Mitch Holthus is a storyteller who has elevated play-by-play to an art

KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 11: Crowds fill the concourse on the way to their seats before the game between the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium September 11, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
KANSAS CITY, MO - SEPTEMBER 11: Crowds fill the concourse on the way to their seats before the game between the San Diego Chargers and Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium September 11, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images) /

The craftsmanship and care behind Mitch Holthus’ storytelling has elevated his work to an art form for the Kansas City Chiefs.

For a decade and a half, my entire knowledge of Mitch Holthus‘ work was as the uber-passionate voice that occasionally soundtracked the Kansas City Chiefs‘ highlights on SportsCenter or in hype packages leading up to a big nationally televised game. I’ve spent my entire life in Indiana, so the K.C. radio calls weren’t exactly easy to come by during the bulk of my Chiefs fanhood from the early ’90s all the way up to the mid ’00s.

Still, despite the very limited exposure I had with his work, his voice stuck with me. I remember one day in school—maybe 1st grade—we were given an assignment to write down our 10 favorite quotes. Somewhere in there I chicken-scratched “‘TOUCHDOOOOOOOWN, KANSAS CITY!’ -Chiefs Radio Guy.” I didn’t even know his name, I just knew Chiefs Radio Guy sounded like I did when I watched the Chiefs. My teacher asked, “What makes that quote special?” I thought about it for a second, then replied, “He says it cool.”

That’s what most fans immediately appreciate about Holthus. He has a passion you can feel, because it’s one that is authentic. He’s a performer, but he isn’t putting on a show. Every hammer put down, every sweet end zone nectar tasted, it all comes from a legitimate affection for the Chiefs franchise.

My appreciation for Holthus’ work didn’t have a full context until I was able to begin streaming the Chiefs radio calls every week. Every Sunday, I’d lug my iMac into the living room and my mom and I would listen to the Chiefs while whatever game CBS or FOX was airing played silently in the background. It was within that weekly tradition that I realized Holthus is one of the most remarkable play-by-play voices in all of sports.

Full disclosure: I’m not a Royals fan. Only two things have been an important part of my identity since birth: I’m a Chiefs fan and I’m a Cincinnati Reds fan. Growing up, I thought I knew the absolute peak of play-by-play radio sports broadcasting. Marty Brennaman was, for years, the absolute standard bearer to me.

Granted, calling baseball and football are two very, very different animals. Baseball is casual and conversational. When he wasn’t speaking his mind on the frequently sorry state of Reds, Brennaman would essentially offer fans a window into his life in between long stretches of nothing happening.

Which, with the Reds, there was a lot of nothing. So there were countless stories about Brennaman’s friends, or his family, or his favorite hobbies, or his favorite foods. Constant ribbing of his broadcast colleagues. It’s the sort of extra color you expect from long-time baseball broadcasters. Baseball is not a game where every play or every game is do-or-die, so you want a broadcaster who feels like an old friend. Brennaman was among the best ever at that, but Holthus redefined for me what a sports broadcaster could be.

So, yeah, football is way more intense than baseball. Every play carries significant weight. Every game feels like it means everything. A good football call reflects that. Holthus, of course, is excellent at expressing that kind of emotion, but that isn’t what makes him a master at his craft. What made Brennaman so great was being one the best at exactly what broadcasters are supposed to be. Holthus is one of the best because he’s redefined how a broadcaster can call a game.

Pretty much every radio play-by-play voice who has reached the professional level in any sport can paint the picture of the game for the audience. Pretty much every broadcaster, radio or TV, can tell the story of the game they’re in the midst of. Those two things are pretty much required skills for succeeding at calling sports. You describe the action; you tell the story.

Holthus doesn’t just paint the picture or tell the story. He weaves a never-ending red and gold tapestry. I know nothing of his process, but it seems obvious to me he views football through a narrative lens. Every play builds the story of the game. Every game builds the story of the season. Every season builds the story of the franchise. He’s aware of all of that during every game, and it informs every call. There is no better example of this than his call of the Chiefs’ AFC Championship victory; “The team that Lamar Hunt founded has just won Lamar Hunt’s trophy, in the stadium that was Lamar Hunt’s dream.”

Holthus builds towering, eternal myths with words. He’s verbose, but relatable. Intellectual, but emotional. He references history, literature, film, TV, music, and pop culture. He coined “Chiefs Kingdom”. He has catchphrases on top of catchphrases. He uses every tool at his disposal to do more than just tell you what is happening in the game, but to turn the game into a living drama that never ends, only closes chapters filled with peaks and valleys.

Each player and coach has their own story as well, and Holthus ties each of them together with his narration of each Chiefs season. It was Andy Reid and Alex Smith reviving their careers together. It was Eric Berry‘s magical comeback from lymphoma. It was Patrick Mahomes becoming one of the best to ever do it at just 23 years old. Everyone has a past, a hometown, a narrative of their own that led them to being a member of the Chiefs. Holthus digs into that to find the threads with which he weaves his stories together.

Even if you’re not a writer, you’re a storyteller. You may not realize it, but every single moment of every single day, you’re writing your own narrative. With every thought to the future, even as simple as “What am I going to have for lunch?” or “Which route should I take to work?”, your consideration of outcomes of your potential decisions is you writing your story. Once you do make that decision, all the other ones become permanent fiction.

Stories are how we communicate. They’re how we frame the world; they’re how we understand our existence. Without story, nothing progresses.

This may all sound a bit like exaggeration to describe Mitch Holthus calling football games with such reverence, but I assure you it is not. Listen to any one of his calls, and you’ll understand how serious he takes telling a story. Every playoff loss has been a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. The AFC Championship and Super Bowl victories were a grandiose crescendo of a hero’s journey.

Holthus has spent the last 26 years as the voice of the Chiefs, and with each of them he sinks deeper into the fabric of the franchise. The narrator has become a character in his own story, and is indelibly tied to its heartbreaks and its triumphs. It’s something that only could have grown out of a singular talent covering a singular team. It’s also something that could only have grown out of decades of torture and misery.

Holthus was there to immortalize all of it, and on Sunday he was finally there to immortalize the ultimate catharsis. I can’t wait for the next chapter.