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Colorado head football coach Karl Dorrell meets Ralphie VI during a recent practice in Boulder. Ralphie VI is set to make her debut on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, at Folsom Field.
Colorado head football coach Karl Dorrell meets Ralphie VI during a recent practice in Boulder. Ralphie VI is set to make her debut on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, at Folsom Field.

Colorado tight end Brady Russell isn’t expecting perfection the first time Ralphie VI gets on the big stage, but he is excited that one of the greatest traditions in college football is making a return.

On Wednesday, CU officially announced that Ralphie VI is set to make her debut on Friday when the Buffaloes host Northern Colorado at Folsom Field (7 p.m., TV: Pac-12 Networks).

Friday will mark the first time the school’s live buffalo mascot has led the football team onto the field since Ralphie V’s last run nearly 23 months ago, on Oct. 5, 2019.

“I am excited to run behind Ralphie,” said Russell, a junior. “It’ll be cool being under a first-year Ralphie because she’s a little smaller. She’s getting used to it. It’ll be fun seeing her mature throughout the year. I’m sure the first … run won’t look like the last.”

Ralphie VI is a 15-month-old buffalo weighing in at just under 500 pounds. She was born May 27, 2020, in western Nebraska. Ralphie V, who is 15 years old and enjoying retirement, and other previous CU mascots weighed nearly 1,300 pounds at full maturity.

“I couldn’t be more excited to introduce Ralphie VI this Friday night,” athletic director Rick George said in a press release. “This will be a really special moment in our Ralphie history as Ralphie VI makes her first appearance to open our 2021 season. Colorado football is synonymous with Ralphie and I’m ecstatic to continue this tradition with Ralphie VI as the best tradition in college athletics.”

Led by Ralphie program manager Taylor Stratton, CU has spent nearly two years finding a suitable successor to Ralphie V, who retired at the end of the 2019 season but did not run at any of the final three home games that season. Ralphie V had become too wired up and was not responding to cues from the handlers like usual, so it was deemed unsafe to continue running her.

Ralphie V led the football team onto the field for 12 years before her retirement. At the time, CU and former program manager John Graves were already in the process of finding a successor. The COVID-19 pandemic played a role in extending that process, however. Even if a Ralphie VI was ready for the 2020 season, she would not have run because of COVID-19 restrictions.

Ralphie VI was donated to CU in November and after months of training, she was determined to be the right buffalo to succeed Ralphie V.

“It was hard during the pandemic to work with Ralphie, just because we didn’t have the time and there were some things in place that didn’t allow group gatherings and things like that,” George told BuffZone in July. “We feel good about what (Stratton) has done and her team and I think our fans will be excited.”

So are the players, who have missed charging onto the field behind Ralphie and her handlers.

“That’s the tradition of this program and Ralphie’s huge,” senior linebacker Nate Landman said. “She’s voted the No. 1 mascot year in year out and we love her and she’s huge for this program. That’s why (the handlers) get so ready and those people who are running are amazing, too.”

Second-year head coach Karl Dorrell had the opportunity to run behind Ralphies III and IV when he was an assistant for the Buffs from 1992-93 and 1995-98, but didn’t get a chance to experience the tradition as a head coach last season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The return of Ralphie, as well as fans, has him excited for Friday’s opener.

“We took the field (in 2020) with no one in the stands and it was like a scrimmage on a Saturday,” he said. “It’s definitely going to feel like it’s a college game experience with young Ralphie running and fans in the stands. It’s gonna feel like it’s my first game.”

It is believed that Ralphie VI will be the youngest buffalo to lead the team onto the field. The first Ralphie was less than a year old when she first appeared at a CU game on Oct. 1, 1966, but her first official run in leading the team onto the field came nearly a year later, on Sept. 16, 1967.

Ralphies II and III were both about three years old when they debuted, in 1978 and 1987, respectively. Ralphie IV was about 17 months old when she debuted in 1998 and Ralphie V was about 19 months old when she first ran at CU’s spring game on April 19, 2008.

“We’re very excited for the opportunity to continue the Ralphie live mascot program,” Stratton said in a press release. “We understand how much Ralphie means to everyone in Buff Nation.  Throughout the entire process, we have always prioritized the care and safety of the buffalo and her handlers above all else.

“All of Ralphie’s training is completed with positive reinforcement, and ultimately the decision on whether or not she runs will always depend on her safety and that of her handlers.”

Since the program officially debuted in 1967, the five previous Ralphies have combined to run at 355 games – 296 at home, 24 bowl games, 19 Rocky Mountain Showdowns in Denver, 12 road games and four Big 12 championship games.

Ralphie I ran 78 times from 1967-78, followed by Ralphie II (53, 1978-87); Ralphie III (73, 1987-97); Ralphie IV (75, 1998-2008); and Ralphie V (76, 2008-19).