Colorado’s mascot handlers get workout with Ralphie

Zac Reicks

It is a job that would normally be hard to fill. If it were advertised in the local newspaper, it would look a little something like this:

“Wanted — Ten college students to help run a 1,200-pound buffalo around a football field. Must be able to run fast; experience with large animals is beneficial. Benefits include Wrangler jeans, shirt and hat, along with Nike tennis shoes.”

However, when that buffalo is Ralphie IV from the University of Colorado, and that football field has 50,000 screaming fans packed inside, it can be one of the most highly coveted jobs on campus.

The Ralphie Handling Squad is a group of 10 college students along with two coaches that have the responsibility of running Colorado’s buffalo mascot around the field before the beginning of the game and the third quarter.

Rick Fleenor, sophomore in advertising, says that most people don’t realize just how much time is put into making things run smoothly on Saturdays.

“We practice every Friday before home games,” Fleenor said. “We meet here at [Folsom Field] at 5 p.m. and run her around once or twice. She can go up to 25 mph, so when we practice we have to slow her down.”

For those people who think it is cruel to harness an animal and run it around before a game, the current Ralphie is in a better place than when people first found her.

“It’s not like we took her out of the wild,” Fleenor said. “Ted Turner has a buffalo ranch and they rescued her as a calf from the jaws of a coyote. After nursing her back to health, the herd wouldn’t accept her, so Ted Turner donated her to the school.”

The name Ralphie comes from the original Ralphie I, who made her first appearance at a CU function in 1966. For a while, she was called Ralph, a name given by the student body. When students found out the buffalo was female, it was quickly changed to Ralphie.

Always having females isn’t an extreme case of sexual discrimination — it’s just a whole lot safer.

“Our insurance won’t cover us if we have a male,” handler Michael Dauro said. “The males are a lot larger and more aggressive, so there is no way we could have one run on the field.”

Running on the field is a big part of what the handlers do every home game. Tryouts to become a member of the squad reflect that very fact.

“We had to have tryouts, run sprints and fill out an application,” Fleenor said. It helps to know someone on the squad and you should also have a background with farm animals.”

This year’s squad features a few regulars from the Navy ROTC, as well as four members of the Sigma Nu fraternity.

“It’s a close team. We want people that will be dependable,” Dauro said.

Finding dependable teammates usually means that most of the new handlers already know someone on the squad.

“My roommate was on my team and he kind of helped get me on the team,” Fleenor said. “There is definitely seniority on the squad. This is my first year, but I can stay until I am a senior if I want.”

Another first-year member is Kerri Courtney, sophomore in history. Courtney is the youngest squad member at age 19 but has already become quite attached to her job.

“The best part for me is being down here with Ralphie,” Courtney said. “I love Ralphie so much, she took the place of my dog who I had to leave at home.”

Now while I don’t suggest playing Frisbee with Ralphie in the park, she does know her way around the baseball field quite well.

“We practiced at a baseball field and she got loose,” Fleenor said. “If that happens you try to wear her down because she won’t come to you. It takes at least a half-hour.”

Patience is definitely a valuable virtue to have with an animal that is even more powerful than Tony Mandarich in a tug-of-war match.

Ralphie came into the national spotlight last week as Violet Stromberg, a 96-year-old lifelong CU football fan, left her life savings of $40,730 to create a fund to care for the buffalo. The Ralphie Fund will help pay for Ralphie’s hoof trimmings, transportation, harnesses, ropes, vet bills and $1,500 a year in oats, alfalfa and grass.

Running Ralphie onto the field takes five people: two handlers in front controlling the head, two on either side of the rear legs, and one handling the end.

“Two guys control the head, which directs the way she goes,” Dauro said. “This year I have run the rear a lot — I have a U-shaped rope that controls how fast she goes.”

“I am inside back, the easiest position not to mess up,” Courtney said. “That is the best for me since I am fairly new, but one day I want to run up by her head — that would be awesome.”

Courtney showed her devotion to the squad by turning down the chance to study abroad next fall and do it in the spring instead.

“My teammates sort of convinced me it would be a good idea,” Courtney said with a laugh.

Devotion to the squad definitely has its perks.

“Girls like it for sure,” Fleenor said. “It has never hurt me when I am talking to a girl.”

“That’s true about the girls,” Dauro said. “I wore my uniform for Halloween once and this one girl was infatuated with the Ralphie look.”

All I can say is … where do I sign up?

Zac Reicks

is a senior in journalism and mass communication

from Lawler. He is a sports editor for the Daily.