Hard to say goodbye to an old friend of many years, even one that I wasn’t really close to. When we ran into one another it’d usually be a handshake and a word or two, but not really a relationship. But I spent a goodly part of my adult life with Woody Durham, most of it on warm autumn afternoons and frigid winter evenings, listening to him call the Tar Heels through games that ranged from deep disasters to towering victories and national championships. Even when we had football tickets I’d take a little headset radio with me just to listen to Woody — and even when the Heels were on national TV broadcasts with the big network boys, we’d turn down the sound and listen to Woody.
I grew from a young man in the 1970s to a gimp-kneed geezer in the 21st century listening to Woody and his sidekicks like Mick Mixon and Eric Montross and even for a while his boyhood hero Charlie Choo-Choo Justice. I was always impressed by the fact that he seemed to know everything about every Carolina player, but also most of the players from the opposing team. If you listened regularly, you would pretty soon know where every UNC player had come from — and to this day when we are driving through South Georgia, my wife Martha B. will ask, “Where is the Gray, Georgia junior these days?” We’d laugh, because Woody’s description of Al Wood would roll effortlessly off his tongue, and it was usually because Wood had just hit a long one.
My children grew up the same way, listening to Woody as his words flowed out through the big speakers in our den. He didn’t always open a broadcast this way, but when he would start with “And the Tar Heel Sports Network is ON the air,” it seemed like a dramatic moment on a very cold night that was about to heat up and might turn into an inferno before the Heels and the Wolfpack or the Demon Deacons or the Blue Devils got through tearing each other to shred and setting off the evening’s celebratory fireworks.
Woody’s words became part of our family lingo — sometimes “Good gracious, Gertie” and sometimes something like “Go to war, Miss Agnes” when something spectacular happened. And listeners had their own private routines in tight moments when Woody said, “Go where you go and do what you do” — the signal to turn to whatever your lucky spot was and get there quick. For me it was a quick trip to the fridge to grab a cold one and get back to my front-row seat before play began again.
Things weren’t always they way you wanted them, and I bled with Woody when he would try to interview the sometimes tight-lipped football coach Dick Drum, whose answers after a long and involved question might be “Yes, Woody.”
And one night in a game with, I think, Virginia, play stopped when a collision resulted in a Cavalier writhing on the floor in pain. This was during a time when the broadcast was sponsored by a well-known hot dog manufacturer. As the Cavalier staff was tending to the hurt player, there was no sound from announcer or advertiser. Then Mixon broke in with something like, “Well, Woody, this is a family broadcast so I can’t say exactly where the Virginia player is hurt, but I can tell you this would be a good time for a Beef Master Frank from Curtis Packing.” And the next sound was Woody trying to stifle a belly laugh that went on and on and on. It was a while before the broadcast could resume,
I was a Carolina Cheerleader back in the late 1960s when the Mouth of the South, Bill Currie, was doing the broadcasting, and while Currie was colorful and fun-loving, I recognized when Woody Durham took over in the ‘70s that this was a serious student of sports who did his homework, knew his stats and worked hard to be fair to players from other schools. And while he clearly was a Tar Heel loyal to the Carolina Blue, he was also a realist.
One night the late Gene Wang, then of United Press International, asked me to keep statistics to help him cover a Carolina game on a weekday night against Wake Forest in Chapel Hill. This was before Carmichael Auditorium opened, and the press box was in the ironworks high above the old Woolen Gymnasium. It did not go well for the Heels, and part way through the game Gene had to grab me by the elbow to remind me that it was bad form for sportswriters to razz the refs from the press box. It wasn’t helping anyway, as the Demon Deacons just pounded the stuffing out of the Tar Heels that night. We were sitting a few spaces away from Woody, and as Gene was finishing his story on deadline, Woody was wrapping up his postgame comments. Then with a sigh he signed off, yanked off his headset, looked around, and said, “Boys, that was a country ass-whupping.’” It was.
Fortunately there weren’t nearly as many of those as there were dramatic victories. Woody brought them all into our home with pictures of the action painted in streams of words, shaded in blue but always putting his listeners right there at courtside or on the 50 yard line. With all Woody’s experience over the years in Blue Heaven, I expect that by now, he’s already begun helping the Heavenly Host understand how the game is played — and where each of the angels went to high school.