This is the third of three parts

     
 

UNC Tar Heels voice Woody Durham goes on with life despite the challenges

Behind the microphone, Woody Durham urged people to “go where you go” to conjure the cosmos in the Tar Heels’ favor. Now he tries to live those words.

THIRD OF THREE PARTS

During a game’s most dramatic moments, Woody Durham said the words so often they became a signature phrase: “Go where you go, do what you do.” It was a plea to Tar Heels fans everywhere to practice their most trusted superstition.

Maybe if a listener in Hickory paced the living room just so, Connor Barth would make the kick. Maybe if someone in Bunn began folding laundry with exactly four minutes left, Tyler Hansbrough would later make the free throws.

Woody never intended for those eight words to catch on. But they did.

“I just came up with it one day,” he said, clearly but slowly. “I didn’t want to do anything that somebody … had already done.”

He paused, thoughts still there that he couldn’t articulate. That happened more and more since he was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Aphasia, a neurocognitive disease that was silencing the former voice of the Tar Heels. Behind the microphone, Woody urged people to “go where you go” to conjure the cosmos in the Tar Heels’ favor. Now he tried to live those words.

He tried to go where he’d always gone. He tried to do some of what he’d always done. That meant golf and socializing and dates with his wife, Jean. It meant football tailgates and basketball games.

For most of his life Woody had been a good golfer, and late last summer he was still playing with his foursome at the Chapel Hill Country Club. Jean drove him there one afternoon, and Woody pulled a cart to the driving range.

“Getting harder for me,” he said, hitting balls that skittered down the range. “I can’t get it into the air.”

Woody and his golfing friends – he went back decades with some – tried to keep these gatherings like they’d always been. They didn’t talk about the obvious, and Woody didn’t bring it up.

Woody Durham returns to his cart to join longtime friends Bill Tate and Bill Howard during a golf outing at Chapel Hill Country Club last July.

“I’m not sure that coming out here isn’t a good way for him to forget about what’s going on, and get away from it,” said Alan Bandy, a former club pro and one of Woody’s playing partners.

Woody, 75, and Jean hosted a large birthday party in August like they had for years. They have several friends with August birthdays. Woody’s is Aug. 8.

In the back room of a Carrboro restaurant Woody sat at the head of the table, Jean to his left and his son Taylor to his right. Conversation surrounded him while he mostly sat quiet, smiling and laughing and saying what he could.

Woody Durham gets a kiss from Angela Brantley during a birthday celebration with a group of longtime friends from Burlington at at the Hickory Tavern in Carrboro last August.

After a while Woody stood. For a moment he controlled a room again. He kept it short, simple:

“Let’s just toast to everybody who has a birthday in August.”

“To the Woodster!” someone shouted from the end of the table, and it spread.

“To the Woodster!”

“To the Wood-man!”

Milt Petty embraces Woody Durham during a birthday celebration with a group of longtime friends from Burlington at the Hickory Tavern in Carrboro last August.

On nights like these, in a room full of friends and a giant chocolate cake in the corner, things almost felt normal. Woody, suffering from a disease that made it hard for him to find words, was quieter, sure, but all the noise helped make up for that: the laughter and stories, with Taylor, 43, especially playing his father’s role, the life of the room.

Wherever Woody went, people filled in the growing silence. It was that way at Top of the Hill, where Woody, the longtime voice of the Tar Heels, and Jean, 76, are still regulars at the UNC coaches’ shows that Woody used to host. They like to sit in the middle of the dining room, Jean periodically encouraging Woody to eat his greens.

“Are you sure you don’t want any more of this salad?” she asked one night.

“I’m positive,” he said, rolling his eyes, grinning, while Larry Fedora Live was in a commercial break.

Later that month, on the last Saturday in September, Jean and Woody arrived about 90 minutes before UNC’s football game against Pittsburgh. Their tailgating spot is the best one on campus: right on the corner of Stadium Drive, the bell tower rising above the trees next to a picnic table filled with food.

Don McCauley, one of the best football players in school history, came by. He works with the Rams Club. Dick Grubar, who played on Dean Smith’s first Final Four team, walked past and stopped.

Woody Durham talks with former Tar Heel basketball player Dick Grubar while tailgating outside Kenan Stadium before the football game against Pittsburgh in September.

“Woody Durham!” Grubar yelled, as if encountering a friend he hadn’t seen in years, and they embraced. Others walked past, whispering Woody’s name to their friends.

Woody took it all in: the food, the people, the sun bursting through the pines, casting beautiful shadows while Jean hosted and welcomed company. All those decades in a press box, and Woody was still getting used to the world on the outside on a fall Saturday.

“I missed 40 years,” he said.

Soon it was time to pack up the tailgate and head into Kenan Stadium. The Tar Heels won in the final seconds. Woody and Jean went back home, and it was quiet again.

The quiet

It was always noisy at home, raising two boys and living with a man who talked for a living. Years ago people told Jean: wait until it’s just you and Woody. You’ll sit across from each other, the years rolling by, with nothing to say.

If it was like that now, it was only because of the disease. Used to be, Jean and Woody could go out to dinner and still be there, just talking, an hour after the plates had been cleared and long after the check had been paid.

He talks. But it’s quiet. Really quiet. That’s the sad thing. I can handle everything else. It’s just – he’s there. But it’s different.

Woody Durham’s wife, Jean

That’s how it’d been since they’d met in 1957. They dated long distance at first, with Woody in Albemarle and Jean in Winston-Salem. When they went to college – Woody at UNC, Jean at Meredith – Woody wrote her a letter every day.

“Every single day,” she said, and Jean kept those letters, six years worth, until they married. Now the lack of conversation, the silence, the absence of words – that was, for Jean, the most difficult part.

“He talks,” Jean said, and this was the change that made her most emotional, “but it’s quiet. Really quiet. That’s the sad thing. I can handle everything else. It’s just – he’s there. But it’s different.

“It is the same person, but it’s not, you know?”

Woody still woke up every morning and dressed like he had somewhere to be. Jean was thankful for that. She’d read that as people advance through Primary Progressive Aphasia, they become less attentive to their appearance. Woody always cared.

He shined his shoes all the time, and if he didn’t have his hair cut every third Tuesday at 9:15 a.m, “the world would probably end,” Jean said. He still shined his shoes. And he still went for his haircut every third Tuesday.

Woody had always embraced routine. Now routines helped him retain order.

He tried to stay busy – the speech therapy and the social gatherings, the games at UNC and at Elon, where Taylor is the play-by-play voice. But Woody also spent a lot of time at home. He often walked upstairs and sought peace in his office, the walls filled with memorabilia and pictures.

Woody and Jean Durham attend an Elon University basketball game against Drexel in January. Their son Taylor Durham calls the Elon games for the ISP Sports Network. The Durhams look over the final stats sheet while Taylor, left, interviews Phoenix coach Matt Matheny following the game.

On one wall there were all of Woody’s North Carolina Sportscaster of the Year Awards: 13 of them. Each year he won he received a new small wooden panel to attach to the original plaque, and he’d received so many that the panels hung down to the floor.

And there he was at the celebration of 100 years of UNC basketball. In the photo he’s in the middle holding a microphone, surrounded by Dean Smith and Michael Jordan and others, forever able to find the right words. Sometimes Woody walked in here, he said, “just trying to make myself happy.”

Jean saw the changes in Woody every day. To her they were gradual.

To the boys they were more sudden, their father transforming a week or a month at a time. Taylor tried to come home every Sunday. Wes tried to come home as often as his schedule allowed. He came home for Thanksgiving and thought Woody seemed depressed. Wes called Woody’s primary doctor, worried.

Woody wasn’t depressed, though. He was happier not straining to talk.

“It’s just easier not to,” Jean said. “So you just don’t.”

They tried to make Woody comfortable. That was all anyone could do.

For the first six months maybe that meant golf, though now Woody didn’t play anymore. Maybe it meant a meal out. Maybe it meant watching a game. Early last April, Woody gathered with a group of friends to watch UNC play for the national championship.

Wes, 51, did play-by-play for CBS’ “team stream” broadcast and received requests to use some of his dad’s lines: “Bold boys in bashful blue … Go to war, Miss Agnes … Hitch up their britches.”

“Even though britches is a football term, I played to the crowd and used it,” Wes said. “ ‘Running one-hander’ – that was my salute to Phil Ford.”

Wes used the “bold boys” line and remembered his dad saying it once: “Hilarious as hell,” Wes said.

It was cathartic for Wes, sitting courtside while the Tar Heels played for the national championship, saying things his dad used to say.

The future

They gathered in the living room and muted the sound on the TV. They turned the radio up high. A familiar voice came through in surround sound. It was Super Bowl Sunday, a night to celebrate in the Durham house.

Woody sat in his favorite chair, close to the TV, with Jean across the room. Taylor leaned back in the couch between them. Nobody said much while they listened to Wes Durham, their son and brother and the Atlanta Falcons radio play-by-play voice, call his first Super Bowl from a press box in Houston.

Wes had a chart in front of him, everything color coded and organized. It looked like the charts Woody drew by hand for four decades. Everything Wes knew about broadcasting, he learned from his father. Now he sounded like Woody used to sound.

This was Wes’ 14th season with the Falcons. Before, he did Georgia Tech football and basketball for eight years. When UNC played Georgia Tech then, Woody and Wes worked near each other, sometimes next to each other. The New York Times wrote a story about them once.

Wes Durham talks with his father Woody prior to the Tar Heels’ game against Georgia Tech football game in Atlanta in 2004.

Now Woody listened to his oldest son. Taylor tried to talk football. That was always Woody’s favorite.

“Dad, they’re rushing four and dropping seven,” Taylor said of the Falcons’ defense.

“Yep,” Woody said.

“Why do you think they’re doing that?” Jean asked, and she and Taylor talked it over.

Jean had lived this moment hundreds of times, listening to Woody or one of the boys on the radio.

“Is Wes doing OK?” Jean asked Woody early in the second quarter. “Have you noticed any mistakes?”

Woody didn’t answer. The Falcons scored moments later on Matt Ryan’s 19-yard pass to Austin Hooper.

For a moment it was like Woody was back in the booth: “Touchdown,” he said, his voice rising.

There was a slight delay between TV and the radio, and so seconds later Wes’ description filled the room. Not long after Woody tried saying something but only a few syllables came out. He tried again.

“What hon?” Jean asked, and she realized Woody was asking about his speech therapy appointment.

Three days after the Super Bowl he sat across from Amber DePalma, his speech therapist. She named cities and Woody named the baseball teams in those cities: The Boston Red …

“Sox,” Woody said, before he labored to come up with the Philadelphia Phillies.

They switched to football. The Green Bay Packers came quickly, but 30 seconds passed with Woody unable to name the Carolina Panthers. For Denver, he answered “horses” instead of Broncos.

“This will be our last one,” DePalma said. “The Atlanta ...”

“Braves,” Woody said.

“Football would be the Atlanta Fal …”

“Falcons,” Woody said. “Should have got that one.”

In the 13 months since his diagnosis, changes arrived large and small. Woody didn’t want to play golf anymore. He didn’t want to slow his friends down. He reduced his driving, only short trips around town, and then decided in February to surrender his license, which made Jean proud.

For a while she noticed something different almost every day. Every morning she asked herself: How is Woody today? Is he different than the day before? She met and corresponded with women whose husbands have also been diagnosed with Primary Progressive Aphasia. It had become an informal support group.

She read. She kept a journal to document the transformation.

You value everything you had before, and you’re so glad you had it. And that’s the way I feel is I’m just glad I had all these years. And some of the things we haven’t been able to do, that we planned to do – that’s OK. I will take it this way rather than not at all.

Jean on Woody Durham

When Woody retired in 2011, he and Jean made plans. Woody always wanted to visit the Bourbon Trail in Kentucky. They were going to take a bus tour. They were going to go to Maui last November when UNC played there, and make a vacation of it. Now there were no such plans.

“You value everything you had before, and you’re so glad you had it,” Jean said. “And that’s the way I feel is I’m just glad I had all these years. And some of the things we haven’t been able to do, that we planned to do – that’s OK. I will take it this way rather than not at all.”

Some days it seemed like the disease accelerated. Others like it slowed toward the inevitable. Jean knew time would bring difficult questions: Can Woody be left alone? Can he care for himself? Eventually he won’t be able to. Jean read that a good guideline was four years from diagnosis.

Woody knew what could be coming. He tried to be positive.

“In the midst of all of this thing,” he said one day in his office, “it’s not anything like people died because of this. You know, just … hanging on.”

Sometimes after speech therapy Woody drove to Kenan Stadium. He went for exercise, to walk laps around the field. He was there three days after the Super Bowl, wearing his 2009 national championship ring and a black tracksuit with “Woody” on the chest.

Kenan Stadium director and longtime friend James Spurling gives Woody Durham a ride around the familiar surroundings of Kenan Stadium during a visit in February.

It was a beautiful day, the stadium empty and quiet. Woody took a long, slow lap around the field. He watched the UNC-Duke game one night later. He watched the Tar Heels’ victory at N.C. State not long after, his son Wes doing play-by-play on TV.

Before it, Wes went home for a couple of days. He prepared how his dad taught him. Wes made his charts, and Woody looked them over, giving approval. Woody always watched the UNC games, sometimes from his chair, sometimes in his office.

Sometimes, he turned down the sound on TV and listened to Jones Angell. If the Tar Heels were at home, though, Woody went. They returned to the Smith Center on Feb. 18 against Virginia. Woody and Jean walked in 45 minutes early, took their seats in section 212, row C, seats 9 and 10.

Jean didn’t know about tomorrow, what new challenges might arrive. Nobody could know.

She and Woody had today. They had this moment, and these two hours together, and for now that was all they needed. The seats filled in around them. Tip-off approached. The lights went down, music played. Images of past greatness flashed by up on the big screens.

There was Marvin Williams against Duke in 2005. There was Michael Jordan’s shot against Georgetown in 1982. And there was the sound of Woody, providing the soundtrack to those memories with words that now so often escaped him.

For a moment his words echoed throughout the Smith Center. They had become a part of history, as much as the plays themselves. Woody had given them life. Now amid his growing silence, the day approaching when he wouldn’t be able to speak, Woody’s voice lived on.