A letter to Woody Durham: 'Thank you for the joy you brought to my life'

Video: Mike Griffin of Indian Trail, N.C., was one of many North Carolina fans who wrote to Woody Durham after he went public following his diagnosis with Progressive Primary Aphasia last year.
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Video: Mike Griffin of Indian Trail, N.C., was one of many North Carolina fans who wrote to Woody Durham after he went public following his diagnosis with Progressive Primary Aphasia last year.
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North Carolina

Woody Durham, the voice of the Tar Heels, dies at 76

By Andrew Carter

acarter@newsobserver.com

March 07, 2018 09:42 AM

Woody Durham, whose melodic voice delivered thousands of memories and won tens of thousands of devoted listeners during his 40 years as the radio play-by-play broadcaster for the North Carolina Tar Heels football and men’s basketball teams, died early Wednesday morning at his Chapel Hill home, according to his family. He was 76.

Durham, who will be remembered as much for his well-known lines and delivery as his connection with his loyal audience, died from complications of Primary Progressive Aphasia, a neurocognitive disease that in his later years robbed him of his ability to speak. After struggling with his speech for years after his retirement in 2011, Durham was diagnosed with the disease in January 2016.

The diagnosis came with a cruel fate: the disease slowly stole Durham’s masterful talent for words, and his ability to put them together in ways that, for the longest time, inspired many UNC fans to turn down their televisions and turn up their radios, so that they could, in the words of many, “Listen to Woody.” Doing so became a tradition among the UNC faithful.

Durham, a 1963 graduate of UNC, became the Tar Heels’ radio voice in 1971. He quickly won over listeners with his elegant, simple delivery, and over the years Durham came to be synonymous with some of the great teams, coaches and players whose triumphs he put into words. Durham rose to prominence in broadcasting long before social media and the Internet, and decades before major-college sports were widely broadcast on television.

And so for years, one of the only ways Tar Heels fans could follow their teams was through Durham’s southern drawl, one that only accentuated his gift for precise diction, and enunciation. Even when media began to change, when most UNC football and men's basketball games became available on TV, many devoted listeners still sought the comforting, familiar soundtrack of Durham’s voice.

On fall Saturdays and cold winter nights, it flowed over the radio waves throughout North Carolina – “from Murphy to Manteo,” as one of the early tag lines went on the Tar Heels Sports Network. In time, Durham came to be as beloved as any figure in UNC sports history, including Dean Smith, who won his first national championship in 1982 with Durham behind the microphone.

Durham and Smith, who were close friends, shared similarly heartbreaking misfortune in their later years. Before his death in 2015, Smith for years suffered from a neurocognitive disease, a form of dementia, that robbed him of his memory, a quality for which he’d always been known. About a year and a half after Smith died, Durham went public with his disease, and the reality that one day he’d lose his voice.

“It’s a very sad day for everyone who loves the University of North Carolina because we have lost someone who spent nearly 50 years as one of its greatest champions and ambassadors,” Roy Williams, the UNC men’s basketball coach, said in a statement. “My heart goes out to Jean, Wes, Taylor and their entire family.

“It’s ironic that Woody would pass away at the start of the postseason in college basketball because this was such a joyous time for him. He created so many lasting memories for Carolina fans during this time of year. It’s equally ironic that he dealt with a disorder for the final years of his life that robbed him of his ability to communicate as effectively as he did in perfecting his craft.”

Woody Durham, who for 40 years served as the radio play-by-play voice of North Carolina football and basketball, died early Wednesday morning at his Chapel Hill home.

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Indeed, Durham, who was born in Mebane on Aug. 8, 1941, and raised in Albemarle, loved the ACC tournament, his oldest son, Wes, said during a brief phone interview on Wednesday. Woody, Wes said, “loved the business, and the people in the business,” and loved the camaraderie of covering a big event. Both of Durham’s sons, Wes and Taylor, followed him into broadcasting.

Wes Durham is the radio play-by-play voice of the Atlanta Falcons, and he also does television work for ACC football and basketball games. He is in Brooklyn this week to work the ACC tournament and he will remain there, he said on Wednesday, because that’s what his dad wanted.

Weeks ago, Wes said, when Woody’s health declined, he expressed a desire that if he were to die during the ACC tournament, he wanted Wes to remain in Brooklyn, working the games. And so Wes Durhram planned to be behind the microphone on Wednesday night, for UNC’s game against Syracuse.

“There will be some tears,” he said.

Undoubtedly, there were a lot of those across North Carolina on Wednesday, as news of Woody Durham’s death spread. Longtime listeners immediately remembered some of Durham’s more iconic phrases, those like “Good gosh, Gertie!” and, perhaps his most well-known, “Go where you go, and do what you do.” Durham often spoke those words during the most stressful moments of a game, and his listeners took them to mean that they needed to do anything they could – sit in that lucky chair in the living room, or whisper a little prayer – to turn the cosmos in the Tar Heels’ favor.

Durham once said that he never scripted his calls, and that his signature lines happened organically. Of the “go where you go” line, he said last year that he “just came up with it one day.”

“I didn’t want to do anything that somebody had already done,” Durham said last year during an interview for a series of stories in The News & Observer that documented his life with his disease.

For 40 years, Woody Durham was the voice of the Tar Heels, their radio play-by-play man. The Smith Center had been his place of work. Now, a neurocognitive disease threatens to rob him of his ability to speak.

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Over the years, Durham, a member of the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame and a 13-time winner of North Carolina Sportscaster of the Year, became the sort of voice that others in his field aspired to emulate. He called more than 1,800 football and men’s basketball games throughout his 40 years at UNC, including 23 football bowl games, 13 Final Fours and six national championship games.

His career spanned four men’s basketball coaches – Smith, Bill Guthridge, Matt Doherty and Williams – and six football coaches, including Bill Dooley, Dick Crum and Mack Brown. Durham helped introduce his listeners to the likes of Amos Lawrence and Lawrence Taylor in football, and Phil Ford and Michael Jordan in basketball. Durham’s call of Jordan’s game-winning shot against Georgetown in the 1982 national championship game plays before every UNC home game.

“When I think of Woody Durham, voice of the Tar Heels, so many memories flash though my mind,” Ford, the 1978 national player of the year and a three-time All-American, said in a statement. “For UNC fans of football and basketball, it’s both the knowledge of the game and the passion in Woody’s voice that set him apart. For those of us who knew Woody, we knew he put in as much preparation for each game as did the players and coaches. That is dedication you don’t see any more.”

Durham’s meticulous preparation – his detailed, hand-made color-coded charts, his memorization of obscure statistics and facts – helped distinguish him, and inspired others in his field to put in the same kind of work. The preparation was as much a part of his craft as his ability to put it all into words.

Durham was known, too, for giving special attention to hometowns, the smaller the better. In the words of Durham, Ford wasn’t simply the Tar Heels’ point guard, he was the point guard from Rocky Mount. And Walter Davis from Pineville. And Brad Daugherty from Black Mountain.

Durham mentioned the hometowns as often as he did, his son Taylor said once, because he knew how much it might mean to people to hear the names of their little towns on the radio. Durham never forgot his own small-town roots.

He began his career when he was a junior in high school, working at a small local radio station in Albemarle, WZKY, in 1957. That same year he met a girl named Jean at a debate workshop in Winston-Salem. They spent the next 61 years together, the past 54 of them married.

After Durham retired in 2011, he and Jean remained regulars at UNC football and basketball games. Before football games, they tailgated with friends just outside the Kenan Stadium gates, in the shadows of pine trees and the UNC bell tower. At basketball games, they sat beside each other at the Smith Center in section 212, row C, in seats that Dean Smith picked out for Jean decades ago, because he thought they were the best ones in the house.

In recent years, Durham and his wife rarely missed a UNC football or basketball game, and they regularly attended basketball games at Elon, where their youngest son, Taylor is the radio play-by-play voice. In the first few years after he retired, Durham continued to make notes about teams and players, as if preparing for a broadcast, that he’d bring to the games. When his disease took away his ability to write, he still brought printouts from home.

UNC fans Michelle Horton and Randy Boyette talk about their memories of listening to Woody Durham call North Carolina Tar Heels games on the radio.

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The last game Durham attended at the Smith Center was on Feb. 12, the Tar Heels’ victory against Notre Dame. Durham’s health had declined by then, and he couldn’t say much, but the game, and the atmosphere, still brought him comfort, Wes said.

UNC has scheduled a celebration of Durham’s life for Sunday, April 8, at Carmichael Arena. Durham is survived by his wife, Jean; his two sons, Wes and Taylor; and two grandchildren, Emily and Will.