RALEIGH — Woody Durham loved everything about his job during his 40 years as the play-by-play voice of the North Carolina football and basketball teams. More than anything else, though, he loved calling the Tar Heels’ games in the ACC Tournament every March.
That’s why it was somewhat symbolic last Tuesday when news began to filter around Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, site of this year’s ACC Tournament, that the Stanly County native had passed away at the age of 76.
Durham died from complications of primary progressive aphasia, a rare brain disorder that took away his ability to speak, silencing the voice that had been the soundtrack for so many UNC fans’ lives.
“It’s ironic that Woody would pass away at the start of the postseason in college basketball because this was such a joyous time for him,” Tar Heels coach and longtime friend Roy Williams said before his Tar Heels played their opening game in the tournament later that evening. “He created so many lasting memories for Carolina fans during this time of year.
“It’s equally ironic that he dealt with a disorder for the final years of his life that robbed him of his ability to communicate as effectively as he did in perfecting his craft.”
A native of Albemarle, Durham was a high school classmate of Bob Harris, who went on to spend four decades as the play-by-play voice of the rival Duke Blue Devils.
Among Durham’s honors are 13 NC Sportscaster of the Year awards, the distinguished service medal from the UNC alumni association, the Skeeter Francis Award for special service to the ACC and induction into the N.C. Sports Hall of Fame. In 2015, Durham received the Curt Gowdy Award for contributions to basketball from the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and is scheduled to be inducted into the National Sports Media Association’s Hall of Fame this summer.
Although he lost his ability to speak, he continued to make public appearances at UNC games and charity events raising money to fight his disease. He attended his final Smith Center game on Jan. 16 against Clemson, the day his latest Hall of Fame election was announced.
On Friday, the ACC honored Durham with its Bob Bradley Courage Award. It was accepted by Durham’s son Wes, who continued to broadcast the tournament as a way of paying tribute to his late father.
“I’d like to think the best way I can honor him is by working an event he loved to work so much,” the younger Durham said, following his father’s famous advice of “Go where you go and do what you do” whenever the Tar Heels were in a tight spot.
“Our family is grateful for the incredible support my dad and our family received throughout his illness,” Wes Durham said. “From the medical teams to the general public, it’s been amazing. We hold to and will always cherish the wonderful memories he left for our family and Carolina fans throughout the world.”
One of those fans is Christy Walsh-Smith, a Greensboro native who came from her current home Virginia to watch the Tar Heels at Barclays Center last week.
“Woody Durham meant the world to me,” said the lifelong UNC fan, whose husband’s name is actually Dean Smith. “I can remember my father, who was a Carolina graduate, sitting in his car in the driveway to listen to Woody Durham call games on the radio because we couldn’t get it on television. Woody Durham’s passing is a huge loss, not only to Carolina fans, but to the world at large.”