Clad in black cowboy hats, button-up shirts and blue jeans, a team of well-trained handlers lead some precious University of Colorado Boulder cargo onto Folsom field during home football games.
Ralphie, the buffalo, CU’s live mascot, blazes across the field at their guidance, eliciting cheers from fans before players even touch the ball.
Friday evening, 34 competitors, with dreams of running alongside the mighty buffalo tried out to be one of Ralphie’s handlers at CU’s Indoor Practice Facility. The applicants, paired down from 53, went head-to-head during a 100-yard sprint in an effort to advance to the next level of tryouts. Between five and six new handlers will be chosen for next year to replace graduating students. They’ll be charged with a new Ralphie, too. Ralphie V, the mascot since 2008, is retiring.
Ralphie V has not run at the last two games at Folsom Field and she will not run at the Buffaloes’ home finale on Saturday against Washington, but there will be a farewell celebration for her.
John Graves, manager of the Ralphie Live Mascot program, and Taylor Stratton, the program’s assistant coach, facilitated Friday’s tryouts.
“It takes a whole lot (to be a handler),” Graves said. “We look at the whole person. It’s not all about athletic ability. There’s a lot of skills involved with Ralphie and there is a lot of manual labor.”
The multi-tiered application process includes proving not only physical strength and stamina, but also compassion and experience caring for large animals. Those who apply write an essay, compete in physical endurance tests and go through interviews. The Friday sprints marked the fourth level of the application process, with the final being interviews.
The team of handlers is made up of roughly 15 people, all CU students, charged with holding Ralphie’s harness as they dash onto the field. Handlers spend the year helping care for the buffalo. First-year participants, known as “rookies,” start their careers completing less desirable tasks.
“Their first and foremost job is scooping up a lot of poop,” Graves said. “They don’t have the fun jobs on the team at all.”
Handlers, who spend 20 to 30 hours a week training and caring for Ralphie, can work their way up and must spend about a year learning how to safely run alongside the buffalo.
With Ralphie V, the university’s soon-to-retire mascot, known to reach speeds of up to 25 mph, shoulder strength and physical endurance are an important part of the job, in addition to care and compassion for the animal, Stratton said.
Eighteen-year-old Sydney Walthall, a CU freshman studying aerospace, was among those trying out Friday night.
Walthall said she grew up watching CU football games on TV with her dad, Brent Walthall. One of the father-daughter duo’s favorite parts of the game was seeing Ralphie storm the field. Sometimes they would even watch YouTube video compilations of the buffalo and her handlers.
“Now that I’m here (at CU), I can’t pass this up,” Walthall said. “It seems like a really great community to be part of.”
Walthall started preparing for tryouts in September, building her endurance with pull-ups and sprinting.
Nolan Johan, 19, a CU freshman, studying history and geography, hoped his high school track background would give him an edge in tryouts.
Johan said he first heard about being a Ralphie handler from his track coach whilea student at Niwot High School and knew he wanted to make the team.
“There’s nothing that connects you more to a school than athletics,” Johan said. “And Ralphie is the symbol of CU.”
The Ralphie program has been in place at CU since 1967. CU officials announced last week that 13-year-old Ralphie V will be retiring after serving the university since 2008. The decision was made when Ralphie V, CU’s biggest and strongest buffalo yet, was not responding to handlers’ cues. A Ralphe VI has not yet been selected, but handlers are in the process of finding the next mascot.
During Saturday’s game against Washington, there will be a special send-off for Ralphie V, including a retirement ceremony during halftime. While she won’t be running in the game, the buffalo will be waiting for goodbyes from her adoring fans inside Ralphie’s Corral. Following the game, she will live out her days in her pasture.
“We are excited and bittersweet to retire her on Saturday,” Stratton said.
The Ralphie program, which turned 53 years old this year, sparked some controversy this week, when the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals called on CU to put an end to the live mascot program. The organization sent a letter to CU system President Mark Kennedy, outlining its concerns with parading an animal “before raucous crowds, entirely out of their element, and treated as if they were toys.”
In response Friday, Graves, who has served the program since 2007, said making sure the buffalo is content and cared for is a major part of the job and that handlers are adept at gauging whether Ralphie is feeling up for a run in the stadium.
“Ralphie V has always loved to run and always loved her job,” Graves said. “That’s why she’s so great at it and served for so long as our great mascot. She gets great care and we are out there literally every day checking in on her and making sure she is good and happy. We would never make any buffalo do something they don’t want to do.”
After the sprints Friday night, Graves said the top 15 candidates would move forward in the tryouts One thing the program leaders made apparent was that being selected for the program is an honor.
“Her safety and happiness are our No. 1 priority,” Stratton said. “I love her and grew up around large animals. It’s really, really a top priority as well for us in the program to make sure she gets the best possible care and treatment.”