Blind Passion: Loving a sport you can’t even see

Cameron Black and Mitch Holthus, Photo Credit: Kansas City Chiefs   Photo Credit: Kansas City Chiefs   Photo Credit: Kansas City Chiefs   Photo Credit: Black Family
Cameron Black and Mitch Holthus, Photo Credit: Kansas City Chiefs Photo Credit: Kansas City Chiefs Photo Credit: Kansas City Chiefs Photo Credit: Black Family /

Cameron Black won’t let a little thing like being born blind dampen his enthusiasm for life, his family or his favorite football team — the Kansas City Chiefs.

In the year 1988, under a coach I have never heard of, led by a quarterback that people can’t remember, the Kansas City Chiefs went 4-11-1, finishing in fifth place in the AFC West and missing the playoffs.  If you’ll pardon my bluntness, it was a rather forgettable season in Chiefs history.

The Oklahoma Sooners fared much better during that 1988 season, going 9-3 and making the Citrus Bowl under legendary head coach Berry Switzer in his 16th year coaching the Sooners. The 1988 Kansas City Royals, coming off a world series victory in 1985, finished in third place in the AL West, with a record of 84-77. This Royals team included George Brett, Frank White and Bo Jackson.

And on Aug, 5, a baby boy was born to Todd and Angel Black of Norman, OK. This was their second child, having had their daughter, Alexis Black two years before, and they named him Cameron

These three things may seem unconnected — average seasons for average sports teams and the unremarkable birth of a baby boy. But, let me explain.

For Todd and Angel, there was no general fawning over their newborn son, as there had been for their daughter two years before. As soon as I made my grand entrance, the doctor spotted my cloudy white eyes and knew something was wrong.

After many surgeries and attempts to restore sight, everyone had to reconcile with the hard fact that I was born blind.

Born into football

My father, Todd Black, was born in 1961, today he is just shy of his 60th birthday. (Sorry Dad, I know you’re not happy about that). He spent the first 43 years of his life in Norman, Oklahoma — he was born there, raised there, got a four-year bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma University, got married and raised a family there.

My dad’s family lived in Norman since time out of mind, but most importantly to this story, they were all season ticket holders for Oklahoma Sooners football. If it wasn’t already the disposition for humans to bleed red, my father would have anyway, for his passion for OU football knew no bounds.

Growing up in my household, every fall Saturday was more than a day off from work, it was more than any holiday — it was college football day and dad was not to be disturbed. From 8:00 a.m. to around 11:00 p.m., there was nothing more important than the games and drama that unfolded on fields across the country. And of those games, none were more important than my dad’s Oklahoma Sooners.

My mother handled this indulgence of sports passion that bordered on obsession (and probably crossed that border a fair amount of the time) with selflessness and grace. She had no issue with my father bingeing games for 16 hours every football Saturday for almost 40 years of marriage now, and she made sure that the stovetops, ovens and all available counter space were taken up by the most amazing spread of “football food” you’ve ever tasted.

And while the Saturday football extravaganza rolled on, I was usually alone in my room. Throughout my childhood and into my teenage years, I was … well… a nerd, dork, dweeb. I replaced my complete lack of interest in sports, with an obsession for all things fantasy and science fiction, from Star Wars and Star Trek, to Lord of the Rings, Dungeons and Dragons and everything in between. I read books upon books on these subjects, and — with a large TV that I sat very close to, a lot of trial and error and a whole lot of dying — I was even able to play some video games. Football held no interest for me whatsoever; blindness kept sports fandom out of my reach.

This didn’t drive a wedge between us, quite the contrary. Throughout my childhood and to this day, my dad was, is and always shall be my best friend. He made every effort to find other things we could share and bond over.

From Norman, Oklahoma to Kansas City

Norman was home but financial circumstances eventually forced my family to move to Lake of the Ozarks, Missouri when I was 17 years old, where I finished high school and continued to live for several years.

It was there that I met my wife, and we spent the first three years of our marriage in Osage Beach Missouri, in the thriving metropolis of the Lake of the Ozarks — so thriving it had both a Pizza Hut and a Dominos, neither of which delivered.

In March 2016, my wife and I discovered that we were being blessed with our first child. This filled me with the most unbelievable excitement and a very real terror that almost made me sick to my stomach. Not only was I about to become a father, when I hadn’t quite figured out marriage yet, but there was one other small minor detail — I didn’t have a job.

The Lake might be a great place to live, but the job market isn’t great for a blind individual. But I was aware of a company, a non-profit organization in Kansas City, just three hours down the road, that was specifically geared toward people with low vision or blindness.

I contacted Alphapointe, and was promised an interview, but not a job. But with a wife who was six months pregnant and who would soon be in no condition to work, we found a place to live, packed up three years of marriage and took a leap of faith in Kansas City, even without a guarantee. I was extremely nervous for a multitude of reasons, moving with my young wife and our unborn child to a new city where neither of us knew anyone, a city we didn’t really know anything about. Well, I knew one thing.

I might have been completely ignorant about sports, but I knew Kansas City belongs to the Chiefs and their passionate fan base. In this knowledge I would find what I believed to be the key to adapting to a new job and finding community in a new city, with only one small problem — I knew nothing about football. Conveniently, I knew someone who did.

A few weeks before our move, I called my father and started a conversation I never thought we would have — I asked him to teach me about football. I didn’t think this would take long because I had no intention of learning too much — just enough to get along. I mean, it wasn’t like I would actually be watching any games.

This was the first of many phone conversations with my father, where he painstakingly explained all the rules, positions and even politics of football. Knowing that I had never actually seen a football field, he told me to picture a shoebox that was 100 yards long, with 10 extra yards on each end for the end zones. As we got started, my dad made sure to set the stakes for me.

“Cam, before I teach you anything,” he said, “I want you to promise me that you are not doing this for me, that you think you need to be into football for the sake of our relationship because I’m telling you, son, our relationship is perfect just the way it is.”

And as we got deeper my dad gave me some advice that would shape the way I would partake in sports for the rest of my days.

“Don’t bother with the TV,” he said. “You don’t know enough about football to understand what is happening, and the broadcasters don’t describe enough for you to understand. If you are going to follow and understand football, you need to figure out who does the radio broadcasts for the Chiefs and listen to that guy.”

I took my father’s advice, did my research and downloaded the Chiefs app to my phone. Among other tools for the passionate football fan, the app contained a link that said: “listen live.” One evening in late August not long after we had moved, my wife still unpacking our belongings and arranging them and decorating our cracker-box mobile home, I sat down in an old ratty recliner to do just that.

“I’m going to try to listen to a Chiefs game,” I said to my wife. “I will probably only just listen for about fifteen minutes or so, just to say I tried, I can’t picture myself ever listening to an entire game.”

Then I hit play, first heard the voice of the Chiefs, Mitch Holthus, for the first time, and the transformation began.

For the next few months, my father provided the knowledge and Mitch provided the passion. Mitch took the empty canvas of my mind and used his descriptions, knowledge, analogies and phrases such as “sweet nectar of the end zone” and, of course, his triumphant and passionate yell of “touchdown Kan-zus City” to let me see the game.

Through Mitch’s play-by-play, however, I learned that I still had a lot to learn. I have a pretty obsessive personality and I made it my personal challenge to learn about every single one of them, so that when he was describing the action on the field, I was able to picture something that I had never visually seen.

Anytime Mitch said an offensive or defensive formation, or anytime he said the Chiefs were running a specific play, I took note of exactly what he said and sent my father an email asking him to describe that formation or play. He would send me back the most wonderfully detailed emails, a collection that I still have saved in a folder. It is my football bible, covering everything from offensive formations such as under center, pistol, shotgun to rarer variations, such as the option offense and wishbone offense (prolifically run by the Oklahoma Sooners in the 1980s).

I also have emails covering plays, everything from wheel routes, to jet sweeps, to screens, to the play-action pass and everything in between. He would send me lists of running routes that receivers and running backs would take. He described in vivid detail the different defensive formations, the basic 3-4, the 4-3 and other formations less commonly used.

Eventually, I knew every position on the field and what that player’s job was, no matter the formation or play. I still find myself referring back to those emails and sending them to other blind friends, who want a deeper understanding of football.

Before too long, Sunday was reserved for the Chiefs at my house, and as you can imagine, given my father’s passion, Saturdays were soon similarly occupied with the Sooners. It was not long before I found the flagship station for the  Sooners and Toby Rowland, who did for college football what Mitch Holthus did for NFL football, injecting it with an incredible knowledge of the game and extreme passion, making sure that, I never missed a thing even though I couldn’t see the game.

(Since my discovery of my passion for football, I have listened to just about every radio broadcaster in both college and NFL football, so I can truly say that I have the absolute best in Toby Rowland and Mitch Holthus.)

The 2016 football season would go by in a blur. I spent my days adapting to a new city, traveling independently using the Kansas City bus system and adapting to not only a new job, but my first real job ever. At night, I went home to my wife and planned for the impending baby, but the weekends were devoted to Sooners and Chiefs football, although the obsession didn’t stop there.

I listened to just about every game I could, eager to learn everything I could about the game, its players and coaches and even the off-the-field politics that surround it. When I was not listening to the voices of Mitch and Toby, and reading the various emails sent by my father, I used my smartphone equipped with a screen reader to download apps for all the major sports media outlets. I signed up for notifications on both college and NFL football and all the teams I could think of. If someone sneezed in the world of college or NFL football, I wanted to know about it.

I have had hobbies and passions before, but this was unlike any books I read, video games I played or science fiction worlds I invested my time in. I quickly discovered that the world of sports was a living breathing entity, the landscape of which was always changing and it gave me a sense of community I had never before experienced. After spending my whole life in fictional worlds (that I still passionately love), I was now passionate about something real and I could not get enough.

A deepening passion for the Kansas City Chiefs and sports in general

On Nov. 28, 2016, my life was changed forever — at around 4:30 in the morning, I became a father to a beautiful little girl. It changed so much, but not my relationship with football. I vividly remember, a week after my daughter was born, I raced home from work on a freezing cold night in December, assumed my place in my ratty old recliner and held my baby girl in my arms as I listened to the Chiefs play the Raiders.

Soon it was February of 2017 and I was experiencing my first offseason without any football, and it was hard. I wanted to stay connected to the sport and started writing a football blog that I would post on social media and email to friends and coworkers, trying to get conversations and debates stirred up. I adopted a persona that was the name of my blog, I called it “The Blind Quarterback”

While the spring and summer took away football, it gave back other sports that were new to me with the return of basketball and baseball (not quite an even trade, but it would do until the return of football). Through emails with my father and my own independent research, I learned quite a bit about most other sports. Even if I wasn’t going to be quite as passionate about other sports, I still wanted to have a working knowledge.

The sport that claimed my attention next, much to my father’s chagrin, was baseball. Strangely enough, my dad’s primary reason for loathing baseball is the main reason I enjoy it. Baseball is s…l…o…w.

The speed at which baseball is played drives some people away, but for a blind man who has never seen a baseball game, this actually makes it incredibly easy to follow. In fact, I have met many sighted baseball fans who have said they would rather listen to a game on the radio.

I learned as much about baseball as I could and listened to every Kansas City Royals game I was able to. I will never feel the way about baseball that I do football — I usually tell people that I love baseball, but I am passionate about football. But that love for the game came from a man that I met through my work, a man named Tom Wyrsch.

Tom has been a Royals fan since their conception in 1969. Tom has and still does provide me with baseball knowledge and has even generously donated to my ever-growing collection of sports memorabilia with a few pieces of Royals history, like a signed George Brett ball and a couple of official baseball bats. I have even taken to collecting baseball cards, which I use a text to speech app on my phone to read and organize into a huge card binder that was gifted to me by my wife.

The spring and summer of 2017 were spent trying to keep the mood of football alive through The Blind Quarterback blog and learning about baseball, but most importantly, it was spent learning how to be a father to a beautiful baby girl.

And when football came around again in the fall of 2017, a small moment set off a chain reaction that changed my life again.

Like many other sports-obsessed Kansas Citians, I became a constant reader of the sports section of the Kansas City Star. One of my favorite reporters was Sam McDowell and I read every piece he wrote about the Chiefs and Royals. Sam did a curious thing considering his position in the public eye — put his contact info at the bottom of all of his articles. One day on a lark, I wrote him an email, telling him the story of the young blind man who moved to Kansas City and became a huge Chiefs fan.

Sam and I communicated back and forth for a little while until Sam decided to pay my wife, small daughter and I a little visit at our mobile home, on a Sunday night during a Chiefs game. He wrote a wonderful article about my story, and also had a video made that went on the KC Star website. The portion of the video where I talk about Mitch Holthus, the effect his play-by-play had on me and just how much what he does means to me, somehow got into the hands of Mitch himself.

The story ran the day before Christmas eve, and the day after Christmas I found myself with my family in the waiting room of Children’s Mercy Hospital because my daughter was having an eye operation. We sat drinking cups of hospital coffee and exchanging nervous conversation when my phone vibrated in my pocket. It was a woman from my work, and she told me that Mitch Holthus had read my story and seen my video.

“Mitch is broadcasting a radio show tonight, and he wants you on it, as his special guest,” she said.

A few hours later, my father drove me through a very snowy Kansas City so I could sit on a stage with Mitch Holthus, Sam McDowell and long-time punter Chiefs punter Dustin Colquitt. I told my story to a room full of Chief fans and my father. After the show was over, I walked through the crowd, shaking hands, receiving hugs and talking to other reporters with the KC Star and the Chiefs website.

As the months passed, I continued to write the Blind Quarterback blog, but my viewership grew exponentially, for I would write a piece, post it to social media, and tag Mitch in the posts. He would then repost for all his followers to read. He came to my work several times and he and I hosted pep rallies together for my coworkers, but the next big surprise came right before the 2018 season.

On Aug. 4, the day before my 30th birthday, I received a surprise invite to training camp from Mitch to sit in the VIP tent reserved for the media and watch training camp.

I arrived at around 9:00, to see Travis Kelce walking across the parking lot. He was gracious enough to take a picture with me, which I texted to my wife immediately, who has a huge crush on him. It was awesome, but slightly embarrassing since Kelce is huge and I am about 5-foot-7. It looked kind of like” bring your kid to work day”. She still has that picture, but I think she might have cut me out of it.

A few minutes later I was met by Mitch and a golf cart that took us out to the tent. I shook hands with several producers and bigwigs in the Chiefs organization and did another interview for TV. But the highlight of the day was sitting next to Mitch as he described to me what the players were doing on the field. There was no audience, there was no one else around at all as far as I was concerned, and Mitch Holthus was sitting right next to me, with no headset or microphone, just giving me the play-by-play right in my ear, and only to me.

About a month later, I received word at work that Mitch wanted to meet with me at Arrowhead Stadium, but I was not told why. I assumed he just wanted to plan another radio show together or talk to me about promoting The Blind Quarterback. I was taken to the Truman Sports Complex right next to the stadium, led through winding hallways, with murals of players past and present painted on the walls, and boxes and boxes of footballs stacked floor to ceiling, but no Mitch.

After a long twisting walk into the depths of the Truman sports complex, I was led into a large room I was told was a studio where different Chiefs shows were filmed.

I was placed in front of a backdrop, with a microphone snaked up through my clothing and clipped to my black Alphapointe polo. Bright studio lights shone in my face as I sat, completely mystified as to what might be happening. Then a familiar voice said my name from a few feet away, walking towards me, it was Mitch.

He walked up to me, put his arm around me, placed a Chiefs football in my hands and told me that I had been chosen as the Blue Cross Blue Shield Chiefs Kingdom champion.

He informed me that I would be receiving VIP treatment at a future Chiefs game, get to join him in the broadcast booth, eat dinner in the Players Club and walk out of the tunnel onto Arrowhead field (now GEHA Field) and throw out the ceremonial first pass. All I could do is grin like a goof, shake his hand repeatedly and maintain my death grip on that football. (I later found out I wasn’t supposed to keep that football, it was just a prop, but Mitch told me he knew he wasn’t getting that ball away from me)

The first person I called was my wife, and the second, of course, was my father. I wanted him to get a call from his blind son, the science fiction fan and bookworm, who spent the majority of his life caring nothing about football, to tell him that I would be throwing out the first pass at a Chiefs game.

A few days later my little family and I were in Palmer, Alaska, visiting my parents at their new home. My father and I spent hours watching the first two weekends of the 2018 college football season and gorging ourselves on “football food.” It took 30 years, but I was finally eating football food and watching the sport it is named for with my father. When we weren’t watching football or exploring Alaska with the family, we were in my parent’s backyard doing something I’d never done. My father was teaching me how to throw a football, and we were playing catch.

Upon my return to KC, I spent the next month-and-a-half working on my passing ability, so that when the time came for me to throw out the first pass, I looked like I belonged out there.

Finally, the weekend of Oct. 19 came. That Friday morning, I found out the game between the Chiefs and Bengals had been flexed from a noon start to the 7:30 p.m. prime time slot, so I would now be throwing out the first pass on Sunday Night Football.

When I arrived at work Friday morning, it was a media frenzy at Alphapointe. The building was filled with reporters from local news stations and the crew from the NFL network, who were making a documentary on me and my journey as a Chiefs fan. I spent the majority of my day going from interview to interview, and Mitch and I hosted yet another pep rally, at which Alphapointe gifted us with matching Chiefs’ windbreakers, that said “Chiefs” across the front in huge yellow letters and said it again in braille dots below the print letters.

The next day the NFL network crew spent 12 hours at my home, interviewing me and my wife. Finally, after two months of training, interviews with local news stations both TV and radio and breathless excitement, Sunday morning arrived. I awoke at around 7:00 a.m., and the game was just a little over 12 hours away.

That night ended up as one of the most incredible moments of my life and if you want the details, you can read the blog posts I wrote about it at the time at The Blind Quarterback. But I want to take you back.

Back before the tunnel, before the tail-gating and even before my wife and I were picked up to leave for the game I sat on my couch, excitement stirring in my mind and heart, as I mentally prepared for my first Chiefs game and what would be the only pass I would ever throw in the National Football League. I was flipping channels on the TV, trying to distract myself from the excitement, finally settling on Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back — my favorite of the Star Wars original trilogy.

My wife brought me a cup of coffee and sat down next to me with her own cup. We sipped and talked, speaking in quiet tones, so as not to wake our almost-two-year-old daughter. We were just enjoying each other’s company.

“I have something for you,” my wife said to me. “It’s not much, but I wanted to give you a little gift, to let you know I’m proud of you.”

She walked off down the hall, returning a few seconds later with a small gift bag in her hand. I took the bag from her and began to unwrap the ribbon and tissue paper.

“I was going to give it to you later tonight, but knew we would get home late and be tired.”

I reached inside the small bag and drew out a small stuffed mini football which was tied to an object, with a football ribbon. It halted my breath, stopped my heart and made the rest of my life, entirely and utterly complete.

“Looks like you’re getting another football buddy,” she said.

When the moment of realization hit me, and the full effect of what was tied to that mini football washed over me, I looked up at my wife, my mouth hanging open and my eyes wide.

I held the mini-football in one hand and the positive pregnancy test in the other. I held her tight for a long time, then we parted, kissed and went to our first Chiefs game. About nine hours later, I walked down that concrete path, leading down through the Chiefs’ tunnel and set foot on the ground at Arrowhead Stadium, knowing that what I would remember most wasn’t just my first Chiefs’ game or me throwing out the first pass or sitting in the booth with Mitch Holthus or even the beating the Chiefs gave the Bengals with a 45-10 victory.

Most of all, it was my wife and I, sitting in the stands watching the end of the game, holding not only each other’s hand, but a beautiful secret between us. That day was the day my little family grew.

My son Cian was born in June 2019, and just in case he needed one more thing to tie him to the Chiefs, it turns out, the midwife who helped deliver him goes to church with Mitch Holthus and his lovely wife Terry.

As I lay in a bed next to my recovering wife the midwife took our first picture together and asked if she could send it to Mitch and let him know that we are alright. Besides family and very close friends, the first person outside of that circle to know about the birth of my son was the voice of the Chiefs.

The 2019 season was obviously the best I have experienced as a fan, for the Chiefs both made and won their first super bowl in 50 years. We watched the game on mute with the radio call and Mitch’s voice piped through the stereo system.

The year 2020 was the strangest year in my lifetime and I imagine the lifetimes of others much older than myself. During such an uncertain time as the COVID-19 pandemic, an escape like college and NFL football was a welcome distraction for me, even though the virus made its presence known in football, and still is to this day. My wife and I have since moved out of our cracker box mobile home, and now own our own home where we are raising our family of four.

She has been gracious enough to allow me to turn the finished basement into a man cave, where the theme is a brilliant mixture of science fiction and football. On one side of the room, I have action figures and movie posters from Star Wars, Star Trek and Alien, and on the other side I have a huge amount of memorabilia including signed jerseys, signed footballs, baseball cards, bobbleheads and the crown jewel of the collection, an autographed Patrick Mahomes football, signed to “The Blind QB”

While my days throwing out first passes might be over, I am not done leaving my mark on Kansas City sports. I am currently training with my good friends Tom and Mike, and former Royals pitcher Jaime Bluma on my skills from the mound, so that soon I will be throwing out the first pitches at Kansas City Monarchs and Royals games. I practice three days a week, and my fastball is coming along very nicely. I am accurate from 40 feet out.

I went from a young blind boy with no knowledge or interest in sports, to the most passionate sports fan you could hope to meet and a father of two, hoping to one day share that passion and knowledge with his own kids, just as my father did with me.

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Cameron Black is a contributor for FanSided’s KC Kingdom, covering all Kansas City sports.