Living out Game Day in Colorado
College football, I've failed you once again.
I promised I'd give you a real shot to win my NFL-loving heart (or at least a chance to steal a part of it), but my tailgating trek "No Spain, No Game" has stolen all my weekends, spoiling my grand plans to experience college football at its best.
To all the fans who voted in my "Best College Football Tradition" poll, I'm bummed I didn't get to see the Buckeyes at the Big House, do the Gator Chomp in The Swamp or join in saying "Hotty Toddy!" at The Grove at Ole Miss.
The least I can do is to give a little love to the tradition that earned the most votes in the poll: Ralphie's Run at the University of Colorado Boulder. The Buffs may not have the best football program in the country, but they do have loyal fans (they outvoted everyone else by thousands).
Since I couldn't make it out to see Ralphie in person, I did the next best thing -- experience game day through the eyes of a Boulder student-athlete. Second-year skier Brooke Wales caught last Saturday's big 41-24 win against Cal, taking photos and videos on what game day is like for a Buffs fan.
Wales took three years off after high school to travel, train and compete, including skiing for the U.S. ski team in 2012. As a freshman at Colorado last year, she helped lead the Buffs to a national championship. Now 23, she loves having a balance of school and skiing, and tries to hit as many sporting events as possible to support fellow student-athletes.
One of her favorites traditions is the Friday night parade down Pearl Street.
"The band plays and the football players march down four or five blocks and a lot of people go out to support them," Wales said. "Everyone likes to go out to eat or get drinks on Pearl Street, so people will plan dinners or social events around the Friday night march."
Wales couldn't make it down to Pearl Street last Friday, as she was training with the ski team that night. And she was right back on the slopes Saturday morning to start her game day with more skiing.
"We trained that morning," said Wales, "but I still managed to get out to the game a little bit early and get down on the sidelines to see Ralphie."
Ralphie V, a 1,300-pound American bison, is the main attraction at every Boulder football game, where she leads the team onto Folsom Field before kickoff and the start of the second half.
"Before the game, she's in a corner of the football field in her pen with all the Ralphie handlers around her," Wales said. "She was pretty fired up when I saw her, kicking around, stomping her feet."
Five handlers run with Ralphie, two on each side and one behind her, while other handlers clear room on the field for her run. The lucky few who earn a spot as a handler work out five days a week, lifting weights and practicing their runs so they can keep up with Ralphie at a 20-mph clip.
"You have to be able to run really darn fast to run with a live buffalo," laughed Wales. "Being a handler is considered a varsity sport here, and they get to work out in the varsity athletic center. They're a big deal around campus, it's kind of like a coveted thing."
As kickoff approached Saturday, Ralphie made her way out onto the field, waiting patiently in front of the Dal Ward Athletic Center, which houses the student-athlete weight room and academic center.
Finally, it was time to let her loose.
"I got to be on the sidelines for that, which was really cool," said Wales. "She ran right past me! They run her straight down the sideline. Then, around the far 20-yard line, they start to turn her. She'll run back down the other sideline and straight into her trailer until the second half."
After milking her sideline pass for a little while ("That was pretty cool!"), Wales headed to the student-athlete section for the rest of the game. Along the way, she passed a pack of guys that have made a name for themselves on campus as the Buffs' Superfans.
"They're in the front row of pretty much every single athletic event at home," Wales explained. "They consist of a guy in a banana costume, a gladiator and a couple other great outfits. They're pretty prominent super fans. They've never made it out to our ski events, though!"
Hint, hint, guys!
The student-athletes at Boulder are treated like kings, with a designated section right on the 50-yard line behind the Buffs' bench. Seated around Wales were players from the men's and women's basketball teams, and the women's volleyball, track and field and ski teams.
"It's really cool. They hold a section specifically for us, with a prime location in the stadium," said Wales. "We're within one of the student sections, but the first 5-10 rows they hold for us for a while.
"The players are super, super close to you," she added. "You can yell at 'em and cheer 'em on and stuff, which I tend to do a lot."
Despite a wind-chill of about 26 degrees, the fans were fired up.
"Our fight song is a really big thing," Wales said. "Everyone knows it from the 'Shoulder to shoulder' part. At the end, everybody goes, 'Shoulder to shoulder, we will fight, fight, fight!' and it gets really loud. That's usually the loudest part of the game."
There was plenty to cheer about Saturday, as the Buffs took a 24-10 lead into the half and never looked back.
"Everyone was just so happy we were winning," Wales said. "For most of the game, it was a pretty dominating performance and we haven't seen that at a home game really, so it was exciting to be a part of that.
"Our football team is in its 'rebuilding years,' as some people would say," laughed Wales. "They're doing awesome this year, though, and this past weekend was a huge step for them. I think it was their first Pac-12 win of the year, which is always a good win.
"As a student, it makes me excited for what could possibly come, even farther down the road when I'm an alumni."
Ralphie will take her last run of the season Saturday, when the Buffs close out their home slate against USC. Hopefully, I'll get a chance to see her take a lap in person next season. In the meantime, grab some grub and a good seat for me, Brooke, I'll be viewing game day through you again.