Behind the run: The experience of being a Ralphie handler

Anyone who’s been to a football game knows how this one goes. Before the football team even takes the field, the crowd rumbles in anticipation. South Park’s Eric Cartman does the honors. With a loud booming voice, the cartoon character announces, “Here comes Ralphie!” And like a bullet out of a gun, the legendary CU-Boulder mascot runs alongside her handlers on to the field.

The Ralphie Run is soon to be a 50-year tradition. One year after Ralphie was donated in 1966 to CU, she began running the field before the games. But the amount of work that goes into caring for Ralphie is often unseen and unknown.

The group of students that are responsible for running with and caring for the buffalo are called the Ralphie Handlers. There are a total of 15 students on the team, but the student turnout for tryouts can exceed 70.  

“The year that I tried out, there were 75, 80 people for five spots,” junior Bobby Rukavina said. “This year [Deyja Enrinquez] will graduate, and we’ll have two others graduate, so then there will just be three spots open next year. The competition will be pretty intense for those three spots.”

Deyja Enriquez pets Ralphie through his cage on Nov. 2nd at Folsom Field. (Anna Blanco/CU Independent)
Ralphie handler Deyja Enriquez pets Ralphie through her cage on Nov. 2, 2016 at Folsom Field. (Anna Blanco/CU Independent)

In order to fill the few available spots, those who want a chance to be on the team must demonstrate their proficiency in athleticism through written and physical tryouts.

“Each applicant fills out an application detailing their athletic ability, livestock experience and an essay on why they want to be a handler. We then bring all the applicants out to time them running three 100-yard sprints. After that we narrow down the applicant pool to about 15 people to bring in for interviews with the coaches and outgoing seniors,” Program Manager of the Ralphie Live Mascot Program John Graves explained.  

During the official season, the team spends approximately 30 hours each week training and caring for Ralphie, during the off season, it’s about 10-15 hours a week.

“Our workouts are about two to two and a half hours long. We do two days of strength training and sprints in addition to two or three days with Ralphie,” Rukavina said.

The workouts contain plenty of running and weightlifting.  They do sprints ranging from 50 yards to 300 yards and all the major Olympic lifts.  

“There are a lot of us that do workouts on our own, just to add to what we are already training,” Deyja Enriquez added.

When running with Ralphie, five people are responsible for running alongside her, and one person is in charge of shutting her trailer door. The other handlers are positioned around the field to ensure that her path is free of obstructions.

“The guy in the back is ‘loop.’ He’s in charge of slowing her down for us. The guy on her front right side is ‘spin;’ before the run you’ll see he starts [on] one side of her pen and then will spin, literally, in front of her and get onto her other side. He is on her inside, so on the curves he’ll pull her to turn her,” Enriquez explained.

The two handlers stationed by her midsection are there to help turn her, but also to fill in if somebody in the front falls. Where a handler is positioned on a run depends both on skill level and seniority.

From left to right Colton Behr, Patrick Shin, Rachel Edson, Jacob Torres, Bobby Rukavina practice runing Ralphie on Nov. 2nd at Folsumn Feild. (Anna Blancos/CU Independent)
From left to right Colton Behr, Patrick Shin, Rachel Edson, Jacob Torres, Bobby Rukavina practice running Ralphie on Nov. 2 at Folsom Field. (Anna Blancos/CU Independent)

“I run more up front, I’m not big enough or strong enough to run loop,” Rukavina said.

The team members also take time out of their busy schedules to go to Ralphie’s ranch and care for her, as well as Ralphie IV, who is close by. As handlers, these students are responsible for much more than just keeping in shape to run with Ralphie.  

“We definitely play with her,” Rukavina said. “You can’t play with her like a dog. She’s a 1300-pound animal. She’s a big girl, but you can tell she doesn’t really think of us as humans and her as a buffalo. I think we are all buffalo to her. We’re her herd.”

While these students do receive a Varsity Letter for being a handler, no students are paid or given any kind of scholarship to work with Ralphie. The handlers do everything that comes with working with Ralphie voluntarily. It is a year-round commitment. The only times the team takes off are the month of December and part of June, but other than that, they are training, practicing and caring for CU’s beloved Ralphie.

The handlers are also in charge of giving each new Ralphie her real name. Known as Ralphie to the public, the Handlers call Ralphie V “Blackout,” because she was the darkest in her herd.

The Ralphie handlers, coaches and assisting staff all take pride in their program. They work year round to take care of an important symbol of CU. 

“It’s the people we get to do it with on the team, we’ve become a family,” Enriquez said. “Carrying that tradition together as a family makes the program what it is.”

The importance of the Ralphie Run is evident to the handlers.

“Being a symbol for the university, the pride and tradition that we have, and the Ralphie program is 50 years old this year,” Rukavina said. “Every year, it seems like we’re doing bigger stuff, faster runs. Every year the notoriety goes up a little bit more. More people know about Ralphie, and the Ralphie handlers.”

Contact CU Independent News Staff Writer Anna Blanco at anna.blanco@colorado.edu.

CU Independent

The CU Independent, or CUI for short, is the student news outlet for the University of Colorado at Boulder. We cover news, sports, politics, opinion, arts and entertainment and more. Our mission is to provide news and commentary that's for students and by students — about the things we care about.

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