Editor's Note: This story first appeared on Kent Denver's website in September of 2023. Since it was published, Sloan successfully completed her first run with Ralphie when the Colorado football team took on Stanford on October 13.
Sloan Hurley is used to thriving in high-pressure situations. Back when she was a multisport athlete at Kent Denver School, she scored goals in pivotal moments, kicked field goals, played in big games and even won a soccer state championship. But this is different.
The roar of a sellout crowd. Music blaring. Fifty thousand people screaming. A nearly 1,000 pound, five-foot tall, powerful and majestic animal running full speed in her direction from across the field. The adrenaline is overwhelming. But Sloan has to stay focused.
“HERE COMES RALPHIE!” The words of that iconic line from the public address announcer ring through the stadium as the cheers grow louder. Here she comes.
She is actually named Ember, but everyone knows her as Ralphie—CU Boulder’s live buffalo mascot that runs across the field before every home football game at Folsom Field. Ralphie’s run is widely considered one of the greatest traditions in all of sports. And it doesn’t happen without the Ralphie Handlers—a 15-person team of highly trained, carefully selected varsity student-athletes. Student-athletes like Sloan.
“You have to learn how to stay calm and collected,” Sloan, a 2021 Kent Denver graduate, says in a September interview with her alma mater. “There’s so much energy.”
On this college football Saturday—the first in Boulder, Colorado, with new head coach Deion Sanders—the energy is on another level. But Sloan can’t think about all that right now. She has to stay focused.
Ralphie—who can run up to 25 miles per hour—breaks right, running perpendicular to the field. Right at Sloan. This is her moment. She’s positioned in the far corner of the field near the 35-yard line—the last line of defense in a stretched out “wall” of handler helpers who work to guide Ralphie back to the North end zone. The plan works.
Ralphie continues to veer right in a horseshoe pattern back down the opposite sideline—toward her trailer. The four handlers holding on to Ralphie—who is actually a bison, Sloan is quick to point out—run side by side with the animal. Two people in front. Two people in back.
Sloan and her seven teammates—the ones who had previously formed a wall—now chase from behind in fast pursuit. The four primary handlers let go of Ralphie just before she reaches her trailer parked in the North end zone. Another teammate quickly closes the door. Ralphie is safe and secure. Just like that, the job is done. It’s time to play football.
It’s September 9, 2023, and Colorado—arguably the biggest story in sports since the arrival of “Coach Prime”—is playing in its first home game of the season against rival Nebraska. It’s also the first game for Sloan as a Ralphie handler. A rookie on the team, it’s no surprise she wasn’t selected by the coach as one of the four students to hold onto the ropes and run side by side with the team mascot for the first game. It’s the hardest and most important job on the team, but a challenge that Sloan is ready for. Soon…
Making the Team
The tryout process to become a Ralphie Handler is almost as hard as running with a buffalo.
After applying, there’s the pull up test. Then a sprint test. Then the interview process.
“I bought some new cowboy boots right before my interview,” Sloan says, laughing. “My dad said, ‘You have to rub some dirt on them’ to make it look like I had been out on the ranch. So I did.”
More than 70 students came out to last year’s tryouts, and only six were selected for the team. Sloan, now a junior at the school, still remembers getting that phone call in the fall of her sophomore year.
“The coach started out by saying, ‘Thank you so much for coming out to tryouts...’ And in my head I was like, there it is. I’m not making the team. And then she said, ‘We’d like to invite you to join us.’ I started crying. It’s one of those moments you’re overcome with emotion,” Sloan remembers.
Sloan spent her first year in college at Wake Forest before transferring to CU Boulder for her sophomore year. A finance and real estate major, she decided to rush the business fraternity, Alpha Kappa Psi, to meet friends.
Two people she met were Ralphie Handlers.
“I was shocked,” says Sloan, who had heard about the Ralphie program but didn’t realize the team was made up of students. “So I asked them, ‘How do I get in your shoes?’”
She learned quickly about the need to sprint fast and be good at pull ups, so she started training. She applied in October and made the team just before Thanksgiving.
“After transferring to a new school, making the team felt like one of these moments where I finally found my place on campus and that I belonged at this school.”
Outside of her family, Sloan hadn’t told many people she was even trying out. So when she started sharing that she had made the team, folks were surprised.
“I was telling friends I had made from Wake Forest, and they were like, ‘You’re doing what?!’ The people who do know what it is think it’s really cool,” Sloan says. “But a lot of people had no idea this was even a thing.
“This summer, I was studying abroad in Norway, and I tried to explain to my host family what I’ll be doing as a Ralphie Handler.”
“They thought I was bullfighting.”
The Kent Denver Experience
Of the six new rookies to make the Ralphie Handler team at CU, Sloan was the only girl. It’s something she takes great pride in but is also used to.
While at Kent Denver, in addition to being a four-year varsity athlete and state champion on the girls soccer team, she was also the only girl on the football team. She played as a kicker for legendary head football coach Scott Yates and credits him—and many other teachers and coaches at Kent—for giving her the life lessons she needed to find success at CU and beyond.
“It was an extremely impactful seven years,” says Sloan, a Kent Denver lifer and one of three Hurley siblings to go to the school. Her older sister, Isabelle, graduated in 2019. Her younger brother, Miles, is currently a seventh grader. “A lot of those positive experiences and life lessons were on the sports field. But also, I had amazing teachers. Kent Denver showed me a lot of what I wanted to do post graduation, and I’m very thankful for that.”
Her 6-12th grade experience also taught her about time management.
“I learned how to prioritize the things that I value most,” says Sloan, who was a three-sport athlete in football, basketball and soccer, as well as the president of MidFirst Bank. “I understood how to value things that are really fulfilling and give back to the community.”
As a Ralphie Handler at CU, there’s a reason Sloan is considered a varsity athlete. On Mondays and Wednesdays, they practice running with Ralphie, learning proper technique—“You have to keep your chest out and really big”, she says—and practicing game day operations. Tuesdays and Thursdays each involve one hour of sprint training and one hour of lifting. And then there’s game day.
All in all, it’s a big time commitment. But it’s one that Sloan loves.
“I have met so many wonderful people, and we all do it for the love of Ralphie and the love of CU. I love Ralphie,” Sloan says of Ralphie VI, the sixth buffalo to hold the mantle of Colorado’s live mascot. She took over the role in 2021 after Ralphie V retired. “It’s like petting a huge dog…with a huge personality. Getting to know her has been wonderful.”
Just don’t get too close to the big buffalo.
“Her tongue is like sandpaper,” Sloan laughs. “She’ll lick you and give you scratches.”
The First Run
As if chasing after a buffalo in front of 50,000 fans wasn’t stressful enough, the Ralphie Handlers find out their game day assignments one hour before kickoff.
“It’s a little unsettling, but that’s kind of the fun of it,” Sloan laughs. “Whatever your role, it’s a surreal experience.”
Taylor Stratton, a former Ralphie Handler herself who is now the head coach and manager of program, will assign team members to either be one of the four runners, or in some other critical role—such as being out in the fields to form the “wall” at the opposite 35-yard line or the person who closes the trailer.
Each rookie gets one game during the season where they will get to be a runner. So far through two home games, Sloan hasn’t gotten that call. Not yet.
She was excited, though, to see two of her rookie teammates get their first run in the rivalry game against CSU, a game CU won in overtime to improve to 3-0 in what’s been a transformational season for the entire school.
Sloan made the team one month before Deion Sanders was hired as head football coach. Her fellow handlers talk often about the dramatic change in energy on game day this season compared to years past.
So with the eyes of the whole country on the Buffaloes football program, even working the field on game day has been an incredible new adventure for Sloan.
“You get to watch the whole crowd erupt, and it’s so cool,” she says. “When I was at Kent Denver, I loved how much energy there was during our soccer state title run. I thought the Ralphie program was the perfect way to stay involved in sports and find that energy again. There’s nothing quite like the cheering when you walk out there.
“People call us adrenaline junkies. I would never have said I was that type of person. But I love doing really cool things and getting my heart racing.”
Her heart will definitely be racing when she gets the call on game day. The call that she’ll be running side by side with Ralphie in front of a sellout crowd, including, hopefully, her family. Tickets are hard to come by this season, but her parents will be in attendance for upcoming games against USC, Stanford and Arizona.
Also in the crowd for the Stanford gold rush game October 13 will be her grandmother, who lives in New Mexico. When she found out Sloan made the team, she gave her granddaughter a special belt buckle that she had bought years ago when she was Sloan’s age. Sloan says it goes perfectly with the wrangler jeans, black polo and the traditional black hat that all the Ralphie Handlers wear on game day.
Given the football team’s appeal right now, that game day fit will likely be on national television whenever Sloan gets to be a game day runner. So far, she’s only run side by side with Ralphie twice in practice. But whenever that time comes, she’ll be ready.
“It’s going to be a mixture of pure excitement and a crazy adrenaline rush,” Sloan says. “You go from holding the rope above her neck, to just…going. The next thing you know, you’re standing at her trailer.
“A lot of people say they don’t remember their first runs. Speaking from experience in practice, I get why that’s true. I don’t think I’ll remember much of it, but I’m super excited for when that day arrives.”
Even if she doesn’t remember the first run, Sloan will remember fondly her overall time as a Ralphie Handler. When she graduates from CU in May of 2025, she hopes to use her business background to go into regenerative agriculture.
This live animal experience will surely help her in any work she does on a farm or ranch, even if there aren’t any buffaloes around.
“Who knows though? Maybe when Ralphie retires someday, she can come hang out with me on the farm.”
Sloan Hurley is the second Kent Denver graduate in the last decade to become a Ralphie Handler at CU Boulder. Willy Strazza, a 2009 KDS graduate, joined the team as a sophomore in 2010 and stayed in the role through the 2013-14 football season. Learn more about the Ralphie program on cubuffs.com.
Story by Nick Hehemann, Assistant Director of Communications at Kent Denver School. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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