It was one year ago today, March 7, 2018, that we received the sad news that Woody Durham had lost his gallant battle with primary progressive aphasia, a neurocognitive disorder that affects language expression. On this first anniversary of his passing, Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard looks back on our time with Woody.
If you search the online collection of Hugh Morton photographs, you will find two dozen Morton photographs that include Woody Durham. If you search the collection finding aid, you will find many more. Woody was a favorite Morton subject, so when Bob Anthony and Stephen Fletcher, of the Wilson Library’s North Carolina Collection, put together a panel at Appalachian State in October of 2013 to discuss Morton’s work, Woody was an important participant.
As the 2010-11 college basketball season turned into that famous March Madness, it looked like Carolina might be headed to yet another final four. With wins over Long Island, Washington, and Marquette, they were in the “Elite Eight”® and playing Kentucky for another Final Four trip. It was Sunday afternoon, March 27, 2011 . . . Number 2 seed UNC against Number 4 seed Kentucky . . . at the 18,711-seat Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. Woody Durham was calling game number 1805 as the Tar Heel “Voice.” The winner would capture the East Regional bracket and advance to the Final Four in Houston. A Tar Heel win would give Woody an opportunity to call his fourteen Final Four. But sadly for those of us listening to Woody and watching CBS Sports, it wasn’t to be.
The Tar Heel Nation was stunned as Kentucky came away with the win, 76 to 69. We didn’t know it at the time, but we suffered another loss that afternoon: it would be Woody Durham’s final play-by-play broadcast after forty years as the “Voice of the Tar Heels.” The official announcement came twenty-four days later. After calling 1,805 football and basketball broadcasts, Woody Durham was signing off.
From 1971 until 2011, Woody Durham was the soundtrack for Tar Heel football and basketball. During that span
- the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association selected Woody as the North Carolina Sportscaster of the Year thirteen times;
- he was the voice for six national championship games and thirteen Final Fours;
- he called twenty-three football bowl games; and
- he interviewed six Tar Heel head football coaches and four head basketball coaches.
His game-day-preparation was legendary and his attention to detail with his color-coded information charts became famous. But Woody Durham was much more than the voice of his university. He often headed up life-long-learning programs for UNC’s General Alumni Association and was a program fixture during Graduation-Reunion weekend each May. He traveled across his native state speaking to Tar Heel alumni groups.
Following his retirement, Woody and his wife Jean attended most of Carolina’s football games, and were always seated in Section 212 Row C in the Smith Center for Tar Heel basketball games. Then, in 2015, Woody began to lose his ability to speak. The following year, came the diagnosis: Primary Progressive Aphasia. But as you might expect, Woody took up the cause and became a leader educating his many fans about the disease.
On March 7, 2018 came the news report that Woody had lost his battle.
I think UNC Head Basketball Coach Roy Williams said it best when he issued this statement:
“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. . . . 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 will forever be “THE Voice of the North Carolina Tar Heels.” Others will broadcast the games and will do a really good job, but Woody will be the one we all remember.