BOULDER, Colo. — It’s impossible to explain the feeling of running alongside a buffalo.
Most of the 17 men and women who are lucky enough to be “Ralphie Handlers” at the University of Colorado, grapple for just the right word to describe running next to — attached to — a 1,200-pound wild animal.
But all can agree on one thing: it’s a rush that cannot be replicated.
“It’s literally the coolest thing that I’ve ever been a part of,” senior handler Blake Gouin said. “Making the team was the greatest thing that ever happened to me.”
The running of Ralphie, Colorado’s 7-year-old real-life buffalo mascot, started in 1934, but didn’t become a tradition until 1966. There have been five Ralphies, each given a roman numeral to show their lineage, and each female because they’re smaller and less aggressive than males. The current Ralphie, Ralphie V, made her first run during the Colorado spring game on April 19, 2008 and will turn 8 years old in October. Her predecessor, Ralphie IV, is still alive and only makes appearances.
Being a Ralphie Handler isn’t just about being fast, it’s about being confident, charismatic and charming. Every time Ralphie makes a public appearance, the Handler’s are stationed at various points around her pen to make sure she’s comfortable and protected. The Handlers are friendly, knowledgeable and more than willing to share their signature black cowboy hats to add a little western charm to a quick photo. But they’re also diligent about keeping people a foot and a half away from her pen and definitely, no touching.
While there are 15 handlers, one director and one assistant director, only five run with Ralphie at any given time and those five don’t know they’re running until right before it’s time to go.
Rookies get one run in a football game during their first year, but they do get ample practice. Ben Frei, a former handler and now the director of the program, said rookies are introduced to Ralphie’s speed in the first practice and, “99.9 percent don’t stay on during their first run.”
“I lot of people come in with a little experience or no experience, but nobody ever comes in with buffalo experience, specifically buffalo running experience,” handler Austin Wilkerson, a junior, said. “That’s just something that you have to make up throughout your time on the team.”
Wilkerson said he’d wanted to be a Ralphie Handler since he was 10 years old. He was at a game, saw Ralphie run for the first time and was completely mesmerized. When he learned that anyone could apply to be a handler, he did so. And after a grueling interview process, which included a test of physical fitness, Wilkerson made the team.
Still, the enormity of the task of running with Ralphie didn’t hit him until his first run.
“You get your first run at practice and it’s like holding on to a rubber band,” Wilkerson said. “It’s like running on a treadmill and it’s going underneath you, it’s just so fast… Then my first run, at the stadium, under the lights, my breathing is getting a little faster, my knees are shaking standing on the sideline. You can’t describe what that’s going to feel like to people.”
Frei said the Ralphie Program has changed significantly since he was handler from 1997-2001. Instead of just doing football games, Ralphie makes at least one appearance at every sport. She runs prior to one soccer and one lacrosse game and is available for pictures outside the arena during basketball season.
Another change is that the Ralphie Handlers have a strength and conditioning coach, and have a rigorous workout program fit for handling a buffalo. There’s also the mental aspect of it. Since handlers don’t know when or if they’ll be running, they always have to be ready to go.
“So I wake up in the morning or even sometimes the night before I’ll sit or laying in bed just picturing the run, picturing practice, picturing bad habits that I’ve picked up that I want to correct as far as my running form and how I hold the ropes,” Wilkerson said. “We don’t find out at that game that we’re gonna run on the specific run until a couple minutes before. So, it’s just enough time to run and text your mom. But I’ll hear my name and it’s like fulfillment because I’ve been running through those checklists in my head the whole time getting myself ready, but at the same time, it kicks it into overdrive. And then, it’s all for a really short time. So, I spend my whole day thinking about it and as soon as it’s over it’s the biggest rush. You’ve done it, you’ve completed it and you’re just floating on air.”
Each of the five people holding Ralphie has a specific job. Both people in front are charged with steering and holding Ralphie’s head up so she knows when to slow down. Those people also have to lean into Ralphie to get her to go where they want. The one in the back, who is usually one of the stronger handlers, is in charge of the brakes. He, it’s usually a male, is sitting back in his stance trying to use his weight to slow Ralphie down enough so the rest of the handlers can keep up. And then there are the other 10 handlers. While they might not be holding on to the buffalo, they are in charge of safety. They’re stationed at specific points on the field and near the trailer and if something goes wrong or a handler loses his or her grip, which has happened more than once, their job is to step in and pick up the rein.
In the end, whether you’re running, helping or watching, it’s one of the greatest experiences in all of sports.
“You’ve got to be on your toes at all times. I mean, anything can happen at any time and that’s why we train so hard and everything like that. It’s literally indescribable,” Gouin said. “The amount of adrenaline, the amount of teamwork. If you watch a run, you’ll think it’s only five people doing the job, but we’re all a team. If it isn’t for every one of us on the team, even the people standing in the field have a huge, huge job to do. Just a physical presence to make sure that she’s there and if something goes wrong to fill in immediately like that. When you hear the “Here comes Ralphie” and everything like that, everything goes out and your just focusing on the run. It’s literally the biggest adrenaline rush I’ve ever had in my life.”