Woody Durham’s story is both heartfelt and heartbreaking.
The N & O released a three-part series this week on long-time Tar Heel Voice Woody Durham, who retired in 2011 during the early stages of what was diagnosed five years later as Primary Progressive Aphasia. For Woody and the affliction that slowly steals his ability to speak, the illness is as ironic as the dementia that robbed Dean Smith of one of the greatest minds and memories on the planet.
Sports writer Andrew Carter researched the story for months, interviewing Woody and his wife Jean, their son Wes and the doctors and speech therapists who have worked with Woody since he last called a Tar Heel game in the 2011 NCAA Tournament, an Elite Eight loss to Kentucky. The story is uplifting in how the Durhams have faced the illness with strength and dignity. Woody rises every morning, and dresses like he is going to work. He and Jean still attend Tar Heel games and often dine with old friends. They regularly visit with their 11 year-old grand kids.
For Woody, losing his golden speech is like Smith losing his steel-trap recall and Bill Guthridge losing his rapid-fire sense of humor before he died three months after Smith. The series details how much emotion Woody brought to alumni and fans across the state, in the days when the Tar Heel Sports radio network was the biggest in the nation and Durham was their regular umbilical cord between Carolina football and basketball.
There is no cure for Primary Progressive Aphasia, and Durham will gradually lose his speech altogether along with his other faculties. At 75, it is way too early for the great story teller, UNC ambassador and doting grandfather. But Woody does his therapy homework like he prepared for each game broadcast. He answers the questions, trying to string words together that once rolled off his tongue. He does his memory drills with Jean and, thanks to his family intervention and the understanding of friends, avoids most embarrassing situations.
The series brought Woody back into the public consciousness, which doesn’t happen with many celebrities who retire. It made us send our thoughts and prayers to Woody and Jean while reminding us how much happiness he brought to our lives for four decades.