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Thursday, October 9, 2003
Running with the Buffalo Soldiers

By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

Her name is deceiving. They call her "Ralphie." It was "Ralph" once, until a keen-eyed fan discovered she was a she, so now it's Ralphie. Ralphie, like she's cute and cuddly. Ralphie, like maybe she'll just nuzzle up to you and lick your face a little.

Getting Buffaloed
Eric Neel's first run with Ralphie was not a pretty sight. Click here to check out the video of Neel's wipeout. 

Don't be fooled. Ralphie's furry; but as one of her student handlers, Jaimi Norden, says, "she's no puppy."

No, she isn't. She's a buffalo. A big, 1,300-pound buffalo. With horns. And hooves. And legs that top out around 25 mph.

Let's see ... force = mass x acceleration. Uhh, no, definitely not a puppy. Definitely a buffalo.

In Boulder, Colorado, U.S.A., in fact, Ralphie's not just a buffalo; she's the buffalo. Every home Saturday during the University of Colorado football season, she bursts out of her end-zone pen (twice: once at the start of the game and once to begin the second half) and leads the team onto the field in front of roughly 50,000 gold-and-black-clad screaming fans at Folsom Field.

Eric & Ralphie
Eric Neel tries to make nice with Ralphie before the run.
This has been a tough season for Colorado. They've lost three straight, including a 47-7 humiliation at Florida State a couple of weeks back and a who'da-thunk-it loss to Baylor last Saturday. Now, this week, Kansas comes in, on the rise at 4-1 and "also receiving votes." But when Ralphie hits the turf Saturday afternoon, you won't hear about any of that. You'll just hear the full-throated roar of the faithful.

"It's incredible," says third-year handler Ken Rogers. "There's nothing like it. They just go wild. It's a bigger cheer than for any touchdown, even against Oklahoma or Nebraska."

I've seen the game films. I've heard the crowd shout out its Ralphie love and lose its Ralphie mind on tape. Even from a distance, I can tell the run is something special, not forced or corny, just wild with home-team devotion.

So I fly to Colorado because I want to feel what Ken and the others feel, want to experience the full rush of running with Ralphie live and in-person.

"You want to run with her?" Kevin Priola, the co-director of the Ralphie program, asks me just before her practice run on the Friday afternoon before the Washington State game last month.

"Yeah," I say confidently, as the big girl's trailer rolls into the dirt lot outside the practice field.

"All right," he says. "We'll set you up."

Right about then, Ralphie starts to dance around and the trailer starts to rumble and shake like maybe it's parked over a fault line during a quake. "You can feel her moving the trailer around when you're driving down the highway," Ken says. All of a sudden, I have visions of Kong in the underbelly of the ship sailing back to New York. I find myself feeling pretty Sigourney, like the alien is coming to get me. I want to take it back, want to say, "maybe I'll just watch."

But there's that little chip in your brain, right, the one that calibrates the fine balance between fear and shame, between physical well-being and public humiliation, the one that's always, for reasons you can't quite explain, tilted in favor of potential pride over potential pain? Right. So me and my prideful chip keep our mouths shut, and nervously get about the business of stretching for the sprint.

Of course, Boulder is up there a ways (5,300-some feet above sea level) and a fella from beachside California like myself, coming in on the early-morning flight kind of groggy and all ... well, he finds himself at a bit of an oxygen disadvantage. Even the little things are taxing. Walking staircases, hailing a cab, sitting in a booth at the Bennigan's next door to the hotel eating chicken tenders. This stuff can tire a guy out.

Ralphie's handlers
Ralphie's handlers, all dressed up and ready to run.
So the prospect of a sprint with a seasoned buffalo and her high-altitude-ready, highly-trained handlers is, um, daunting. Again, sucking wind after bending down to tie my shoes, I think about begging off. But again the little chip says, "shhhhh, take a deep breath, you're going to be fine, it'll be fun and besides, you promised your editors pictures ..."

A word on the handlers: They're great. They know this gig is like playing in the horn section behind James Brown. They know all eyes are on the hardest-working buffalo in show business. But they don't care. All they bring to the job is love, want-to, and some very nifty rope work.

"To me, this is the best school in the country," says Mike, a four-year Ralphie vet who's headed off for Navy SEAL training when he graduates. He looks around at the clear golden light hitting the Flatirons, eyes the field and looks back at Ralphie and says, "it's awesome to be a part of this. There's no place I'd rather be and nothing I'd rather do."

Mike's typical. All 11 handlers tell me working with Ralphie is "awesome," and all 11 work hard, have fun, and show a genuine affection for Ralphie and for each other.

"They're a team," co-director Ben Frei tells me. "They have a great time together."

You get to be a member of the team by trying out, and you get to try out if you know someone who already runs with the squad. All word of mouth, no public invitations or open calls. It's a select crew.

And a serious one. As Jeff Tindall will tell you, working with Ralphie's a gas, but it ain't all fun and games. The senior handler was recently gored in her pen, so he's all about respecting Ralphie as the big, powerful, unpredictable animal she is.

"She put her head down when I got in the pen, and got her horns up between my legs and just kept coming," he says. "She missed my legs and everything, but she did some serious damage to my jeans."

He's laughing as he says this. I'm laughing, too, but only to hide the fearful hyperventilating I'm doing. "Serious damage to my jeans": this phrase should describe a skateboard fall, or maybe a nasty run-in with a bottle of bleach. It shouldn't be a euphemism for getting intimate with the business end of a buffalo head. Is Jeff cool or is he crazy? I'm wondering. And if he and the three years worth of Ralphie experience and large animal wisdom he has, er, under his belt, are crazy, what the hell am I? What kind of madness is this, walking in cold, winded and ignorant, thinking I can pull off a run with the buffalo?

As I mull things over, kicking myself for the miscalculations going on in what Ed Wood would call my "stupid, stupid mind," I watch the handlers get ready for a practice run.

The kids are on alert in and around Ralphie's pen, trying to anticipate her moods and moves, trying not to get caught with their jeans in the wrong spot. They pet her, push their butts up against her, talk to her. There's no messing around. Anything can happen on a run and, as Kevin Priola puts it, "when 1,300 pounds of animal doesn't go where you want her to go, you have a problem."

Five handlers accompany her each time out (the other six spot the perimeter). They each hold a rope lead, two in the pen with her and three around the outside. The six of them come out like gangbusters, hard-charging into a 225-yard horseshoe route from pen to trailer. They're a blur and a thunder, knees high, cheeks puffing, hooves tearing up the turf. It's exhilarating to see up close. It's frantic and graceful, wild and choreographed.

It knocks me out. Screw fear. I can't wait to do it.

"You're up," Kevin says to me a few minutes later.

Ralphie
When that 1,300-pound buffalo rumbles onto the field, the Colorado faithful reach a fever pitch.
He puts me on a sixth lead, outside the pen and to the back. He says as she breaks, I've got to get my rope up and over the pen. And as she runs, I've got to keep up. Up and over. Keep up. Up and over. Keep up. I'm whispering it like a mantra, like maybe there's some magic power in the saying of it.

I don't remember the start -- it comes too fast. I remember gasping and pumping. I remember, just before Ralphie started to make her turn, thinking, "keep up, keep up, keep up" and maybe just for an instant, thinking, "yeah, I'm keeping up!"

Then two of the handlers start to shout: "She's turning early! She's turning early!"

Here's what you do if you're a rational, clear-thinking individual when you hear "she's turning early": You get close to the buffalo, make sure you've got some slack in your line, make sure you're turning early with her.

Here's what you do if your brain has room for "keep up, keep up, keep up" and nothing else: You run out of line, get whip-sawed, go flying into the air like Rickey Henderson stealing second, only without the grace or the intent, and land like Rodney Dangerfield off the high dive in "Back to School," only without the water or the bellyful of padding.

I'd love to tell you the fall happens in slow motion for me. I'd love to tell you that I see things clearly flying through the air, that the Rockies look sublime off in the distance, that the theory of relativity and the rise of reality television both suddenly make sense to me, that there is a kind of serenity about the world and a kind of harmony between its peoples in the drawn-out moment before I hit the ground.

But it isn't like that. It's like this: Thud. It's a blink and a bounce, is what it is. It's turf burns on the elbows and a ringing in the ears and nothing else. Except embarrassment; there's a lot of embarrassment. I'm not nervous or wary any more; I'm chastened.

Dino, who's been running with Ralphie for three years, quickly tells me not to sweat it. "It happens to everyone at one time or another," he says. "We've all done it. You'll do better next time."

I'm grateful for Dino's kindness. And in addition to a dull ache all over, I'm experiencing a deep fundamental respect and appreciation for what he and his fellow travelers do. I'm also certain there won't be a next time.

On game day, I'm content to watch the opening Ralphie run from the sidelines.

It's fantastic. They love their football team in Colorado, but I swear their love for Ralphie is even more basic and intense. She's the rod that gathers in their fan lightning. Their longing for a win today, their memories of great wins gone by, their contempt for the opposition (especially Nebraska and Oklahoma), the beer-and-bar-b-q shout of their tailgate lust for battle and their tailgate love of camaraderie -- all these things concentrate in one fierce, happy shout out to Ralphie as she runs. You hear it. You stand under the sound of it the way a wide-eyed kid stands under a night sky full of exploding fireworks, and you know why people love college football the way they do.

Eric & Ralphie
Eric gets his chance to run with Ralphie (does he look winded?)
But you know what you don't know when you stand, watch and listen? What it feels like to run with her in front of the home crowd.

"You've come all this way," Ben says. "You've got to do it for the second half, don't you think?"

Maybe it's peer pressure, maybe it's the fact that the rattle and hum of my practice run is finally dying down a little, maybe it's the work of that little chip, or maybe it's the generous encouragement of the whole team of handlers who are looking to share the feeling, even with an out-of-town hack like me. Whatever it is, at the start of the second half, I'm in the pen with Ralphie, holding a rope, leaning against her and waiting for the gate to open.

Keep up, keep up, keep up. Don't fall. Don't think about the crowd. Don't suffer flashbacks to yesterday's fall in grainy black-and-white sequences in your mind. Don't pass out. Keep up, keep up, keep up.

Mercifully, Ralphie-girl takes it easy on me. (She often runs slower in games than in practice, it seems). I run on the inside, behind Kerri, a second-year Ralphie-ite, and Dino. They shout and laugh along the way, soaking up the moment. Kerri has the wherewithal to wave to the crowd. I have the wherewithal to stay close to Ralphie on the turn, and to keep up, which is plenty good enough for me. The sound of the crowd wraps itself around us as we go. I know the cheers are for Ralphie, but I'm feeding off them, too.

At the end of the run, I'm shouting, adding my voice to the crowd, loving this place, this buffalo and this moment, feeling proud now of the raspberries on my elbows.

I get off the field and call my dad. I'm breathless, dizzy and delirious. I'm barely speaking English; it's all grunts and exultations. "I did it," I say. "I wasn't going to do it, but they talked me into it, and it was ... it was ... "

"How was it?" he asks.

"It was awesome."

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.