The TV powered on long before kickoff on a Saturday evening. As 75,000 Chiefs fans streamed into Arrowhead Stadium, Cameron Black sat in the living room of his mobile home, 17 miles away.
A rhythmic noise interrupted the silence, the tap of his foot along the floor. “Nervous energy,” he explained. Just as he completed that thought, his phone buzzed.
“Kickoff,” he said, his foot not missing a beat.
Black muted the TV and yanked the phone off the armrest of the couch. Using the aid of voice recognition, he opened an application on his Android and selected a radio feed for the Chiefs-Chargers game.
The booming voice of Mitch Holthus, play-by-play man for the Chiefs Radio Network, crackled to life.
“I love Mitch Holthus,” Black said. “He’s made something that I thought was totally lost on me — he made it come alive.”
Black, 29, fancies himself one of the Chiefs’ most devout fans, even if he’s a relatively new one. He reads articles daily. Listens to podcasts. Debates the minutia of minor transactions with his co-workers.
But he has never watched a football game in his life. At least not in the way you have.
Black has been legally blind since birth.
The medical terminology for Black’s condition is congenital glaucoma. He was rushed to the operating room immediately after he was born. Six hours later, when his parents finally met him, the outlook was bleak.
Black underwent 110 surgeries on his eyes before his 13th birthday. Fifteen of those were corneal transplants — seven in one eye, eight in the other. His right eye is now a prosthetic. The original one was removed when he was 9. Three years later, his left eye began causing him such pain that he needed surgery to layer a soft tissue over it.
That was operation No. 110.
So his left eye remains, and it can faintly make out the brightness of a room — he can essentially tell if it’s daylight or night outside, or if the screen of his phone is on or off — but that ability has deteriorated with age. He fears it will be completely dark before long.
For 27 years of Black’s life, this foiled any interest he had in sports. He grew up in Norman, Okla., home to the University of Oklahoma and a place where it’s virtually impossible to ignore football. If the Sooners are a religion in Norman, his dad is a practicing member.
On Saturdays in the fall, as his father rarely budged from a chair in front of the TV, Black would migrate to his bedroom and use Braille to read a novel. Or he’d listen to the audio of a movie. He knew the results of Oklahoma football games only by the reactions coming from the living room.
“He wasn’t interested in football because he couldn’t visualize it,” said Todd Black, Cameron’s father. “And I wasn’t going to push him into football just because it was something I loved.”
A move to Kansas City provoked a shift in Cameron’s motivation.
In August 2016, Black and his wife, Katherine, who at the time was pregnant with their now 1-year-old daughter, Addelyn, re-located to Kansas City. Black was pursuing a career at Alphapointe, a company that employs people who are visually impaired. He is now a supervisor at the call center there.
Before the move, Black did some research on his new home. He and Katherine visited, too, and she pointed out that signs of the Chiefs were everywhere. Hats. T-shirts. Bumper stickers.
“Kansas City is obsessed with the Chiefs,” Black said. “I wanted to fit in. If people at work are talking about the Chiefs or people on the bus are talking about the Chiefs, I wanted to be part of it.”
But how does a blind man in his late 20s develop football fandom from scratch? Black discovered it was sort of like studying for a test. And he had the perfect professor.
Black sent weekly emails to his dad. What’s a screen pass? What’s the shotgun formation? What’s an option offense? They had phone conversations that spanned hours but rarely drifted from football.
In the opening week of the 2016 college football season, Todd Black, who now lives in Alaska, visited his son in Kansas City. Cameron has since done the math — they spent 30 hours watching (or listening to) football that weekend.
A crash course.
“That was the first time we had ever sat down and watched football together, and that was really neat for me,” Todd Black said. “I don’t want to come across as saying we weren’t close until he started getting into football, because that’s not even close to accurate, but it has probably strengthened our bond. This has been a lot of fun.”
It’s not uncommon for blind people to follow sports. Most of Cameron’s co-workers are visually impaired, and most are Chiefs fans, too. The majority of them grew up with the game.
For Black, the fandom came later and almost by necessity. He worried about making friends in a new city. The Chiefs were a solution.
That’s how it started, anyway. That’s not why it remains.
“If the Chiefs lose, he usually doesn’t speak very much for the rest of the night — he gets kind of moody,” Katherine said, smiling and then adding, “I really like that he’s found something he enjoys this much. He can just relax and be a part of it.
“Sometimes I need a break from hearing all of the logistics of football, but all in all, it’s a good thing.”
Katherine and Cameron met at a high school basketball game six years ago. Cameron says he should’ve known then that he would become a sports fan.
He asked for her phone number. She was unenthusiastic about dating while attending college and instead provided an email address. Less than two years later, they were married.
Katherine says she’s never seen her husband so interested in something. Their weekends are planned around football. College games all day Saturday. The Chiefs on Sunday.
“I have an extremely patient wife, because this household has become my father’s household,” Black said. “Which means that Saturdays and Sundays in the fall (are) football Saturdays and Sundays. That’s all I do.”
As Black prepares for the weekend, he studies his dad’s emails. They’re his football bible. Intricately detailed responses. Blitzes. Formations. Passing routes. It’s all in there.
He consumes every Chiefs article in The Star. A computerized voice reads the words to him.
They’ve helped him to develop a comprehensive knowledge of the team. He has his favorite players. (“Kareem Hunt is going to be a legend,” he said.) He has opinions on the starting quarterback debate, whether the Chiefs are better off sticking with their proven veteran or trying out their promising rookie. (“Alex Smith doesn’t get enough credit. And Patrick Mahomes isn’t ready yet.”)
On game days, he relies on Holthus, the radio voice of the Chiefs. The tone in Holthus’ inflection is a dead giveaway to the progression of a play, Black said.
During the Chiefs’ recent Saturday game against the Chargers, for example, as Holthus announced a kickoff return, Black leaned forward in his seat. Holthus’ words escalated with each phrase before he dramatically softened his pitch.
“Must be coming back,” Black said. “Flag.”
And he was right. This is the routine Black has settled upon, using the voice of a man he’s never met to visualize a game he’s never seen.
“I hear from so many people from every background, but in this special instance, when his senses can be activated by what I present and how I present it, it is the most special mission that I have,” Holthus said. “We have a massive, wide audience that stretches from all shapes and forms. But there are times that I’ll micro it down to a few. Now that I know he’s listening, I’ll think, ‘What would he want to know?’
“That makes the effort, the preparation, the work — it makes it all worth it.”
Sometimes, Black listens to Holthus as Addelyn bounces on his knee. Before Addelyn was born, Black would hold the radio app to his wife’s stomach.
Recently, Black bought a book for Addelyn and sent it to his mother, who put Braille labels into the printed copy so Black could read to his daughter.
Addelyn was born with congenital glaucoma, like her father.
She has already had two surgeries on her right eye, and doctors are optimistic she will have some vision there. But with kids, it can be difficult to determine.
She has another surgery scheduled for Tuesday. A day earlier, on Christmas morning, Black plans to open the new book and read it to his daughter for the first time.
“The Kansas City Chiefs ABCs and 1-2-3s,” it begins.