RALEIGH — Fifty years ago, right around this time of year, Bob Harris shed a tear as he packed up his broadcast equipment after calling a high school football game between West Stanly and Anson County to end his first year as a radio announcer.
“I thought that would be it,” Harris said. “I really enjoyed doing it, but I didn’t think I would get the chance to do it anymore.”
Harris was a full-time insurance agent moonlighting as a broadcaster back them. Although his future behind the mic was anything but certain when he signed off on WZKY in Albemarle that night in 1967, he need not have worried.
He went on to become one of the most recognized and respected voices in North Carolina as the long-time play-by-play man for the Duke Blue Devils, a position from which he provided the descriptions for 456 consecutive football games and more than 1,300 basketball games before his retirement last spring.
Friday night in Charlotte, Harris will likely be wiping tears from his eyes again when he is honored with 13 other “ACC Legends” during the league’s football championship game festivities. The group will also be introduced on the field at halftime of the title game between Clemson and Miami.
“I don’t think it will really hit me until Friday night at the banquet and again Saturday night at the game,” Harris said. “That will be great.
“There’s no way you can plan for something like this. Players can hope to get these kind of honors, but not a guy like me. That’s what surprised me so much.”
Harris is the first nonplayer or coach to be honored as an “ACC Legend” since the league started the annual program in 2005.
He was originally scheduled to be part of last year’s class in recognition of his retirement after 41 years as the Voice of the Blue Devils. But that was put on hold when the ACC moved its championship game to Orlando in protest of the now-repealed House Bill 2.
“Because of the bathroom situation and moving the game to Florida, they couldn’t get everything put together for this event. So they just postponed it for a year,” Harris said. “I just had to carry it with me for that time. It wasn’t something I was going to go around bragging about, so it worked out perfectly.”
Saturday’s game at Bank of America Stadium won’t be the first Harris has attended since his retirement. He was on the sideline for the Blue Devils’ victory at rival North Carolina earlier this season and again last Saturday when Duke clinched its bowl bid by winning at Wake Forest.
Although he said he misses his interactions with the players, fans and his colleagues in the media, the now 75-year-old is enjoying the newfound free time his retirement has created. He and his wife, Phyllis, recently returned from a trip to Israel.
“It’s been a different year,” he said, “But it’s been good.”
It’s a life he could only have dreamt about a half century ago when he had to make the decision between the security of selling insurance for a living or taking the leap of faith by pursuing a career in radio.
“The people I was working for with the insurance company put it to me bluntly, either get into the business or get out,” Harris recalled. “Not having anything else to hang my hat on, I thought that was the end of my broadcasting career.
“Then the guy that ran the radio station down there really enjoyed what I did and asked if I wanted a job full-time. So they hired me and I started doing high school baseball for them, then the next year we did football, boys and girls basketball, Little League games in the summer and even some Pfeiffer basketball and baseball. If I could sell it, I could put it on the air and I did that for eight years.”
Harris did such a good job of selling advertising that he was hired to do the same thing at WDNC in Durham in 1975. A week later he was hosting a sports show and by the end of the year, he was the main play-by-play man for the Duke network when his predecessor Ad Penfield developed some health issues and was forced to retire.
It’s a job he held for the next four decades and became a North Carolina sports “legend,” just as his former high school classmate Woody Durham did a few miles down the road at rival UNC.
“It was a 42-year career at Duke,” Harris said. “The people there were good to me, they took care of me and it was a great thing.”