It's an exciting adventure taking care of Ralphie, Colorado's iconic mascot.
What do you do when you see a 1,200-pound buffalo running toward you? If you're a Ralphie handler, the answer is simple: Hop out of your car, go feed her some oats, then give her a big pat on the back. That's exactly what happens on a typical fall afternoon when CU's iconic mascot gets a glimpse that her favorite friends have come to play, or should I say practice.
Some of the most unnoticed student athletes at Colorado are those who participate in the school's most recognizable pregame tradition. Since 1966, five different live buffalo mascots have led Colorado football teams onto the gridiron before games. Though named Ralphie, she is a female. CU students in the 1960s liked the name Ralph, but the handlers who knew the buffalo best felt that wasn't quite a feminine enough name.
If you're asking yourself why the buffalo has always been a female, the answer is simple: running with a buffalo bull that stands over six feet tall and weighs more than 2,000 pounds might be a bad idea. But if you reduce that to a "measly" 5-foot, 1,200 pound specimen then it's no big deal, right?
That's what a Ralphie handler will tell you.
Well, maybe not quite.
"It's crazy," said junior Luke Baker. "I couldn't compare it to anything adrenaline-wise."
John Graves, instructor of the Ralphie program and former handler, explains it as simply:
Just like head coach Mike MacIntyre preaches to his team, trust one another and good things will come on the football field. Graves has bestowed the same advice upon his team.
"Those that have been on the team longer, she actually knows better," Graves explained. "When the rookies come in their first year, she doesn't really know them yet. But over the year you can actually see the trust grow between her and the rookies."
Second-year runner Bobby Rukavina recalled the first time he met Ralphie V at her ranch.
"I think all of us rookies were really nervous," Rukavina said. "She's just checking you out though, she's very calm. It definitely reinforced the fact that I wanted to do this."
There are situations when Ralphie becomes uncomfortable, most notably when someone approaching her appears uncomfortable themselves. If necessary, Graves or other senior Ralphie handlers are actually able to get in her pen in order to help calm down the majestic animal.
"She's really smart," said Baker. "She can sense if you're uncomfortable. As you grow more comfortable, she'll come up to your more."
In order to build the necessary relationship to run side-by-side with a live buffalo, training and practice is essential. A typical run covers 220 yards in under 30 seconds, reaching speeds up to 24 mph. Similar to MacIntyre's program, Graves runs an offseason strength and conditioning program that begins in the spring and continues throughout the summer and into the football season. Handlers must be in superb physical shape all while developing a close relationship with Ralphie and each other.
There are currently 16 handlers on the team, both men and women. On average, they spend 30 hours a week either training or caring for Ralphie, all of which is volunteer time. While they are not paid, they gain an incredible sense of satisfaction and pride to go a long with the varsity letter they earn. Maybe the greatest gift of all, however, is to be a member of Ralphie's herd as well as the herd they have among themselves.
"I would come to these guys with literally anything," said runner Jacob Torres. "They're family to me."
They are a family, and they are Ralphie's family. Together they are "The Herd."
Anthony Lepine is SI's campus correspondent at the University of Colorado. Follow him on Twitter.