By Adam Lucas
March 7, 2018
He sounded like absolutely no one else, because he was Woody. But at the very same time, he sounded like one of us, because he was one of us.
Long before Woody Durham was a Carolina icon, he was simply a Carolina fan. A younger version of Woody thrilled to the exploits of Choo Choo Justice and the 1957 national champion Tar Heel basketball team. The older version of Woody, the one known on a first-name basis around the state, never lost that sense of wonder, and that's why we bonded with him so perfectly over the radio.
Along the way, of course, Woody became just as big as many of the players he covered. Tar Heels on the playing field or hardwood had just four years to become part of our lives. Woody described their exploits for decades. I have watched first-hand as Carolina fans have walked right past a Carolina player or coach in order to meet Woody.
You know how some of your closest Tar Heel friends are the ones with whom you've experienced the best victories and the toughest losses? We listened to all the very best wins—eight points in 17 seconds and bloody Montross and Marvin's putback—and all the most heartbreaking losses—the 1977 national title game and the interception in Charlottesville in 1996 and Utah in 1998—with Woody.
Sometimes he was all we had. Sometimes he was all we chose to have. Some of you do not understand this. Some of you stream every game and follow the players on Twitter and post on message boards with fans from around the entire world.
There were times that we had Woody. That's it. And if he said Antawn Jamison was putting on an absolute clinic, then that was all the description we needed.
Let me try to explain how important Woody Durham was to those of us of a certain age. On the evening of April 4, 2005, something unforgettable happened in St. Louis.
Well, yes, Roy Williams won his first national championship with a Carolina win over Illinois. I was there, and I remember certain plays—Raymond Felton's big steal and Sean May pulling down the game's final rebound ("Rebounded…May! It's over!" said Woody).
But what I remember with perfect clarity happened around an hour after the game. I'd gone to the locker room and returned to media row, where the Tar Heel Sports Network was still on the air. Mick Mixon, Woody's then-partner, asked me if I had any observations from the locker room. Woody was still in the locker room gathering sound bites, and Mick told me when the broadcast came out of the commercial break, he'd ask me a few questions.
I sat at that table in St. Louis and stared at what was in front of me. In a moment I don't believe I will ever forget, I remember thinking the following:
"I am about to put on Woody Durham's headset."
Carolina had just won the national title and I'd been courtside for it, watched the nets come down from closer than I ever imagined when I was reenacting every single Carolina game in my driveway, and what I remember the most is putting on Woody Durham's headset.
That's how important Woody was to us.
Check it (that's what Woody would say)—that's how important Woody is to us. What role did he play? You tell me:
"Un-beeee-leeee-va-ble!" (eight points in 17 seconds)
"Jumper from out on the left…GOOD!" (1982)
"Snap. Spot. Kick away. High enough. Long enough. IT'S GOOD! Carolina has won the game on a 42-yard field goal by freshman Connor Barth!" (2004)
It is impossible to picture any of these highlights in my mind without Woody's soundtrack playing along with them. There's nothing stranger than seeing a clip of the 1982 title game…and the accompanying audio is the national television feed rather than the Woody feed. It seems, somehow, lesser.
We took him for granted because he was ours. We thought we liked Woody because he was a Tar Heel, or because he said "Good gosh Gertie!" at just the right time. That undersold a key point: Woody was very, very good at his job. He had the love, naturally. He had the historical background that could instantly put every Carolina win or loss into context for us, and he had the passion honed by watching Choo Choo Justice and the 1957 national champions, but he also had an incredible skill level.
He also had a secret weapon—his wife, Jean, the eternally patient woman who paused her family's life from August (training camp) through May (Rams Club tour) every year. No visitor to the Durham house has ever left without a Tupperware container or a Ziploc bag full of home-baked goodies.
You think it's impressive that Woody remembered that Brad Daugherty was from Black Mountain and Pete Chilcutt was from Eutaw, Alabama, and Kris Lang was from Gastonia? Jean remembers that you like chocolate and peanut butter together and she knows to make them chewy, not crunchy, and you always leave her home feeling like somehow you had done her a favor even though the reverse was true. (Don't be fooled by her kindness; she is a stickler for grammar and will catch you in a mistake your high school English teacher would miss.)
It was Jean, along with the couple's sons, Wes and Taylor, who helped Woody through the last 18 months, as his diagnosis with aphasia became public and some of the activities he once took for granted became difficult. She'd heard every story and relived every game for the better part of five decades. And when the stories became harder for him to tell, there she was, filling in the gaps when he—for the first time ever—couldn't find the words.
But that is not how we will remember him. He will eternally be the man with the perfect phrase, the one with the hand on the shoulder of the head coach as he conducts the postgame interview, the one who taught us how to go where we go.
It doesn't seem possible that we are having this conversation now. It was just January 17, a scant seven weeks ago, during the Clemson game, that Woody was waving to us from the mezzanine at the Smith Center on the same day it was announced he was selected to the National Sports Media Association Hall of Fame.
Woody and Jean were in their regular seats, very close to where Bill Guthridge used to sit after his retirement, and Woody waved to the crowd, and Jean beamed.
How he loved being on the floor of that building. How he loved talking to you—"I make sure I'm talking to one person, whether I'm on the radio or doing a presentation at the Smith Center in front of 22,000," he once said, and we were all completely sure that the one person was us, that he was speaking directly to us and no one else—and how he loved signing the autographs and going on the road trips and just plain being a Tar Heel.
A few years ago, Woody sat in his den, Jean beaming by his side, and put it this way: "I've had the opportunity to describe some of the most memorable moments of many fans' lives. No matter where they were, I hope they felt like they were right there with me watching the game. We were just a couple of Carolina fans together, hoping for a Tar Heel victory. I was lucky to be courtside or in the press box for those games, and I feel privileged to have shared those experiences with every listener."
Just as you would expect. No one could have described it better.