Scott Fowler

Words no longer come easily, but ‘Voice of Tar Heels’ still known by one: Woody

Words can have colors, you know. And the words that Woody Durham has spoken all his life have been etched in Carolina blue.

Those words flowed through car speakers and gurgled from radios as people tuned in at home, turning down the TV sound and letting Woody weave his magic. He was the Tar Heels’ basketball and football play-by-play man for 40 years, from 1971 to 2011. He became part of Carolina people’s lives, and then the lives of their kids and their grandkids, too.

The words don’t come as easily to Woody now. He is 74, and he and his family announced this week that he has a rare neuro-cognitive disorder called primary progressive aphasia that is affecting his language expression.

It will not get better. It will get worse, although Woody is getting great treatment with the general idea to not let it get worse too quickly.

This is bad news, but it is also a long way from a death sentence. Woody is otherwise healthy, and he will continue to travel and to enjoy retirement. He no longer will speak publicly to sports clubs or civic groups. He can’t do that anymore, which is a shame, because Woody is an entertainer. Right after his retirement, Woody was in so much demand as a public speaker that he had as many as 50 engagements a year.

When you do talk to Woody now – and he still does love to talk to people in small groups – you may notice that the volume has gone down a little on that big personality, the one that could command any room and could be felt so clearly in the fine autobiography he authored in 2012 with Adam Lucas.

But Woody is still Woody. He still plays golf – just not as well as he wants to. He is still accompanied nearly everywhere by his beloved wife, Jean. He still has that mellifluous voice, which was demonstrated by Woody reading the open letter he sent to the media through Steve Kirschner of UNC Athletic Communications.

‘Quite an ironic’ diagnosis

Woody acknowledged in that letter what you’re probably thinking right now. Isn’t it sadly ironic that a man who made his living with his voice is slowly being robbed of his immense power of language? Every case is different, but primary progressive aphasia can eventually lead to an almost complete inability to speak.

“While learning of this diagnosis was a bit of a shock for Jean and me, and yes, quite an ironic one at that,” Woody said in his statement, “it also brought a sense of relief to us in terms of understanding what was happening to me and how best to deal with it.”

In some ways, Woody struggling with his words occasionally is similar to the late Dean Smith losing his incredible memory in his final years.

One difference: Smith stayed far away from the public eye once his health began to decline. Woody will not.

Speaking of Dean Smith, that reminds me of a story Woody told me once.

Woody always loved Coach Smith, of course. Hearing Woody announce one of Smith’s games was like a graduate-level course – both at the bench and at the microphone – of how to do your job extremely well. And yes, I did graduate from UNC, but if you are going to dispute that previous sentence then you have a callous soul. Anyway ...

“Coach Smith and I were driving on campus,” Woody told me a few years ago, “and I was taking him back over to Carmichael Auditorium. This was 1981. I said, ‘Coach, how is practice going?’ And he said, ‘Oh, pretty good. I think the youngster from Wilmington is going to be able to help us.’”

The youngster from Wilmington, of course, was Michael Jordan.

“The most understated – and prophetic – comment I’ve ever heard!” Woody said, his voice rising in excitement the same way it would on the radio when the Tar Heels scored a late touchdown or knocked down a three-pointer when down by two.

And then he just kept going. I had asked him for a 30-minute interview to help me with a book I was writing, but two hours later he was still talking and I was still entranced. It was like a personalized, interactive UNC broadcast with no commercials.

Finding the ‘spectacular’ in sports

Tuning in to Woody on the radio was like inviting your favorite uncle to go to the Carolina game with you. Woody knew where everybody was from on both teams. He sprinkled players’ hometowns through every broadcast. He realized that every time he mentioned Phil Ford was from Rocky Mount, N.C., that everyone listening in Rocky Mount would feel a jolt of pride.

Like Adele, Madonna and Drake, Woody is known by his first name – which is why I call him that throughout this column. Calling him just “Durham” also seems a little like treasonous somehow, like working in the word “Clemson” constantly when you’re writing about South Carolina.

Woody is unique. Lord knows he wasn’t completely objective as a broadcaster, but that’s understandable and commonplace when you are a play-by-play man serving at the pleasure of one particular college.

Woody graduated from UNC in 1963. He announced UNC men’s basketball championship seasons in 1982, 1993, 2005 and 2009. Before that, he avidly watched Choo Choo Justice and Lennie Rosenbluth as a kid. By the end of his career, he had 50-plus years of Tar Heel history to draw on and remembered them all vividly.

A smart man, Woody never tried to flaunt it on-air, preferring to mix in some down-home vernacular you might hear at any barbecue joint or barbershop in any North Carolina small town. I remember Woody telling me once about James Worthy: “Golly dog, he was spectacular!”

Yes, Worthy was. But that word applies to more than just the power forward from Gastonia.

Golly dog, Woody, you’ve always been spectacular, too. Godspeed.

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