BOULDER — The black-and-gold trailer backed down a stadium ramp and into the north end zone at Folsom Field. Nearing a sunset sky one night before the University of Colorado football team's home opener, a collection of 16 students laced up cleats, jogged and stretched, slipped their hands into worn leather gloves, and surrounded the trailer's rear gate for this moment.
The 5-foot, 1,200-pound Queen of the Flatirons had arrived.
A buffalo first ran across the turf at a CU football game on Sept. 16, 1967, and now a half-century later, the tradition continues. Honorary decals for Ralphie's 50th year adorn the grass and the Buffs' helmets this fall. Ralphie V, a 10-year-old female, enters her 10th season in 2017.
Her predecessor, Ralphie IV, retired after her 10th year. John Graves was a student handler in 2008 when she took her last run, and he said, “She started to slow down and did her own thing.”
Graves, now the live mascot program manager, has known Ralphie V since she was just 6 months old. Ralphie V will turn 11 in October. How much longer will she run?
“We'll never make her do something she doesn't want to do,” Graves said. “When she retires is up to her.”
On the eve of her 2017 home debut, Ralphie V made preparations with three practice runs in the silence of an empty Folsom Field. Her determination to once again sprint with the roar of game day in reaching a historic 50th milestone would be determined over the next 24 hours.
Graves and the student handlers met for a team breakfast before traveling to Ralphie's pasture, its location kept top-secret for decades. Back in 1970, Ralphie I was abducted by several Air Force Academy cadets, and ever since, privacy has been a top priority. “We just want that safety for her,” said Ross Brewer, a 21-year-old Denver native and senior Ralphie handler.
Generally described as spacious with plenty of access to shelter, food and water, the pasture is where Ralphie handlers — a select group of varsity athletes who beat out more than 50 applicants annually for five or six open spots each fall — develop a unique relationship with Ralphie V. However, she can be slow warming up to rookie handlers by grazing far from their work cleaning up manure and old hay.
“You can't be scared of her, she'll see that,” said handler Adam Deutsch, a 20-year-old sophomore from New York. “You have to be more comfortable with her. It's a two-way street.”
Veteran handlers describe her personality as “gentle” and “playful.”
“When we're carrying the pen,” Brewer said, “sometimes she'll lick at our shirts.”
Few have a deeper connection to Ralphie V than Graves, who was a student when he first met the Buffalo when she was just 6 months old.
“I can kind of go in her pasture, look at her, and I can tell what kind of mood she's in,” Graves said. “Whether she's sleepy, excited to run or whatever it is. It's all about body language with the Buffalo. There are little small signs; how their tail is, where their ears are pointed, how they're walking, what they're doing. It's hard to explain. It's just something you pick up.”
The trailer pulled into campus and unloaded at Ralphie's Corral, a tailgate south of the stadium. Despite hundreds of photos taken with fans posing just in front of her pen, Ralphie V stood in place with her tail wagging back and forth. “She's really relaxed right now,” Graves said.
Handlers stood in place protecting every side of her enclosure.
“We're part of her herd,” Graves said.
Ralphie V made it on to the field, and as the play clock neared five minutes until kickoff, many handlers took in a private moment with her amid the loudspeaker blast of pregame music. A few pat her head. Others scratch her face. Some whisper a message into her ear. “Everybody has some sort of relationship with her,” Deutsch said.
Graves gathered his handlers into a huddle. Sensing tension among the group, he said, “Smile. … Go have some fun out there.” Each handler put their closed fist into the air together, counted to three, and shouted in unison: “Protect the herd!”
As for Ralphie V? She was in position before the handlers could instruct her by facing the east while preparing for a turn and sprint north — how handlers know for certain that she's ready. In the fleeting seconds before go-time, Graves swung the pen gate open as Ralphie V and five handlers bolted onto the turf.
Like so many times before, she made the clockwise turn amid the roar of Folsom Field, and glided back into her trailer in the northwest corner of the stadium.
Age be damned.
"She's showing no signs of slowing down," Brewer said. "She's still so good at what she does."
Ralphie will run another day.