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Somewhere two hours away from Boulder, a mythical ranch, whose location is known only to a few, houses one of the most revered creatures in the state.
That mythical ranch is home to Ralphie V, a live female bison who serves as the mascot for CU. Weighing all of 1,300 pounds and growing, the gentle beast is famous for her thunderous, on-field runs during football games.
John Graves, the assistant director of the Ralphie Handler program, said he’s proud that CU has a live mascot.
“There is not a lot of live mascots in college sports, which is a shame,” Graves said. “We take pride in what we do.”
The Ralphie Handler program trains students to run Ralphie during game days at CU. Currently, Graves said the program comprises 14 student-athletes.
While experience with horses and other livestock is helpful, Graves said, athletic ability is more important. After all, he said doesn’t expect potential candidates to have too much familiar experience.
“Who has experience running a buffalo?” Graves said. “We can teach that to people, we want them to learn.”
A rich tradition
Minutes before the opening kick-off of football games in Boulder, Ralphie charges down the sideline, with five handlers playing catch-up. This image mimics the first-ever Ralphie run on Oct. 28, 1967, the day the tradition was born.
The first Ralphie was a 6-month-old calf. She was brought to Folsom Field and paraded around the cinder-track that circled the field. But she wasn’t the first live buffalo to grace the university’s grounds. During the final game of the 1934 football season, a group of students paid $25 to rent a bison calf for use as a mascot.
Along with a real cowboy as a handler, four students were also needed to keep the buffalo under control. The mascot may have brought good fortune; Colorado won the game 7-0 over the University of Denver.
Now, Ralphie V continues the tradition, serving as a living, charging emblem of the largest university in the state.
Colin Hinman, a 20-year-old junior architecture major, is a veteran in the Ralphie Handler program and will be participating in his third season come fall 2011. Hinman said the experience of running alongside Ralphie is incredible.
“Once you get out there, you’re in your own little world,” he said referring to the beginning of the run. “It’s the coolest; it’s unreal to run next to a buffalo, and being loved by all the fans. It’s just really cool.”
Chris Milinazzo, a 19-year-old sophomore majoring in business administration and one of the rookie handlers, said he still remembers his first run.
“I remember that very first run, it was unreal, absolutely unbelievable,” Milinazzo said. “I would have to say that this rush is unlike any other I have ever had.”
Milinazzo’s inaugural run was against Hawai’i on Sept. 18, 2010, a 31-13 win for the Buffs.
“It feels like forever when you’re just standing there, getting ready to run,” Milinazzo said. “The second our coach lowers his hands, you’ve got adrenaline pumping. You’re just trying to keep up with her.”
Training for the run
Preparing for the Ralphie run, which can last less than 40 seconds, takes several hours a week of training.
Graves said this process involves running Ralphie on her ranch twice a week for about an hour, cleaning her pen and feeding her. Graves called the gig a “full-time job.”
“We run her twice during the game, before each half,” Graves said. “That minute is what everyone sees, they don’t see the training, the feeding, the athletes who work out twice a week in the morning.”
Graves refers to Ralphie Handlers as athletes for a reason. All members of the program are Division I athletes, and adhere to the same rules and regulations as those with helmets on their heads and pads on their shoulders.
There is the slight difference in the uniforms: Ralphie Handlers are decked out in Western wear, sporting black Stetsons, aged cowboy boots and gleaming belt buckles.
Just like some football team members, prospective Ralphie Handlers are given a chance to prove their abilities during a tryout process that involves an athletic performance test and a sit-down interview.
Milinazzo, who had prior experience in ranching on his grandparents’ ranch, said he made it his goal to be a part of the tradition after seeing one of Ralphie’s runs during family weekend at CU his freshman year.
“It was halftime when I saw her on the field,” Milinazzo said. “I told myself I was to work as hard as I could. I didn’t know if I had to try out I didn’t know what I had to do to be on the team.”
He had quite a bit of competition. He said he estimated that there were around 42 other students vying for a spot on the team.
But it didn’t matter. A week later, Milinazzo received a call from Graves asking him to join the team.
Ralphie the princess
Taking care of Ralphie is not just a matter of labor but of assuring the living emblem is taken care of properly.
Hinman said she is well cared for.
“I mean, people try to give us flack and say that she isn’t fed right; she’s got alfalfa, oats, plenty of space to roam around,” Hinman said. “It’s a glamorous lifestyle.”
Ralphie is no diva, however. Her posh living is filled with childish behavior, like playing with toys. Hinman said one toy in particular seems to always attract her.
“She likes logs,” Hinman said. “She’ll use her horn on them, play with them.”
Graves said he wants people to know his program for its good treatment of Ralphie, who turned four last year.
“We treat our Ralphie like a princess, which she is,” Graves said. “She gets premium feed, she grazes on pasture just hanging out. She lives a great life.”
Contact CU Independent Sports Editor Esteban L. Hernandez at Esteban.email@example.com.