Brooks: Tufts Takes Different Run
BOULDER - Over the last several weeks, the same question has frequently been served up to Sean Tufts, and after Sunday's Colorado-Colorado State game he expects it to be posed even more.
To which Tufts grins broadly and usually answers, "Why not?"
When Ralphie V breaks from her pen shortly after 5 p.m. Sunday and begins her celebrated pregame run at Folsom Field, Tufts will be watching from a very different vantage point.
Ah, participating from a different vantage point might be more apt.
The former CU (2000-03) and NFL linebacker (Carolina Panthers, three seasons) is familiar with trailing Ralphie onto Folsom Field - a pregame tradition that ranks among the most spirited in college football and whose memory still stirs Tufts.
But Sunday, he will either run with the buffalo or be stationed at a strategic spot to direct her as she makes her wide turn on the field en route back to her trailer.
Since he's a rookie at this, he might draw the latter duty. But as is said in other arenas, this could be a "game-day decision."
Assignments usually are made shortly before Ralphie leaves her pen and can be dependent on who among the handlers is most efficient in the pair of weekly practices. There's also another game-day factor to consider: To head off any complications - CSU mascot Cam The Ram also will be on the field - Ralphie officials might decide to go with experience rather than size.
On the 14-member Ralphie team, Tufts is among six newcomers and is the first grad student since Zeb Kopasz, a 2008 spring graduate and a Ralphie handler for the 2006-07 seasons.
But whatever Tufts does Sunday, count on him enjoying it. He's back at CU, in pursuit of an MBA and wanting to stay engaged in athletics.
"This is a good fit for me," he said. "It's a way to stay involved in the athletic program, get with guys and teach them some of the lessons I've learned.
"I don't know if a lot of players are aware of me doing this. I know the coaching staff knows. This is the first (CU football) class that doesn't have any players I played with. I don't have one-on-one experience with lot of these guys."
That's likely to change. Tufts is as approachable as a shopping mall Santa and about twice as affable. He's fit seamlessly into the Ralphie crew, said Kevin Priola, who volunteers along with Ben Frei as a co-director/coach of the group.
"I thought it was exciting that we could have him - just a great story for the university because we're one big family (at CU)," said Priola, a District 30 state representative in his "other" life.
Continued Priola: "I think anybody who can tackle a running back from the Huskers or any other Big 12 team can handle Ralphie."
Big assumption about a bigger buffalo: Ralphie V enjoyed a prolific off-season, gaining between 200 and 300 pounds ("good" weight, we're assuming) since CU's spring game.
She now weighs about 900 pounds, and according to Priola, is "kinda like a teenager in buffalo years."
It was at the April spring game that Tufts took an interest in running with the beast. His application deadline for the MBA program coincided with Buffs' spring finale, and after dropping off his MBA paperwork he dropped by Folsom Field.
"Ralphie was on the field, and I was standing next to her cage, looking back and forth, thinking, 'Hmm, I'm going to be a student and students can run with Ralphie . . . '
"The light bulb went off in my head . . . I kept prodding, found the right people to talk to and got in touch with Gail (Pederson, Ralphie program manager and athletic department chief of staff). She's an incredible ambassador for this university. She was excited to have me."
Indeed, Pederson said the school is "thrilled" to have Tufts in his new role: "He has a true passion for being a Buff and hearing what it meant as a player to run behind Ralphie is truly inspiring. He will bring that passion with him now as he runs with Ralphie."
Although he could feel the electricity generated from running behind her, Tufts isn't sure what kind of game-day rush to expect on his new side of the animal.
"It's hard to say; I've got a job to do now - a position, a task to accomplish during the run," he said. "It's going to be a lot more like being on the field during a football play.
"I've got a mental checklist, a series of operations I have to do. I think that being a player, that's the ultimate showmanship time, especially at our university, running behind the buffalo.
"That's all hype and all fun . . . a hundred (players) go out there and do whatever crazy dance they do or get ready for the game and kind of purge their energy. But I'll be working during that time - which might be a little bit different."
But Tufts is into different now, restructuring a life minus football. If he didn't leave the NFL on his own terms, he at least left it with a healthy perspective.
Drafted by Carolina in 2004 in the sixth round, he spent two seasons mostly playing on special teams and in goal line situations before he damaged his left knee and underwent micro-fracture surgery in Year 3.
After Carolina eventually released him, he allotted one year to rehabilitate his knee and attempt a comeback.
"That was my timeline - and nothing happened," he said. "So I'm done. A lot of people tend to stay in athletics well past their prime, I wanted to make sure to give it my appropriate time to come back, but after a year, that window closes and now it's closed."
For good, he was asked?
"Yeah, for the most part," Tufts said. "Professional athletics is a razor thin margin as it is. Coming back, being the type of player I was in a special teams role, they can get guys younger, cheaper and healthier. That's kind of the economics of the game.
"You've got to cherish the time you've got in it and take it for what it was. You might as well enjoy it, and what you didn't like, make it the starting place for your life."
He laughed when asked if he had gotten the game out of his system.
"Oh, no . . . you never get it out of your system," he said. "I still have dreams about it once a week; I still think about playing football all the time - what would I do in this situation and watching guys on TV and being jealous.
"Not that I want to be (playing again), but it's a natural thing. That was the ultimate high you could get."
Of course, being a Ralphie handler doesn't make the same physical demands as the NFL - but then, what other pursuit does?
With the Panthers, the 6-foot-4 Tufts' playing weight was about 250 pounds. He's shed 25 of that and completely rearranged his conditioning priorities.
"I've tried to do the exact opposite of things I was doing in the NFL," he said. "There's a certain amount of strength you need in life; the NFL requires much more than that.
"I've cut out a lot of lifting and traded 40-yard dashes for 40-mile bike rides. I've traded power lifting for the downward facing dog - a lot of yoga, a lot of swimming.
"Football is hard on the joints and muscles. I wanted to do something to give back to them instead of taking from them. So I've completely changed my body around.
"I see my friends who are my age (27) and they're running marathons. That's not something I'm going to do. I've got limited cartilage left in my knees, and that's OK.
"But the biggest thing with that is knowing how to handle your body and doing the right things, like warming up, stretching . . . now I'm more endurance-minded and really just more health-minded."
Tufts is the second former CU football player to join the Ralphie team: Chad Hammond was with the crew for one season (1996) after a back injury curtailed his football career. But a former Ralphie runner has joined the football team: reserve defensive tackle Tyler Sale walked on with the Buffs three seasons ago and is now a senior.
"I think it's exciting," Priola said. "We're there to support the football team, so there's a bit of a nexus between us."
As Tufts transitions back to the sidelines, he can draw on one poignant high school memory. In the second game of his senior season at Cherry Creek, he suffered a knee injury ''that just kind of wiped me out," he said.
"I had a recruiting trip to Michigan next day. I was on top of the world - an 18-year-old getting recruited by Ohio State, Michigan, USC, CU - which was always No. 1.
"But when I blew my knee out, I was just striving to help (Cherry Creek) out in some way. It ended up with me being on the sideline and getting the crowd involved.
"I was the only cheerleader wearing a letter jacket and standing on the field. It was great; it taught me a lot of humility, a lot of patience - a lot of good character traits.
"I guess I'm coming back in that role, huh? Yeah, it's kind of full circle."
It's your basic "what-goes-'round-comes-'round" tale, but with a twist - one that weighs almost half a ton and has a tradition to match.