Ripken, the black labrador retriever who can be spotted fetching tees at NC State football games, has garnered incredible success in the previous months, becoming a fan favorite and boasting millions of views on social media.
Michael O’Donnell, dog training agency owner of Sit Means Sit Apex and Ripken’s owner and trainer, said he sought out Ripken to be a retriever and a “spokesdog” when he first opened his Apex, North Carolina location six years ago.
“When we decided to open up our own location, that's when I called my buddy out in Boise, Idaho,” O’Donnell said. “He sent me Ripken to start training and working with because I really needed a dog to show off our skills and what we did and how we did it but was also going to be very good with kids and very good with people. Why I went the lab route was [I wanted] a dog that I knew was going to be gentle and friendly and awesome but also was willing to do a lot of retrieving and working for me too.”
O’Donnell said Ripken is a six-year-old black labrador retriever whose father, Cowboy Kohl, was a tee-retrieving dog at Boise State University. Ripken was first trained to retrieve baseball bats, named after legendary Orioles player, Cal Ripken Jr.
“Since he was eight weeks old, [I] started teaching him to fetch baseball bats in the backyard,” O’Donnell said. “[We] started off with the Holly Springs Salamanders fetching bats there and then a year into it, the Durham Bulls said ‘You know, what he's doing is awesome. We want to call him up.’ So they called him up to the Durham Bulls. In our first year with the Durham Bulls, I reached out to NC State at that point and sent them a video of him getting the baseball bats, and [it] just so happened to work out that they needed somebody to do the tees, and fast forward, Ripken’s now the NC State tee dog.”
O’Donnell said he and Ripken just completed their fourth season with the Durham Bulls, and they are now in their second season with NC State football. In his first season with NC State, Ripken was only allowed to fetch the tee at the first kickoff of the first or second half game, now he fetches tees for the entire first half due to being such a crowd favorite.
Ripken has gained notable traction, being featured on SportsCenter, CBS newscasts and even on international outlets such as the Independent. The platform that took off the most was TikTok, in which Ripken’s account has over 228,000 followers, 6.8 million likes and even received over 4.9 million views on one of his tee retrieving clips from the Texas Tech vs. NC State game. O’Donnell said recently, a woman from London approached him at a baseball game, saying she had reshaped her visit in order to see Ripken at the following NC State football game.
“It was her first baseball game she'd ever been to,” O’Donnell said. “It's cool bringing people to sports that they may not have ever been able to go to, or may not have even been interested in and my dog helps bring people to new sports and new experiences.”
Brooke Conely, a third-year studying human biology, said fans loved Ripken at the UConn vs. NC State game.
“People love dogs and football so when they come together, it’s so exciting,” Conely said.
Elizabeth Margagliotti, the manager of partnership services with Wolfpack Sports Properties and Ripken’s representative, said while they understand Ripken’s appearances are unique, her organization didn’t expect fans to love Ripken this much.
“When Ripken is done doing his job and there's just a football manager going out there and getting the tee and the fact that our fans are booing this manager. … I don't think any of us expected that to happen,” Margagliotti said.
Margagliotti said Wolfpack Sports Properties was also careful in differentiating Ripken from Tuffy III, NC State’s beloved live mascot.
“We kind of spun that it's like this [dog] is Tuffy’s new friend, so that was something that was really important to us because we obviously didn't want to overshadow Tuffy,” Margagliotti said. “When they met again on the sidelines for the first game, Tuffy III’s owner said that Ripken helps calm down Tuffy III on the sidelines. So that was sweet that they kind of have this bond and that they look forward to seeing each other on game days.”
O’Donnell said it’s easy for people to forget that off the field, Ripken is an ordinary dog.
“He is just a normal fun-loving dog and he's our pet. I mean, it's crazy to see 60,000 people go crazy for our pet,” O’Donnell said. “Even my kids laugh when they're like, ‘That's just Rippy, he's so silly.’ But people [only] get to see the hardworking side of him. They don't get to see the lazy, lovable mush of a black lab that he really is. And so I want people to know that he's well taken care of. He enjoys his life and he’s a family dog as well when he's not on that field, working.”
O’Donnell said fetching tees in front of a roaring audience is Ripken’s favorite activity, with the duo not planning on stopping anytime soon.
“Fetching the tee and getting all those cheers is probably as big a treat he'll ever get because that's his favorite thing in the world,” O’Donnell said. “If he could choose between a treat or 60,000 screaming people, I think he's gonna go [for the] 60,000 screaming people every time.”