Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Heritage Center University of Colorado Boulder / Courtesy Photo
There’s a unique level of energy in the air when Ralphie V and her handlers are in the back of the end zone at Folsom Field, preparing for her to charge and lead the Colorado football team onto the field on Saturdays.
Adrenaline flows through all of the handlers, and they can sense the excitement in Ralphie, as well.
“She enjoys being a buffalo, but man, she loves to run,” said John Graves, CU’s Ralphie program manager. “She loves to run and she does a great job doing it. We bring her up to Folsom and she’s like, ‘OK, I have a job to do. I’m ready to run. Let’s go.'”
On Saturday, CU will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Ralphie program. While Ralphie I did actually run for the first time in 1966, there is no evidence of her leading the team onto the field until 1967 — the first year the program was endorsed by the university.
During the past five decades, the five Ralphies have thrilled the crowds at Folsom Field, as well as at other events throughout the year.
The game-day pageantry represents just a small portion of the year, however. Usually, Ralphie spends her time alone, grazing on grass, enjoying her cottonwood trees and simply doing what buffaloes typically do.
“That’s her time and her place and her personal space to just hang out on the ranch, graze away and have time to herself to be a buffalo,” Graves said.
That time is sacred for Ralphie and her handlers, which is why the location of her ranch is kept secret. A request by the Daily Camera to visit the ranch was denied, as it usually is when such requests are made.
CU and the handlers have kept Ralphie’s location secret for years, mainly for the protection of the animal.
In 1970, the Ralphie I was kidnapped by a group of Air Force Academy cadets. According to a Daily Camera article from 2011, Ralphie’s captors “led her around Falcon Stadium dressed as a buffalo burger, sandwiched between oversized burger buns, alongside a giant bottle of ketchup.”
Ralphie was returned unharmed, but Graves said, “Obviously we don’t want that happening. We don’t want the visiting team and their fans or anyone else to know where Ralphie lives.”
Keeping the location secret also allows Ralphie to have quiet time, where she won’t be bothered by fans who show up randomly to take pictures or try to see her.
There are even many who work in the CU athletic department who don’t know where Ralphie lives. That information is generally reserved for those who work with her on a daily basis — such as Graves and the handlers.
Those who do work with Ralphie cherish the time they spend with her on the ranch.
“When she gets excited for games, she gets more hyper and prances her feet around,” said Rachel Edson, a 2014 Boulder High School graduate and current senior on the Ralphie handler team. “That’s awesome to see, but I also enjoy being quiet with her and sitting with her and seeing her in her element.”
Ralphie V lives alone on her ranch, rotating between five different pastures. Graves said that in addition to grass, Ralphie loves feeding on the cottonwood leaves.
There are also shelters throughout the ranch, as well as several big tractor tires that Ralphie uses as toys.
“She just loves to flip them, like you see humans do, but she does it with her horns,” Graves said.
In addition to Graves and the coaches, there are 15 handlers on the team. They take turns visiting Ralphie to take care of her, but somebody is with her every day.
“We’re kind of like her herd,” Graves said.
Each of the handlers has built a unique bond with Ralphie. There have only been about 250 handlers over the years, and Edson is one of just 21 females. She believes that’s helped her grow especially close with Ralphie.
“She recognizes not only by sight, but a lot of it is voice and smell,” Edson said. “Usually when I head down to her ranch, I walk up to her and start talking to her and she warms up to me and knows exactly who I am.”
While CU fans typically see Ralphie only a few times a year and for a few minutes, the handlers spend countless hours each week practicing and spending time with her.
“It definitely is a huge chunk of my week, which I can’t complain about because she is one of my friends,” Edson said.
Edson is not alone in viewing Ralphie V as a friend. All of the handlers develop a tight bond with Ralphie.
Graves has known Ralphie V since she arrived at CU as a four-month old calf in January of 2007. He also had a chance to run with Ralphie IV, who died in March.
Ralphie IV and V were both donated to CU by media and sports entrepreneur Ted Turner. Ralphie V is currently in her 10th season and may only have two or three years left to run. At some point, Graves and his crew will work with Turner to get Ralphie VI and begin the process of training and getting to know her.
Throughout his time in the program, Graves has learned that each of the animals has a unique personality and he said, “It means so much (to be a part of the program).”
One thing that has never changed is the bond that Ralphie’s handlers have developed.
Edson said it’s sad to think about her time as a handler coming to an end, but she wouldn’t trade these past three years.
“It’s the most rewarding, unbelievable experience I’ve ever been a part of,” she said.