The kids are back in school and that means that it is time for college football. And what would college football be without mascots? For the University of Colorado Buffaloes that means the personal appearance of Ralphie, the live mascot for the team, on campus and at games. Ralphie was recently named the #2 live college football mascot in the country. If you haven't heard of her (yes, she's a girl) then it's time you did.
The University of Colorado began in Boulder in 1876, the same year that Colorado became a state. It was not until 1934 that the sports teams were named the Buffaloes, or "Buffs" for short. The American Bison, or Buffalo, once roamed the Boulder Valley in great numbers. A contest had been held to select a team name and the winner won a $5 prize. That first year a group of students pooled their money together to rent a live buffalo for $25 to appear at a game. Four students and a real cowboy were used to handle the animal. It was not until 1966 that a buffalo calf was gifted to the university. That first buffalo was named Rraalph until the students noticed that she was a girl and she became Ralphie. That first buffalo served from 1966 to 1978.
Ralphie has become an established part of Buffs football and makes appearances at the home games. Occasionally she has made the trip to an away game. Since that first Ralphie there have been four more bison to serve, each in their turn. The real names of the bison have been Moonshine, Tequila, Rowdy, and currently Blackout has the job. Ralphie is always a female due to size and temperament. Male bison can be twice the size of females and are well known to be bad-tempered. During the reign of that first Ralphie my mother was working for the university and I received a toy plush Ralphie for Christmas.
Ralphie lives somewhere on a ranch two hours north of Boulder. The location is kept secret for Ralphie's safety. On the Friday afternoon before a Saturday home game she is loaded into a trailer and driven south to the university and Folsom Field where she will make her iconic "Ralphie Run" just minutes before kickoff to lead the team onto the field. Since she is no simple dog or horse mascot since she weighs more than half a ton, it takes an entire team of handlers to hang on to the bison and run along with her.
The Ralphie handling team is made up of a team of student athletes. These kids need to be athletic because they have to keep up with her speed of 13 MPH. They also have to be strong enough to hold onto one of the several leather leads used to control and guide the huge beast. They are also charged with washing her before the games, opening the gates of her trailer when she arrives, do crowd control, pick up her chips (poop), and, most importantly, be able to recapture her when she escapes. And escapes she does, though not often. The handlers also have a uniform of cowboy duds and black Stetsons (the school colors are black and gold). While one source claims that they also wear cowboy boots, in many pictures and videos they do appear to be wearing running shoes. Running shoes would definitely be a saner choice under the circumstances. Just for the record, Ralphie Handlers are both men and women.
Ralphie doesn't spend her weeks resting on her laurels. She trains twice a week for her game day runs. Each of these training sessions last for about an hour. She needs to be in top shape to make her runs. When she makes a game day appearance she makes the run twice -- once before each half. It is an amazing sight. She does live a good life for a buffalo. She is fed alfalfa and oats in addition to her natural grazing, is groomed regularly, and has lots of space to roam in her leisure time, which is most of the time.
Just because there is a home game does not mean that Ralphie is definitely going to run. Bad weather, unsafe field conditions, and even the mood of Ralphie herself can cause the run to be cancelled right up to the last minute. Ralphie's well-being takes precedence over her mascot duties. The same holds true for the Ralphie Handlers.
You've probably heard of schools kidnapping each other's mascots before games. This has happened to Ralphie only once and that was way back in 1970 when a group of Air Force Academy cadets stole the bison and then paraded her at the stadium sandwiched between two "buns" and accompanied by a giant bottle of ketchup. This is probably why her home is such a carefully guarded secret. A year later Ralphie was named Homecoming Queen for the school.
Ralphie is also one well-traveled buffalo since she also appears at championship games and bowl games. She makes appearances at Denver for the National Western Stock Show in early January. She may also make other promotional appearances throughout the year.
For other sports the Buffaloes mascot is more like the mascots of other schools -- a guy in a costume. This mascot is a young buffalo named "Chip." Another Buffalo specialty is for the fans in the stadium to engage in periodically during a game is the Buffalo Stampede or Buffalo Stomp. This involves everyone stamping their feet in a thundering event that shakes the stadium. There have been reports that this tradition has been stopped because of damage to the stadium, but I have not found a definitive reference to this. The last time I was there we definitely did a stampede.
I may not be a big football fan, but I definitely support the home team and love Ralphie. I swear that on my Colorado Buffs t-shirt. Oh, and I take exception to the #2 ranking for Ralphie. She came in second to the LSU Tiger. While the tiger is cool, they haven't been able to get it to a game in two years because it is a cat and doesn't want to go. At least Ralphie shows up for the CU games!