• Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Ralphie and her handlers run onto the Folsom Field on the CU-Boulder campus before a football game against Arizona State in September.

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Ben Frei, one of the long-time Ralphie Handlers, brushes Ralphie V on Thursday at Folsom Field.

  • Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Bobby Rukavina, one of the Ralphie Handlers, pets Ralphie V before a private appearance at Folsom Filed on Thursday in Boulder.

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Have what it takes?

•Tryouts are held each spring, usually in conjunction with the spring football game and consist of a series of timed runs to determine candidates’ speed.

•The deadline for applications is Feb. 28.

•Applicants must be full-time students at CU-Boulder and have at least one fall semester remaining prior to graduation.

•Students selected to be a Ralphie Handler will have to dedicate a significant number of hours for strength and conditioning, training,events and appearances, practices, game day, bowl travel, etc.

•Students must comply with academic and program rules for the Ralphie Handler Program and the Guiding Principles of the Athletic Department.

•Go to www.cubuffs.com and fill out an application.

As a crowd of thousands rises to its feet and loud cheers fill Folsom Field, every eye turns to the five Western-attire adorned University of Colorado students on the field. When the booming words over the loudspeaker echo, “here comes Ralphie,”camera flashes pepper the stands and the student cowboys guide Ralphie the live buffalo around the field for her 200-yard sprint.

These cowboys, better known as Ralphie handlers, experience this rush of excitement every fall Saturday when CU’s football team plays a home game.

There is nothing like it in all of sports. It is one of the greatest mascot tradition in college athletics.

The ceremony, which began in 1966 when a buffalo calf was donated to CU, has garnered national attention and is now one of the most prominent traditions in college athletics.

“It’s such an iconic tradition that no one has, and no one else can match,” said John Graves, a former Ralphie Handler and CU graduate who trains the team. “It’s really different. No one else can really say they have such a powerful mascot. … Other schools have long-standing traditions, such as Uga the Georgia bulldog, but Uga doesn’t go running out on the field like Ralphie does.”

Practice and training

While fans revel in watching Ralphie and her handlers lead the Buffs on to the field, few understand how much hard work goes into the spectacle.

“People don’t really know what all is involved in being a Ralphie handler,” Graves said. “During the football season, it’s basically a full-time job.”

Imagine guiding an adult buffalo — weighing in around 1,600 pounds — on a 30-second, 200-yard charge around a collegiate football field.

It takes plenty of practice and training.

Being a Ralphie handler entails two weight-room workouts three times a week, in addition to two live practices a week with the buffalo.

Bobby Rukavina, who was voted rookie of the year by his handler peers, said the team spends a lot of time doing strength training.

“Everyone has to be really strong in the legs,” said Rukavina, who noted that most members can individually squat more than 250 pounds. “We work pretty much every part of our bodies. … You have to be fast. Personally I [can run a 100 yard dash in] maybe 11.5 seconds. We have a couple guys on the team who can run it in 10.5 seconds.”

All of this strength and speed is necessary on game days.

“When they’re running with the buffalo, they are running as fast as they can [while] Ralphie is pulling them along,” Graves said. “They have to have that upper-body strength, especially in their back, to be able to hold on to the ropes to help guide Ralphie around the field.”

CU ambassadors

There is a lot more that goes into being a Ralphie handler than lifting weights and running around the field once a week. The team and Ralphie must attend appearances throughout the year for both CU and corporate events. The handlers talk at university booster-club meetings, they greet fans, they answer questions and they pose for photos in Ralphie’s Corral just outside of the stadium before games.

For Gail Pederson, who runs the program, these responsibilities are more important than the actual run. Handlers are vetted during the application process not just for their physical abilities, but for their character as well.

“We gauge personalities,” Pederson said. “Being a Ralphie handler you have to be a great ambassador to the program. A lot of it is being a great person, outgoing, someone who isn’t afraid to walk up to someone and talk to them. We’re kind of judging that during the tryout process.”

As a handler and student athlete, Rukavina understands the importance of his role as a CU ambassador.

“As a Ralphie handler, we have a big responsibility,” Rukavina said. “Representing CU is definitely a big part of our job. We have to be student leaders, as well as student athletes. … It’s a huge position to be in as a student athlete. It’s such an honor that I think we all work really hard to maintain.”

The application process

Students have until Feb. 28 to turn in an application, one of which requests information about involvement in student groups, athletic background, qualifications to be a Ralphie handler and even asks to list experience working with or training large animals/farm animals, etc.

After being selected through an application, there is a face-to-face meeting, and then the tough stuff.

Every year, 50 to 70 candidates and are required to run a series of 80-yard dashes to see if they have what it takes.

Then, only 15 students end up making the team.

‘Huge honor’ for handlers

For the handlers, it is an honor to be a part of the long-standing tradition. Graves, Perderson and Rukavina said they all volunteer their time for the same reason: honor.

“Every time I’m with the buffalo I feel blessed,” Rukavina said. “I get to represent the greatest tradition in all of sports. It’s definitely a huge honor. It’s bigger than words.”

There ia lot of work that goes into being a Ralphie Handler, but as Graves remembers, the feeling of running out on the field is what makes it all worth it.

“The thing that makes being a Ralphie handler is so great is a combination of everything they do,” Graves said. “Dealing with the public and answering their questions. Then actually getting to run Ralphie on game day and leading the Colorado football team on the field. That’s hands-down the greatest thing there is. It’s a feeling that hardly anyone knows and a feeling that you’ll never forget.”

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