronicling the group’s wildest moments is guarded closely by the group secretary. If it leaked, they might go the way of Delta House, from the movie "Animal House."
Actually, reports of hazing in 2007 led to the group losing its independence and becoming part of the Oklahoma spirit squad. The current RUF/NEKS maintain the supervision has made the group better, but they refer to the “wild days” with smiles.
The Pride of Oklahoma marching band has taken the field, which means it’s time for the Sooner Schooner and the RUF/NEKS, who have been leading the two-pony wagon since it was introduced in 1964, to follow. Newsom runs down the tunnel out in front of the two ponies, Boomer (always on the left) and Sooner (always on the right). His fellow RUF/NEKS run alongside. Three pledges hang onto the back of the wagon to make sure it doesn’t go too fast.
“Watch out!” one RUF/NEK on the side yells to the pledges. They sidestep just in time to avoid Boomer’s bowel movement.
Kent calls the Sooner Schooner the most recognizable mascot in college football. He feels he has a convincing argument to back it up.
“Nothing beats running the schooner around the field after every touchdown,” he said. “LSU has a live tiger, but it’s in a cage. Colorado has the buffalo, but he just runs around the field before the game and goes into a trailer for the rest of the game. The Schooner is a really interactive part of the game here."
The RUF/NEKS are each armed with a 2-foot, red-and-white paddle that protrudes from their back pocket and is tied to their arm by a leather belt. They swing it during the game.
David Colbert, a junior, said the paddle’s primary purpose is to rally spirit, but that it can also be used for protection.
“Crazy fans from opposing teams try to get too close, especially if they’ve had a few,” he said. “I wouldn’t want to, but if it comes to that, then I’d have something to use.”
The get-up includes something else: a 12-gauge shotgun. A real one. The RUF/NEKS is the only student organization in the country to use “live” guns in a football game, and all members must register and take certified training through the Oklahoma University Police Department.
Each gun has a red muffler and its member-given name on the side of it. Some names are named after particularly (in)famous alumni, and many are the result of “some late night experiences.” They are all inside jokes, including one that stemmed from something their gun trainer said.
“I’m not sure what he was referring to, but he said he would not hesitate to hammer someone in the face (with the gun),” Kent said. “So we named a shotgun ‘In the Face.’"
The national anthem is over, and the RUF/NEKS, who just shot the first shotgun blast into the night, hurry back to the wagon. A moment later, the marching band leaves the field. It’s time for the schooner to ride.
Newsom can remember his first run alongside the Schooner.
“It’s an adrenaline rush that can’t be replaced,” he said. “I work for the Oklahoma City Thunder, who made it to the NBA Western Conference finals last year. Even that was nothing compared to this atmosphere.”
Boomer and Sooner are kept at a farm outside of town. The RUF/NEKS hesitate to reveal its location.
“We’re not supposed to say where, so other fans don’t try to find it,” senior Matt Worrell said. “I don’t want the finger pointed at me when the horses show up painted orange one day.”
For every home game, the RUF/NEKS go to the farm and wash the horses. Back at campus, they set up the 8-foot-tall schooner, which has a retractable hood, and then stop by a RUF/NEK alumni tailgate. Two-and-a-half hours before kickoff, they run a lap around the central part of Oklahoma’s campus and stand with the schooner and ponies outside the football stadium for fan photos.
The Schooner is off. Three RUF/NEKS run along one side and three others run behind it. All of them swing their paddles. They lead it across the end zone and out to about the 30-yard line before looping back. The crowd roars.
As the wagon drives into the tunnel at full speed, Newsom is gasping out of exhilaration rather than exertion. His eyes glint as he looks up into the crowd.
A moment later they run back out of the tunnel and to their positions behind the goal post and kneel next to their shotguns. In a few minutes, they stand and point the guns in the air.
Seconds after Missouri kicks off, the Oklahoma RUF/NEKS fire.