At the time, it seemed like a fun idea to have a live buffalo run around Folsom Field to pump up the crowd.
It was 1965, and the University of Colorado had been known as the Buffaloes for more than 30 years, but didn’t actually have a live buffalo as a mascot.
“We just had, as I recall, some lame stuffed animal,” said Victor Reinking, who was a CU freshman in 1965.
That soon changed, as the father of freshman Bill Lowery bought and donated a young buffalo to CU. Acquiring the animal was easy. Then came the hard part: learning how to run with her.
During the summer of 1966, Lowery, Reinking and fellow sophomores Don Marturano and John McGill took on that task of getting to know the young buffalo and working with her.
“The thing thing I remember is, ‘Whoa, what have we gotten ourselves into here? This thing is going to drag us down. What if we fall down?'” recalls Reinking, who is now the chair of the modern languages and cultures department at Seattle University.
Initially, the great idea didn’t seem so fun. But, the handlers kept working.
Ralphie — known as Ralph until it was later discovered she was a female — was a juvenile buffalo and nothing like the 1,200-pound Ralphie V that runs today. The young buffalo shocked the handlers, however.
“The first time we took her for a run, we were all surprised,” Reinking said. “It almost overpowered the four of us, even with the harness and hanging on for dear life. It was surprisingly powerful.
“We were fearless. We just thought it was like a little calf. Ignorance is bliss.”
The four students began training with Ralphie a couple times a week at a ranch just east of Boulder.
“We realized it was doable and the harness was good and there were four tethers,” Reinking said. “As I recall, it was Bill who really understood the animal and we were just holding on to restrain and to be enthusiastic and yell and scream.
“We got used to it and it wasn’t long before we were out here for the first game.”
The university began to endorse Ralphie’s runs in 1967 and through its research, CU has found no evidence of Ralphie leading the team onto the field prior to 1967. That’s why this season is recognized as the 50th anniversary of the program.
However, Ralphie’s first run across Folsom Field came a year earlier. Lowery, Reinking, Marturano and McGill ran Ralphie I on Oct. 1, 1966, when the Buffs played Kansas State.
“We ran out onto the field and the place just went nuts,” Reinking said. “We couldn’t believe the reaction. You’re going out into a football stadium filled with tens of thousands of people. It was a real high, for sure.”
The original handlers ran Ralphie throughout the 1966 season, Reinking recalls, before the tradition got its official start on Sept. 16, 1967, against Baylor.
More than half a century later, Reinking marvels at what the tradition has become and he’s honored to have been there at the beginning.
“I’m very proud of it,” he said. “I’m delighted and I’m really looking forward to seeing the commemoration on television.
“It was just this crazy idea that came up and then it actually happened.”