“It’s first and 10. Morris to block. It’s wide open. The rumbling Kelce taking it to the house!”
Kevin Harlan, longtime national sportscaster, is shouting, his baritone voice resonating with excitement. And there’s more to come.
“It’s goal at the seven. Smith, Charles, the block by Kelce. The dive for six!”
Wearing his signature blue blazer and with a handkerchief neatly folded in the breast pocket, Harlan is calling play-by-play for the Chiefs’ season-opening game against the Houston Texans as part of the CBS Sports broadcast team. His emphatic vocal cadence is familiar to anyone who has watched NFL football during the last 31 years.
It’s something the Kansas City-area resident has been doing since 1999.
On Monday, Harlan will be behind the microphone again for the national radio broadcast of the Chiefs’ game against Green Bay at Lambeau Field, a place with which he is very familiar.
At 55, he is at the height of a career that got its start when he was a kid in Wisconsin.
“I kind of caught the bug,” Harlan said. “I would listen to games late at night on the radio that would come in from all over the country. ... I didn’t have headsets, so I’d cup my hand to my ear and pretend I had a hand-held mic. I would go pretend to call games in the bathroom to perfect my voice.”
Harlan has always been surrounded by football. His father, Bob Harlan, was president and CEO of the Packers for 19 years. The oldest of three boys, Kevin took a stab at playing football and hockey, but “I knew I didn’t have talent on the field.”
Instead, Harlan turned to describing sports. His first gig was at his Catholic high school’s 10-watt radio station.
“I really wanted to be a commercial pilot,” he said with a chuckle, “and here was a way I could travel and be around sports, which I love.”
Once he got his driver’s license, Harlan traveled outside Green Bay to call high school games.
“Sports is so exciting,” Harlan said. “It’s a story that’s not been happening. You’re telling the story as it happens.”
His dad remembers those early days.
“When he was doing games in high school, I would sit at home and listen, and when he got home we’d go over the notes I took and he listened very carefully,” Bob Harlan said. “Once he made up his mind this was for him, he was driven.”
Harlan attended the University of Kansas at the suggestion of then CBS broadcaster Gary Bender, a Jayhawk alumnus whom Harlan knew through his father.
“I flew down, looked at the school and loved the school — that was it,” Harlan said.
By his freshman year at KU, Harlan was already broadcasting pre- and postgame shows for football; later came basketball games broadcast for the Jayhawks Radio Network (1983-1984). One of his KU classmates was John Holt, now an anchor at Fox 4 in Kansas City. The two worked together at KLWN-AM and FM in Lawrence.
“When you’re working for pennies as young college kids, you form a real bond,” Holt said. “It’s so fun to see that we’re both broadcast survivors and still love what we do all these years later.”
Harlan worked part-time at KCMO, then an all-news talk station that carried the Chiefs, Royals, Kings and indoor soccer teams. He became an essential member of the KCMO team, according to then-sports director Wayne Larrivee.
“We were the first station in the NFL to do a two-hour preshow, and Kevin produced it way beyond expectations,” Larrivee said. “That’s how he got started with us, and we recognized his ability, talent.”
Larrivee, who now calls the Packers games for its radio network, was impressed with the young Harlan.
“He seemed like he was far beyond a college senior in terms of his maturity,” Larrivee said. “As good as he was on the air, he was as good off the air. He had a vision of where he wanted to go.”
Mary Anne Murray worked with Harlan both in Topeka and then again at KCMO.
“Kevin was always so much fun in the newsroom,” Murray said. “He worked hard, was very resourceful. It was clear from the beginning that he was destined for greatness.”
Just a few days after getting his diploma KU, Harlan landed his first “professional” gig as the official voice of the Kansas City Kings NBA team.
Then came four years of broadcasting NFL games for Fox Sports. In 1998, Harlan joined CBS’ NFL broadcast team as a play-by-play announcer; this will mark Harlan’s 31st consecutive year. In 1999, he became part of the CBS Sports broadcast team for coverage of the NCAA Tournament, which Harlan continued through this year.
So does Harlan have a preference between football and basketball?
“I like each sport in its season,” he said.
Harlan did Chiefs radio broadcasts for nine years, a stint he loved. It was during that time that he coined his signature, “Oh baby! What a play!” The expression came out during a Monday night game between the Chiefs and Buffalo Bills.
During Harlan’s extensive sportscasting career, he has called preseason games for the Chicago Bears and Packers (he still does for Green Bay). He’s also called preseason games for the Chiefs (on KCTV-5) and the Jacksonville Jaguars, plus several Super Bowls.
Earlier in his career, Harlan was the voice of the NBA’s Minnesota Timberwolves for nine seasons. In addition, he has called action for NBC Sports, ESPN, TNT and the Mutual Broadcasting System and provides the play-by-play voice for the NBA2K video-game series.
Harlan uses an enthusiastic, rapid-fire delivery no matter who has the ball. He gets tremendous satisfaction working in television but has a real fondness for radio.
“In TV, the picture is No. 1, the analyst is No. 2, the graphics and bells and whistles are No. 3 and play-by-play is fourth,” he said. “On the radio, the play-by-play announcer is the top dog.”
Football is special to Harlan, who calls NFL gigs the best you can get because the sports is so popular. And he does his homework when prepping for a game.
“I watch tape making sure who’s on top on the field, reviewing statistics and press releases,” Harlan said. “These fans expect us to know everything they know, and that makes it challenging.”
Harlan is on the road at least three nights a week broadcasting games. That’s made his wife, Ann, the “head coach” for the four Harlan children in Kansas City.
“She’s the hub of our family,” Harlan said. “She organizes; she’s on top of every activity and she runs the house. There are a lot of bad marriages in this business, but she’s the best.”
The Harlans have a son, Robert, and three daughters — Abigail, who lives in New York; Haley, who is in graduate school; and Olivia, who is apparently following in her father’s footsteps. A graduate of Georgia, Olivia is working for ESPN as a college football sideline reporter.
Kevin’s hopeful that becoming an empty-nester will lead to one important new opportunity.
“I’m hoping that Ann will travel with me,” he said.
In the meantime, Harlan maintains his rigorous schedule, a balancing act he’s done for more than three decades. Yet for all his years in the business, there’s just one thing he doesn’t like.
“It’s torture for me to listen to myself,” Harlan said. “It’s not the voice I would have chosen. ... I’m kind of stuck with what I’ve got.”
Harlan has no plans of retiring anytime soon but knows there will come a point when he’ll dial back his schedule.
For now, however, he still loves the challenge of covering live sports.
“I’ve always been drawn to that,” Harlan said. “It’s unscripted and exciting.”