Published January 17th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
If you could chat with the voice of the Kansas City Chiefs, a franchise on the doorstep of its first Super Bowl in 50 years, what would you ask?
Flatland got the chance this week with veteran sportscaster Mitch Holthus. Among other things, he regaled us with memories of biking to the top of a hill in Smith Center, Kansas, to hear Jack Buck and Harry Caray broadcast St. Louis Cardinals games. He also got pretty philosophical about how he came up with the “Chiefs Kingdom” moniker, and what it means to the region.
All that, plus some context for those renowned radio calls.
FLATLAND: We should probably start with last Sunday’s game against the Texans. Where does that one rank?
MH: The top three would be the three postseason wins I’ve had, but this one would be first because of the nature of setting an all-time NFL record of being down 24 and winning by 20 and because it happened in the divisional playoff round. Now, that could be quickly eclipsed this week, even as great as that comeback was, with a trip to the Super Bowl.
FLATLAND: Even though you would probably never say it on-air, has there ever been a game when the Chiefs were down big and it was difficult to keep your composure?
MH: It helps to have 26 years of experience and I’ve experienced a little bit of everything in that timespan — except going to the Super Bowl. When you’ve been through all kinds of circumstances, you have to prepare, over prepare, and you approach it as professionally as you possibly can. When you’re doing the voice of a team, you don’t want to be a shill, but you’re doing it from the perspective of that team. You have to try to be the voice of hope even when it looks bleak as can be. You know, that’s one of the things that I’m most proud of in my career as the voice of the Chiefs, is to be a little bit of the flicker of the campfire, even when it’s dark. I’m proud that many times I’ve had to be that flicker of light.
FLATLAND: So you’ve watched each season’s narrative play out for more than two decades — that has to be a unique perspective. What is this season’s narrative? Is it similar to any other season that you can recall?
MH: No. The only one that I can recall, honestly, is that it’s very symmetric with the 1969 Chiefs run to the Super Bowl IV championship. People see the end result, but you have to go back and take a look at the story. The new ‘69 Chiefs book that is out is really, really outstanding, because you’re thinking, “I didn’t know this happened, I didn’t know that happened,” that were challenges to that team. Well, this 2019 Chiefs team has had to encounter a lot. They missed 258 quarters during the regular season from their starters. I think 13 of the original 22 starters missed at least one game, so there’s one challenge.
This has been a gradual climb, a tough climb of a mountain. I keep calling it climbing Kilimanjaro in the podcast that I do with Shawn Barber. Part of this being tough on the climb is that you can see the summit from here. But you also know that there could be rockslide or something and this group knows how to deal with it. They can handle adversity.
FLATLAND: The broadcast is where sports and storytelling intersect. Do you have any specific method when it comes to painting the picture? And do you often consider the listener while you’re on the call?
MH: Every game has its own theme and message, in my opinion. That’s why I spend copious hours in preparation. I also do a lot of other shows, whether it’s Chiefs Insider, for the radio network, or even appearing on Chiefs Kingdom affiliates on television or radio on a weekly basis. For example, last week’s theme. I said J.M. Barrie was the famous Scottish novelist who wrote “Peter Pan” — Tinkerbell and Captain Hook — the island was Neverland. The Chiefs had never hosted AFC Championships back-to-back, that was available if they won this game. Tyrann Mathieu and Bashaud Breelund had never won a playoff game, nor had “Shady” McCoy. Frank Clark had never won a divisional playoff game. The Texans had never won a road playoff game, the Texans had never played in an AFC Championship game, and someone, I said on the outside of the broadcast, was going to leave Neverland and jump to the doorstep of the promised land.
FLATLAND: During your early days in Smith Center, Kansas, or Manhattan — were there any sportscasters/journalists who inspired you? And was it anything specific about them?
MH: When I was growing up in Smith Center and you grow up on a farm, it’s such a cultivating ground for your imagination. I would play the games out as I would broadcast them and I knew where the different stadia were on my farm, I knew where Oakland was and where Denver was, where Kansas City was and I would play the games out in my mind. It was all a part of developing. I was also a competitive state champion extemporaneous speaker and debater, so that helped — all of that helped in formulating what I’ve got today. Now, I’d also, if I could get decent reception — this is before cell phones and really, really good radios — I would ride my bike with my dog to the top of the hill where I could get KMOX St. Louis and I would listen to Jack Buck and Harry Caray do games on the radio. Jack Buck in particular was so articulate. He was painting a clear tapestry every time he was broadcasting the game. Harry Caray was obviously very entertaining. Those two were terrific, plus you had good teams. But those as a little kid left a big impression on me.
FLATLAND: Let’s run through a couple of your go-to phrases. Give me a little bit of context — how and why these come about.
“Put the hammer down.” When does that one come out?
MH: It actually started with Herm Edwards, who I respect a great deal and is now the head coach at Arizona State. Herm had to deal with an interim period where he didn’t really have much of a chance. He had to deal with an aging roster and Tony Dungy was his mentor. I’m a giant Tony Dungy fan. But he would talk about “hammer time” and it’s a reference that’s been used in football for a long time. I thought we are going to make this even more concrete, so on the Chiefs Kingdom show it started with the chant of “put the hammer down.” But you’ll hear coach (Andy) Reid reference it. That reference is about 12 or 13 (years old). And these are organic. I don’t sit there and decide what phrase to use, they kind of just morph together and they are the product of a lot of different things, either input from others or circumstances.
FLATLAND: What about “the sweet nectar of the end zone”?
MH: People give me a hard time about “the sweet nectar of the end zone.” NFL touchdowns are really hard to get. That’s why we see these player celebrations. It’s because it’s a big deal to get a touchdown. That’s the land of nectar, it’s the land of milk and honey if you can get to the end zone.
FLATLAND: Where does your passion come from?
MH: I really have to thank my parents. They taught me how to work. You grow up on a farm and you learn how to work. But it was also, I think I drove them crazy, allowing me to dream and chase a dream. When I was a little kid, about 7 or 8, I just started to love sports. I remember watching the World Series, I’d watch the Chiefs games on NBC at 3 o’clock because that’s the window that they had then. I’d watch for a half and then I’d have to go outside and play the rest of the game in my mind. It was just a loving, disciplined home, but a home that allowed you to read and think. They were very encouraging. My brother was the natural scientist and my younger brother is a phenomenal singer, so he’s like the “arts” guy. I was the social science guy. Our parents allowed us that freedom within a certain disciplined environment. That’s really the genesis of it.
FLATLAND: Speaking of sweet nectar, if this is indeed the year, what would it mean to you and what would it mean to Chiefs fans? Or are those the same thing?
MH: I don’t think those two are mutually exclusive, but to me it would be an interweaving of 50 years of passion, interest, hope, disappointment, continued hope. The thing that I love about the Chiefs Kingdom the most is how unifying it is. The things that I get concerned about with our country is that we are getting more and more polarized and opposite in what we do. We love to segregate generations — you’re a Millennial, someone else is Gen Z — we polarize groups and segments. In the Chiefs Kingdom, you’re going to have some Gen Z female fist pumping a Baby-boomer grandpa. You’ll have a person who lives in the inner city fist pump someone who is rural in the Midwest, because Green Bay and Kansas City, to me, are the two most unique franchises in combining rural and urban. The Chiefs Kingdom to me is the most unifying thing that we have in this region. I think of that unifying effort, that unifying cause of the Chiefs Kingdom elevated to the highest level. I know what I’m going to say, if and when it happens, but I’m not going to tell you.
FLATLAND: I was going to ask if you have the final call prepared.
MH: There’s got to be a weaving of 50 years into the moment. You ask me, it would be like doing a brain scan of 50 years of history and tying it all together. I’m doing a feature this week for Field Pass and it’s really going to be on the ones who I wish and hope feel it in their soul if the Chiefs win this game, the ones who never got a chance to play in this game — Tamba Hali, Jamaal Charles, Derrick Johnson, even Alex Smith. Those guys, I hope somewhere in their souls feel a part of this, because I wish I could have them all in the booth with me there on Sunday.
I’ll just tell you too, humbly, that I’m proud to have come up with the moniker “Chiefs Kingdom.” It was a little bit before “put the hammer down.” They asked me to start a show in 2005 and there were a lot of extenuating circumstances concerning GM shows and coaches shows and who is going to do what, who is going to be on what and who is going to be paid what and they said, “You gotta come up with something, just come up with something.” I said OK, I’m going to call it the Chiefs Kingdom Show, because I wanted something unique. The Kingdom crosses normal geographic boundaries. Kansas and Missouri are rivals — not when the Chiefs play. They are under one umbrella — what would that look like? Well the king, forever king, Lamar Hunt, who brought the Chiefs to Kansas City, took a big gamble and brought the Chiefs to Kansas City. He could have gone to New Orleans, Miami, could have gone to Atlanta. He brings them to Kansas City and he’s the patriarch forever and is the forever king. But that family and their commitment, that’s still here until this day and with Clark being the chairman and CEO, that’s the pebble in the pond.
Now, the ripples in the pond go out to every card-carrying person in their heart and soul that loves the Chiefs and that’s the Chiefs Kingdom. That’s what I try to describe with the inner city person that’s feeling the same spirit as someone who is working in the fields listening to the game, harvesting corn or soybeans — the person who is working at the second or third shift at the Ford auto plant — it’s all of that. What can describe it? There are too many “nations.” There’s “Raider Nation” and Seattle’s got their “12th Man” — alright, that’s cool. The Chiefs Kingdom is unique to us. It defines us. There are a lot of layers and dimensions to the Chiefs Kingdom moniker. I’m super proud of it. I don’t go walking around telling people, “Hey, I came up with it.” But it gives me great joy to realize that people understand now what it means and why it’s important.”
FLATLAND: Go Chiefs.
MH: Go Chiefs.