The voice of the Tar Heels, Woody Durham, lives with a painful silence

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.


This is the first of three parts

The disease that started to silence his voice now affected his balance, and so Woody Durham slowly made his way up the stairs, gripping the handrail, until he reached section 212. The basketball court at the Smith Center appeared below, and in front of him was an usher with a smile and a name tag that read, “Fred.”

“Did you have a good Thanksgiving?” Fred asked, and Durham, 75, nodded and managed a slow, soft reply: “Yes.” He continued to his seat with his wife, Jean, by his side. Today was a good day because there was a Tar Heels game, an afternoon of something to do and somewhere to be.

On the way to their seats, each step brought Woody and Jean closer to familiar faces. Jean hugged a security guard after they’d walked into the arena; moments later old friends awaited in the concourse.

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

Woody stood by, nodding, grinning, gesturing with his hands, speaking a few words at a time. That was how he communicated now. He knew where he was, knew the people he encountered and knew what he wanted to say. But it had been a long time since words came easily. People walked by, recognizing the face of a voice that had become a part of their lives.

On the first Sunday in December, Woody and Jean were doing what they couldn’t for four decades. They sat together at a UNC basketball game. For 40 years, Woody had been the voice of the Tar Heels, their radio play-by-play man. The Smith Center had been his place of work.

Dean Smith, left, talks with Woody Durham prior to the opening of the Dean E. Smith Center in 1986.

During those four decades Woody, a 1963 UNC graduate enshrined in the North Carolina Sports Hall of Fame, chronicled generations worth of memories. He introduced the state to Michael Jordan, became a close friend to Dean Smith and provided a comforting soundtrack to Tar Heels fans.

If UNC was on the road, Jean turned on the radio, like many thousands of others, and listened to Woody. When the tension of close games became too much, she calmed herself by cleaning. If UNC was at home, she was there, first at Carmichael Auditorium and then at the Smith Center.

Forty-five minutes before tip-off, their section mostly empty, Woody and Jean, 76, sat in Row C, seats 9 and 10, Woody on the aisle. Smith picked those seats for Jean decades ago. She and Woody had dressed up, 59 years after they’d met at a high school debate workshop, as if on a nice date.

He wore pressed slacks, a dark sweater. She had on a Carolina blue blazer.

Jean and Woody Durham in their customary seats in the Smith Center – Section 212, Row C, seats 9 and 10.

Since Woody retired in 2011, they had never missed a game. The first several years, Woody took notes, just like when he worked. He kept them in his shirt pocket. Now he had lost his ability to write, so he brought printouts from home.

The lights in the Smith Center went down. Music played. A video began on the large screens high in the corners of the arena. Before every game the video was the same: moments of past glory flashing by. Woody’s voice, his old radio calls, played over two of the first three highlights.

There it was when Marvin Williams beat Duke in 2005: “Loooose ball! Recovered, Marvin – HE SCORES!” And there it was again when a skinny freshman made a game-winning shot against Georgetown in ’82: “Goes back to Michael Jordan, jumper from out on the left. GOOD!”

Woody watched the video and listened to his voice. He turned to Jean: “You know,” he said, “I wonder why I can’t talk like that anymore.”

It had been 11 months since he’d been diagnosed with Primary Progressive Aphasia, a neurocognitive disorder that affects speech. At first he couldn’t find the words. Then his handwriting went, then his sense of perception and balance. His doctor recommended comforting situations. A basketball game felt like home.

The voice

For 25 years the Smith Center was like a second home. On game days Woody arrived between two and three hours early. The pregame show started an hour before tip-off and then the drama unfolded, Woody translating the action into words that found their way into cars and living rooms across the state.

It became a tradition for an untold number of UNC fans: turn down the television and turn up Woody. His voice came in all over North Carolina – Murphy to Manteo, as the saying goes – on the Tar Heel Sports Network.

In the 1970s it was the largest of its kind in the country, a conduit between UNC fans and the football and basketball teams. When listeners tuned in, the voice they heard belonged to Woody. Long before he succeeded Woody, Jones Angell grew up with that voice.

It entered his living room through WJNC 1240-AM in Jacksonville. Angell’s parents muted the TV and turned up the radio. Some of Woody’s expressions – like “Good gosh, gurdy!” – play over in Angell’s mind. Moments live on for him, narrated by Woody:

King Rice’s shot to beat James Madison in Maui in 1989; Rick Fox driving the baseline to beat No. 1 Oklahoma in the NCAA tournament later that season; the Jerry Stackhouse dunk at Duke in 1995. Woody’s call sounded like this:

Hear Woody Durham’s call of a Jerry Stackhouse dunk at Duke in 1995.

“... Now gets it away to Donald Williams, doooown to the side to Stackhouse – Stackhouse, streaking in on Parks, REVERSE DUNK, is good! And he gets fouled by Parks. Ohhhhh my goodness. What a dunk by Stackhouse! He jammed it on the reverse dunk. …”

Woody made it sound effortless. And yet the final product, the words people heard on fall Saturdays or on weeknights in the winter, required endless preparation.

For football games, he memorized the other team’s depth chart, writing it on note cards that he kept with him all week. Sometimes he taped the depth chart to the bathroom mirror. Long before the Internet and analytics, he researched trends, odd stats, made charts that became their own language, the code behind his broadcasts.

Two of his most important tools were a ruler and multicolored pen, the straight lines and colors helping him navigate the chaos of a game. He wrote everything he needed to know on those charts, including many things he didn’t know he’d need to know.

Woody Durham calls the North Carolina-Kentucky football game on September 22, 1990 at Kenan Stadium using his depth charts and notes he memorized before each athletic event he called for the radio network.

The preparation made Woody, well, Woody. It also provided, in his final years behind the microphone, some of the first signs something was wrong. One night he turned to Jean and lamented that he’d taken six hours to do something that once took three.

She tried reassuring him. But then on the air there were the dropped words, the longer-than-usual pauses. Once he called Bruce Carter, a linebacker from 2007-10, Vince Carter, a basketball star of the mid-to-late 1990s.

Before a football game at Rutgers in September 2010, Woody seemed asleep moments before kickoff. Angell and others on the radio team, fearful that Woody had suffered a stroke, rustled him awake. Woody went on the air, sounding groggy.

Back home, Jean grew concerned. Once there was a long pause between Woody’s words, maybe five or 10 seconds, “that seemed like an eternity,” she said. Afterward, Angell called. They didn’t let Woody fly home until the team doctors evaluated him.

Woody felt embarrassed. When he returned home he told Jean he needed to be sharper. He prepared all day. He did brain exercises. There was no thought of a serious health problem.

There was no way to know. No test could show the microscopic abnormal proteins slowly accumulating in his left temporal lobe. Years before his disease became diagnosable Woody decided that the 2010-11 season would be his last, but he waited until April 2011 to announce his retirement.

His final football game was Dec. 30, 2010, the Music City Bowl remembered for its ending. Casey Barth’s 23-yard field goal beat Tennessee in double overtime. Woody captured the moment with his usual understated elegance: “Snap, spot, kick. Good! Carolina wins!”

Hear Woody Durham’s call of Casey Barth’s winning field goal in double overtime at the Music City Bowl in 2010.

And then his next eight words – “The Tar Heels win, the Music City … Bowl ...” – provided a subtle clue of the eroding connections in his brain. The words lacked their usual flow. A second-long pause between “city” and “bowl,” Woody searching for the right word, briefly, disrupted the cadence.

Nearly three months later, on March 27, 2011, he called his final game, a loss against Kentucky in the East Regional final in Newark, N.J. Outside of family, nobody knew he’d decided that would be it. Woody never wanted a farewell tour.

He wanted to call his final game and then walk away, which is what he did after 23 bowl games, 13 Final Fours, four national championships and games in 119 cities in 40 states. A new life awaited.

The gift

It was supposed to be a life much like the one Woody lived for 40 years: travel with Jean, speaking engagements, afternoons at Kenan Stadium and nights at the Smith Center, weekly rounds with his golfing buddies, long dinners with friends, years of telling stories, connecting.

Connecting was Woody’s gift.

During broadcasts he often mentioned hometowns. Walter Davis wasn’t just Walter Davis the forward. He was Walter Davis, the forward from Pineville. And Phil Ford from Rocky Mount, Michael Jordan from Wilmington, Brad Daugherty from Black Mountain. It wasn’t a shtick.

Woody grew up in Albemarle. He listened to Duke football games on the radio, following the few Duke players who were also from Albemarle. The next day at church everyone talked about hearing their little hometown mentioned on the radio.

“He knew what it was like to grow up in a small town,” said Taylor, Woody’s youngest son. “He knew what it was like to grow up in a place that Friday nights in the fall meant the world.”

People were drawn to him. And he had great stories, and he always knew somebody’s dad who was a shoe salesman in Burlington back in the day.

UNC announcer Jones Angell

That knowledge helped nurture Woody’s gift. His sons Wes, 51, and Taylor, 43, watched how Woody connected with people, whether they were in the same room or press box or on the other side of a radio. Anyone who spent much time around Woody could see it.

“People were drawn to him,” Angell said, “and he had great stories, and he always knew somebody’s dad who was a shoe salesman in Burlington back in the day.”

Wes Durham talks about his dad’s preparation and his ability to memorize the depth charts for opposing football teams, traveling with his father to football games, and the tools he learned and uses today in his broadcasting career.

Their entire lives Wes and Taylor, both of whom followed their father into sports broadcasting, could see the gift, Woody’s talent for words that brought people together. And then, gradually, Woody grew quieter.

Perhaps that could be expected early into his retirement. Jean wondered if Woody was just “a grumpy old man,” tired. It had been a long four decades and, as Wes said, “he was brick and mortar every time he did a game.”

In 2014, Wes, the play-by-play voice of the Atlanta Falcons, invited his dad down for a preseason game. On the field before kickoff, quarterback Matt Ryan, a fan of Woody’s, came up and tried to start a conversation. So did T.J. Yates, who played at UNC and was then Ryan’s backup.

I knew something was wrong.

Woody Durham on his appearance at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015

Woody didn’t talk much. How unlike him, Wes thought.

Six months later, in February 2015, Dean Smith died after suffering for years from a form of dementia that robbed him of his memories. Between the Falcons game and Smith’s death, Woody became quieter still. He wasn’t doing much public speaking.

The cruel similarity wasn’t lost on Woody and those close to him. Smith in his later years lost his memory, his unreal ability to put a name with a face, to recall the details of his former players’ lives. Now Woody’s defining characteristic, his voice, was fading.

There were doctors appointments, tests, scans. Everything looked normal. Woody golfed, stayed active, read, wrote, kept notes at games. It was just the talking, the long pauses, an inability to find the right word.

Wes convinced his dad to cease public speaking until they could identify the problem. Woody and Smith, though, were close and Woody wanted to talk at the coach’s public memorial. Wes helped create a script and Woody worked his way through it, his voice slower but still strong.

The hope was that Woody could do the same in September 2015 at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Woody was the recipient of the Curt Gowdy Award, the highest honor a basketball broadcaster can receive. He and his family and several friends traveled to Springfield, Mass., for the ceremony.

It called for a short speech. Woody practiced it often upstairs in his office, rehearsing “beautifully,” Jean said. Woody had never needed to rehearse public speaking.

When the time came, Woody began without a problem. The first two sentences came easily. Halfway through the third he stammered, then stopped. He tried to start again but couldn’t. Seconds felt like minutes, Wes said, while his father searched for lost words.

Woody felt fear. He felt something unlike anything he’d ever experienced.

“I knew something was wrong,” he said about nine months later, reliving that speech.

He’d made his living with words, and at the Hall of Fame the words he wanted to say were gone. Instead Woody could only say he was sorry. He must have apologized three times, he said.

Wes’ wife Vicky cried. Jean slumped in her chair. Don’t worry, Wes told his dad: They were going to find out what this was. Three weeks later Woody met with Dr. Daniel Kaufer, a neurologist at UNC.

It took about three more months until a diagnosis. Everyone feared the worst -- Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. In January 2016, Kaufer had an answer: Primary Progressive Aphasia. It’s a disease that begins with language expression, and slowly diminishes its victims’ ability to complete basic functions. Woody learned there was no cure.

After Woody Durham was diagnosed with Progressive Primary Progressive Aphasia and made the public announcement of his disease, David Hinson of Wake Forest gave these cards to Durham to use. They help educate the public about his condition and how best to communicate with him.

Next: Woody Durham fights his disease.