For 40 years, Woody Durham was the “voice of the Tar Heels,” giving play-by-play coverage to the North Carolina men’s basketball team. He retired in 2011 and was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Aphasia in 2016. He died several weeks ago and is sorely missed in the sports world.
A Primary Progressive Aphasia Diagnosis
Being diagnosed with Primary Progressive Aphasia initially brought Durham a modicum of peace:
For years, Woody Durham and his family feared the unknown while the retired UNC radio announcer gradually lost his ability to speak. At first the diagnosis of Primary Progressive Aphasia, a neurocognitive disorder that robs its victims of their vocabulary, brought relief.
They had a diagnosis, and with it, a treatment plan. But, of course, there was no cure. His doctor explained Primary Progressive Aphasia to the family:
To describe aphasia, Kaufer used an analogy: Imagine a bucket filled with words, a person’s vocabulary. A hole develops. The words slowly leak out. There is no way to plug the hole, or to fill the bucket back up the way it was. A word might be replaced but it falls out again. The hole grows.
Durham tried speech therapy to slow that leak, going at first every week and then every other week.
Releasing a Message
Last June, Durham released a message to fans about his Primary Progressive Aphasia diagnosis:
He remarked on the irony that a person who made their living by speaking would lose their ability to interact with words at the end of their life. He released this spoken statement because he wanted to address his fans one last time in his own voice while he still had the ability to communicate.
Woody wanted to go public, in part, to increase awareness, which could help raise money for research, which could help lead to breakthroughs. Other diseases have their champions, heroes who pledged to save others while realizing it was too late for their own lives. Those with neurocognitive disorders often suffer in quiet solitude, fading away. Woody and his family wanted people to know.
A Long Career
Prior to his retirement and subsequent diagnosis of aphasia, he announced the Tar Heels games for four decades. As The News & Observer pointed out: “His voice linked fans across generations, across championships, in a way a coach never could.” Year after year, game after game, Durham provided commentary to fans.
Moreover, he became as important as the players, an essential member of the team. For fans, “his eyes became their eyes, his voice their truth.”
He’s also known for his iconic advice when times were tough for his team that is now being used by fans to spread awareness about Primary Progressive Aphasia. “Go where you go, and do what you do,” are words that Durham passed along to others.
Image: Woody Durham via Wikicommons via Creative Commons license