Special to the Tribune
After almost six years away from calling games on the radio, “The Voice of the Blue Comets” Mike Sutcliffe is set to return to broadcasting games on 93.1FM KFEX-FM.
To many around town, Sutcliffe is to Chanute radio what Michael Jordan is to basketball, Tom Brady is to football, and Ric Flair is to professional wrestling: one of the greatest at what he does.
To those unfamiliar with Sutcliffe’s story, it is one that not even the best writers in Hollywood could script.
Sutcliffe was born and raised in Chanute. He was born a “Blue Comet.” He attended Neosho County Community College on a baseball scholarship.
Many noted Sutcliffe’s physical build and competitive nature in sports, as well as his determination to win. For a “small town kid” in southeast Kansas, Sutcliffe had a promising athletic career ahead of him.
But in the summer of 1980, Sutcliffe’s life would drastically change. He was involved in a car wreck that stemmed from a concussion he suffered the day before. Mike would become paralyzed from the chest down and termed a C-6 quadriplegic for the rest of his life.
Sutcliffe spent six months at St. Joseph Hospital in Wichita rehabbing when local Chanute radio owner Dale McCoy paid him a visit.
McCoy owned KKOY-AM & FM and talked to Sutcliffe about continuing to use his passion of competing and sports. Only instead of on a field or court, he would be on-air as a radio announcer.
Sutcliffe took McCoy’s advice and soon found himself as the KKOY-AM & FM sports reporter. He would call in his sports reports over the telephone. In December 1980, Sutcliffe entered in to another unfamiliar arena.
For the first time ever he would put on a pair of headsets with a microphone and broadcast live on the radio for his local high school team, the Chanute Blue Comets. Sutcliffe joined the Chanute High School radio announcer team as color commentator and just a few months later, in 1981, Sutcliffe became the play-by-play announcer and known as “The Voice of the Blue Comets.”
After 16 years working as a radio announcer, Sutcliffe decided to take his try at being a radio owner.
“I wanted to start my own station in 1997. It took a year of litigation and setbacks,” recalled Sutcliffe.
It was also during this battle with the FCC that Sutcliffe would face a big loss when he unexpectedly lost his father to a heart attack.
After all those challenges, things started to fall in place for Sutcliffe and his dream.
With a business loan through the Bank of Commerce in town, he had the funds to begin building his tower and purchasing the broadcast equipment needed to get on the air.
He would use the building that housed his father’s former drilling business as the site of his broadcast studios.
However, Sutcliffe had one big decision to make: what to call this new radio station?
“I looked for call letters to honor my dad, but none were close,” said Sutcliffe. “I knew he loved Mackenzey (Mike’s daughter) so I checked on KENZ but it was taken in California, so I went with KINZ.”
KINZ-FM would be sold to MyTown Media in January 2009. The radio group also owned the KKOY-FM & AM radio stations in Chanute, the same frequencies where Sutcliffe began his career in radio.
He stayed on as “The Voice of the Blue Comets” during the transition and go on to call many more high school games.
However, in the spring of 2013, Sutcliffe found himself at the start of what would be a six-year fight for his life.
“Chanute had just taken off to Salina for the state basketball tourney and I noticed my wheelchair cushion went flat. I had to do the first and last games of the day, then drive three hours home.
“When I got home I was in terrific pain,” he recalled. “I took pain pills and had (my wife) Sheri check my back side. It had opened a pressure sore.”
Sutcliffe remembers that pain well.
“For weeks I chilled and was in pain. Finally I went to the doctor and while in the parking lot, I passed out in my van. When I came to, I called my doctor and he had several (other doctors) meet me at my van, get me out, get me to ER and perform surgeries.”
That was the start of Sutcliffe’s horrific journey.
“The pain increased after a week of coming home from the hospital. I went back to the ER and the sore was black. An hour later, I was headed back to Wichita for three surgeries and stayed in the hospital for 10 more days.”
However, the sore would not heal.
“The third time I went through (surgeries to close the sore), I was running out of good skin. The decision was made to go on disability,” he said.
This meant that Sutcliffe had to remain bedridden until the skin covered the gaping wound and fully healed.
The sore had opened up to the size of a racquetball and deep to the bone.
For the first time in over 30 years, Sutcliffe would not be on the radio as “The Voice of the Blue Comets.”
Fifty-two months. That is how long it took for Sutcliffe’s body, with the help of doctors and medicine, to close his wound.
Sutcliffe would go on to lose more than 85 pounds and develop osteoporosis while bedridden, breaking his hip in physical therapy and requiring the purchase of a specialized wheelchair.
However, it wasn’t only doctors who helped him get through this long road to recovery. It was his wife, daughter, and family, as well as the community of Chanute, that helped with his mental well-being during recovery.
“Sheri gets me up in the middle of the night and helps me with pain and provides love and support,” he said.
Mike also attributed the words of encouragement of his daughter Mackenzey, who was attending college at the time of her father’s medical issues, also as a point of strength for him along with his mother.
“Mackenzey also has great words despite her age,” Sutcliffe noted about his only daughter. “I can’t count out my mom (June). She calls or stops by nearly daily to check on me.”
Sutcliffe also credited his canine companion, Kobe, for keeping his spirits high.
“My dog has stayed with me many hours a day.”
Sutcliffe acknowledges that he’s had lots of spiritual guidance, too – both on Earth and from above.
“I grew up Methodist, but every church and almost every pastor had came by or mentioned me in service or bulletins. Most of all, a night doesn’t go by without prayer to God and Jesus,” noted Sutcliffe. “Thanks to my dad who smiles down on me from heaven daily.”
PREPARING FOR PRIMETIME
Sutcliffe is scheduled to return to the airwaves this fall on 93.1 KFEX-FM radio, the local Christian radio station broadcasting Chanute High School games.
It will be the first time broadcasting a high school sporting event since spring of 2013.
“Mark and Marilyn Harms [KFEX-FM owners] have helped me so much through this journey, giving me the opportunity to stay involved in doing what I love,” he said.
Despite his many years on the radio, the time away and the physical healing have taken its toll on Sutcliffe.
He finds himself with nerves and butterflies going into his first broadcast in more than five years.
“I have lost a lot of memory laying and my voice is weak,” he said. “I don’t want to make a fool out of myself or KFEX Radio.”