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CHAPEL HILL — Woody Durham, the retired “Voice of the Tar Heels” who called North Carolina football and basketball games for four decades, died Wednesday. He was 76.
Son Wes Durham said his father died from complications of the neurocognitive disorder that prevented him from public speaking.
“He’s my favorite announcer,” said Wes Durham, who followed his father’s career path and was in New York calling this week’s Atlantic Coast Conference men’s basketball Tournament. “His influence on me and my career is immense. He’s had the biggest impact on me professionally, obviously, and was undying in the support.”
“From the time I was 14 when I told him this is what I want to do to a month ago when we’re having a conversation about the way this business is moving. He couldn’t communicate it very well then, but I could tell I was triggering something. In those terms, I’ll never be able to get that back.”
Woody Durham called UNC games from 1971 through 2011. He worked more than 1,800 games with a voice that became inextricably tied to some of the school’s most unforgettable victories. That included the 1982 and 1993 NCAA basketball championships under late coach Dean Smith as well as the 2005 and 2009 titles under Roy Williams.
Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner John Swofford, the former athletic director at UNC, compared Durham’s voice to “gospel to generations of Tar Heels who trusted his every word.” Williams called it “a very sad day for everyone who loves the University of North Carolina”
“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,” Williams said. “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.”
Wes Durham decided to stay in New York and work the rest of the ACC Tournament, which started Tuesday at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“One, it’s what he wanted me to do, to the point he told my mom that,” Wes Durham said. “I’m doing it to honor him. Second part is, his love for this event was really, really strong. And I fell in love with the event because of his love for it and so this seemed right. And I knew when I left Monday morning that there was a possibility it could happen.”
Wes Durham was courtside Wednesday night doing play-by-play on Notre Dame-Virginia Tech and North Carolina-Syracuse for Raycom Sports.
“Hopefully, I’ll do a good job,” Wes Durham said. “It’s Carolina. That’ll make it a little tougher, obviously.”
He said he would work through Friday’s semifinals and leave Saturday. He was not scheduled to call the championship game Saturday night.
Woody Durham called 23 bowl games and 13 Final Fours in his career. He also spoke during the public memorial following Smith’s death in February 2015.
Durham said in an open letter to fans in 2016 that he had been diagnosed with primary progressive aphasia, which affects language expression.
Durham was a charter member of the board of directors of the North Carolina Baseball Museum and was involved in its fundraising endeavors, including the annual N.C. Baseball Museum Celebrity Golf Tournament and the Wilson Hot Stove banquet.
“We sought his input on certain things,” said Kent Montgomery, one of the founders of the N.C. Baseball Museum. “We knew that Woody, because of who he was, he could help us in certain things, like the banquet and golf tournament.
“He made just about every one of the tournaments.”
Montgomery and Durham were teammates on the offensive line of the Albemarle High football team with Durham at pulling guard and Montgomery at tight end.
Montgomery said that Durham’s willingness to help with the museum was invaluable.
“Woody meant so much for the North Carolina Baseball Museum, particularly the golf tournament, because he knew that if he came and played there were a lot of Carolina fans in eastern North Carolina and we could get sponsors,” Montgomery said.
“We couldn’t have done what we’ve done for 15 years, if it hadn’t been for guys like Woody.”
Montgomery, who played baseball at N.C. State before his long career with and, ultimately becoming the director of Wilson Parks and Recreation Department, said his longtime friend would meet him in the parking lot at Wedgewood Public Golf Course each May when Durham arrived for the Celebrity Golf Tournament.
“Woody would always look at me and say, ‘I’m here for you,’ and I haven’t ever forgotten that,” Montgomery recalled.
While Durham was busy, even in retirement, with a host of public appearances and golf tournaments, he was always willing to help out with the baseball museum.
“He never said no,” Montgomery said.