“It is so special and amazing the first time you get to run with the buffalo. It goes by in a flash. So the guys on their first run — they don’t remember it. But they remember the feeling they had when they do it, and that feeling stays with them forever.” —John Graves, program manager
College football is filled with traditions — some superstitious, some steeped in history, all invaluable to the fan bases to which they belong. While some are whispered quietly like prayers to the football gods, others are put on display for all to behold.
The University of Colorado is home to one of the most unique mascots and mascot traditions in all of college athletics. The live buffalo that leads CU’s football team before every game is designed to delight fans as well as shake up opposing teams. Stanford will look to overcome head coach David Shaw’s fear of Ralphie this weekend, as the No. 9-ranked Cardinal take on the 4-5 Buffs.
“Running with Ralphie” has become a well-known, well-loved part of Colorado football’s game day atmosphere since its inception in 1966, when the original Ralphie was donated to CU.
Granted, the buffalo first appeared in 1934 as a result of a local newspaper’s efforts to select an official school nickname, and for the last game of that season, a group of students paid $25 to rent a buffalo calf along with a real cowboy handler. Colorado defeated the University of Denver 7-0 that Thanksgiving Day, as the cowboy and four students kept the buffalo calf contained on the sidelines.
And thus, the Ralphie Runners were unofficially born. The inaugural run actually took place Oct. 28, 1967, at CU’s homecoming game against Oklahoma State, which OSU won 10-7. The original five sophomore class officers who ran Ralphie that day were replaced over the years with the 15 student-athlete team that we see today, which includes five people that run with the buffalo and 10 other team members out in the field to help steer Ralphie and keep everyone out of her path.
The buffaloes (there have been five total since 1967) have achieved national celebrity status, but the handlers continue to fly somewhat under the radar — their year-round hard work eclipsed by the hypnotic hoof beats heard on game day.
The application process to become a Ralphie handler has become a tradition itself, open to any full-time CU student with a minimum 2.0 GPA and at least one year of school left. The program accepts applications up until the start of the spring football game. Then come the tryouts.
“Everyone who has applied at that point, we bring them out and we time them on a 100-yard sprint to see how fast they are,” said program manager John Graves in an interview with TSFJ. “But the overall time requirement and how fast they need to be — we keep that a secret. It’s not the most important thing — we don’t just look at how speedy someone is or how strong someone is; we look at the whole individual.”
Applicants are then invited to the spring football game to watch Ralphie and her handlers in action before the pool is narrowed to 15 or so individuals who are then asked back for in-person interviews with coaches and graduating seniors.
“Everything factors into our decision,” said Graves. “It’s really hard to find someone that actually has buffalo experience coming into the team. But a lot of people have some sort of cattle experience, and we take that into consideration. We also look at someone who is teachable and coachable — that’s really important because no one has buffalo experience and no one knows how to run with the buffalo. They have to be open to learning and have experience in their past that shows us they are a teachable individual.”
Preparation is especially key for this particular squad, which is why each participants engage in significant amounts of speed and strength training.
“No one is fast enough to run with the buffalo — she runs 220 yards in 30 seconds,” said Graves. “Our guys aren’t fast enough to run directly with her. What happens is, they take very long strides and sprint really fast and Ralphie will actually pull them the rest of the way as they are steering her around the field.”
Graves says the training is extensive and the two exercises he favors the most are power cleans and pull-ups. The power cleans focus on legs and explosive power as well as grip strength and overall core while the pull-ups focus on upper body and back strength, which is key for holding the rope when running around the field with Ralphie. Buffalo can run up to 30 mph, and while the program doesn’t ever time Ralphie during her runs, everyone knows it’s fast. In fact, Ralphie V is one of the fastest Ralphies the program has ever had.
So what motivates a person to want to run with a 1,300-pound animal?
For super senior Jeana Newsom, who is in her third year with the team, running with the buffalo was something she wanted to do because she felt it symbolized school spirit and embodied a true team dynamic.
“For me, it’s not really scary because I’m running alongside four of my teammates who are like family to me, and I’m running beside the greatest tradition in college football and college sports,” Newsom told TSFJ. “There is a lot more passion in it than just thrill-seeking — it becomes about upholding a tradition.”
It is a team sport in the truest sense of the word. All the members must trust each other and work together to earn Ralphie’s trust.
“She is a wild animal above everything else. She is not tame by any means,” said Newsom. “But it’s that trust we instill in her that allows her to know that we are safe and that we will protect her. I’ve built this special bond with her, and I just feel so protective of her all the time.”
Senior Luke Baker, who is in his second year with the team, discloses Ralphie’s true feelings about her handlers.
“Ralphie loooooves me,” Baker said with a laugh. “But everyone has their own relationship with her. When you come in as a rookie, you don’t know her and she doesn’t know you so you really get to know her over the course of the season. She acclimates to you over time.”
Newsom agreed and added some advice for the newcomers.
“My biggest thing has been telling them that getting to know her will change your whole experience,” explained Newsom. “I just let them know that getting to know her is why you are here. If she wasn’t here the team wouldn’t exist and we wouldn’t be Ralphie handlers. So making her your No. 1 priority changes everything — it changes the way she runs with you and lets her be around you. That’s what makes it all worth it.”
Not everyone feels so comfortable around Ralphie — specifically visiting teams who have yet to meet the bison in person. Stanford head coach David Shaw shared his first encounter with Ralphie during a press conference this week, as the Cardinal head to Colorado to take on the Buffs tomorrow.
“I would refer to it as my most terrifying experience as an athlete,” remembered Shaw. “It was back in the day when they didn’t really have as much regulation around Ralphie and where that cage is, because it used to be right outside the locker room. And this was my first game in college football, my true freshman year — Ed McCaffrey wasn’t healthy yet so I got a chance to travel and was really excited.
“So we go warm up, we come in the locker room and then we are coming back out and for some reason I wanted to be the first guy out, so I go to the front and they open the locker room doors and I step out. And as you step out, you turn left and there’s the field. And I look out on the field and here comes this Volkswagen with horns, just dragging these human beings on the side, and she seems to be running right at me. So of course my natural instinct is to go back into the locker room. But I got 79 other guys trying to come out of the locker room — so I’m trying to go back in and they are all coming out. And it was probably 20 yards away, but it felt like five feet away when they finally turned the buffalo into her cage.
“I don’t think that my heart stopped pounding until the ball was kicked off. Just to see a large, large, fast animal coming right at you was very nerve-wracking. I’ll be staying in the locker room until she’s in her cage this week.”
Asking a Ralphie runner to recount his or her first run proves a more difficult challenge than the actual act itself.
“Even to this day, it’s hard for me to remember a game day run. It’s just so fast, and there is so much going on,” recounted the veteran Newsom. “You don’t even hear the crowd — that’s the crazy part. That’s what I remember the most, that you don’t hear anything except her and the people you are running with.”
Baker’s first game run was last year’s Washington State matchup, where he ran the front outside position. He remembers being nervous, butterflies and all, but then he blinked and the next thing he knew the buffalo was back in her trailer.
“When you are on the run, your muscle memory from all the practice just takes over and you are just so focused on the buffalo and your job, your position, that everything else just fades out — the crowd noise, everything,” said Baker. “It’s crazy.”
This particular type of team clearly shares a unique bond, and the 115 handlers over the past 20 years have cultivated a special community that celebrates its culture with a homecoming reunion event every year. The former members watch the current ones showcase their Ralphie, skills and generations past swap stories, knowing that this specific experience breeds a life-long bond.
“I think this will be a family for years — one that I never expected to have, that I’m so lucky to have,” said Newsom. “I know that we will always be in touch.”
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.