In sports, statistics matter, and Woody Durham had them in spades: 14 years as sports director for WFMY-TV in Greensboro; 40 years as the radio voice of the Carolina Tar Heels; play-by-play man for 1,800 football and basketball games, including 23 bowl games; announcer for 4 national basketball championships, and 13 Final Fours. But there’s no statistic that can describe Woody’s commitment to his craft. UNC head coach Roy Williams said of Woody, “He prepared for each game as if it were the national championship.” He also prepared every TV broadcast with that same level of intensity. I know because I witnessed it first hand.
I met Woody in 1974 when “Channel 2” hired me to run studio camera and put sports scores on screen for his daily newscasts. Eventually I wormed my way onto the anchor desk as late night weatherman. It was my first on-air job, and I was thrilled to be sharing the stage with a broadcasting legend, especially one who worked so hard to prepare his material. The preparation paid off because Woody never made mistakes, and that put pressure on the rest of us to do our best.
A year or so later, Woody left WFMY to focus more of his energies on Carolina sports, and what energies they were. Listening to Woody Durham call a close game on the radio was like having Rembrandt paint you a masterpiece with words, except that Rembrandt graduated from Carolina and hated Duke. But by 2011, the words no longer came as easily to Woody as they once had. Writing in his autobiography, Woody Durham: a Tar Heel Voice, Woody said that he felt he wasn’t as sharp on air as he’d like to be. Ever the perfectionist, he retired from broadcasting rather than make a mistake on air. The fact is he was feeling the early effects of aphasia, a disease that would gradually rob him of his extraordinary ability to communicate. It was a cruel twist of fate for a man who painted pictures with words. On March 7, that booming Tar Heel voice was silenced forever. Woody Durham was 76.
My most treasured memory of Woody came in September of 2012 when he stopped by the Triad Today studio to plug his new book, and to promote a fundraising project for Ronald McDonald House. Here are a few highlights of our last time together in a TV studio.
JL: You’re a real legend. WD: [laughs] I tell people who say I’m a legend, that I had 900 lettermen, and six different coaches, and they all made old Woody sound pretty good on Saturday afternoons. JL: You developed a love for Carolina at an early age. WD: My dad came back from WWII and we were living in Mebane at the time. He and my mother both grew up in the Chapel Hill area, and Dad had been a real football fan. He told me about how he used to ride into Kenan stadium on the running boards of Coca Cola trucks, so of course he and Mom had season tickets. I really did become a football fan then. JL: You played football in high school where you met your future wife Jean. But she later said that it wasn’t love at first sight for her because you were arrogant. Is that true? WD: Maybe I was trying to be older than 15. As a matter of fact I told her that I was 16, so that she would think we were the same age, and she later found out that wasn’t quite the truth. I think that’s the only time I ever told her something that wasn’t true. [smiles]
During the interview Woody also talked about his friend, coach Dean Smith.
WD: He’d meet a person in Chapel Hill, and six months later he’d see that person at the airport, and was able to call them by name. He had a terrific mind for remembering people’s names.
Woody Durham also had a terrific mind, and on the day we taped our segment, his was as sharp as ever, and his speech was picture perfect. I will always be grateful for that brief reunion, and for the time we worked together at WFMY. Back then, Woody set the bar high for everyone who worked with him, and I’m lucky that some of his professionalism rubbed off on me. They say it’s not bragging if it’s true. I never heard Woody brag about himself, but if he had, it would have been true, because he was the best at what he did.