Woody Durham

Profiles of Aphasia: Woody Durham

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.

We’ve been profiling well-known people with aphasia, including Ralph Waldo Emerson and Gabby Giffords. Aphasia can affect anyone; even poetic writers and deep thinkers.

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.

As the News & Observer reported:

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



  • Lois Siegel
    April 11, 2018 at 2:31 pm

    My husband has PPA -with a diagnosis 10 years ago at the age of 65. I really enjoyed the analogy Woody shared. We are now living in Assisted Living for his safety.

  • Caroline F. Franco
    April 11, 2018 at 10:54 pm

    Thank you for this. This is my mom’s same diagnosis (PPA) and Woody touches on the same difficulties that my mom faces: she feels very alone in her diagnosis and with her symptoms. She continues to hope for a “cure” and feels frustrated at the lack of awareness and successful treatments.

  • Arthur Goldberg
    April 12, 2018 at 1:04 pm

    “I am Embracing my Aphasia”

    “Man was made for joy and woe;
    And when this we rightly know,
    Thro’ the world we safely go.

    Joy and woe are woven fine,
    A clothing for the soul divine.
    Under every grief and pine
    Runs a joy with silken twine.”

    This is a part of the poem “Auguries of Innocence,” 1803 by William Blake.

    I was reading a biography of Kahlil Gibran. The author’s name is Paul-Gordon Chandler. Paul-Gordon invited me to participate as an artist in his “Caravan Project” called “Amen.” It was 2015. I made a statue and the lady bought the statue and now, the statue is in the St. Albans High School on the grounds of the National Cathedral.
    When Paul-Gordon was working in London, he met Malcolm Muggeridge, the English writer, mystic, and the former BBC commentator. Muggeridge told Paul-Gordon over his fascinating and at times troubled life that William Blake had experienced profound states of celebration and desperation.
    “Under every grief and pine
    Runs a joy with silken twine.”
    Kahlil Gibran met the great French sculptor, August Rodin, and Rodin introduced Kahlil to William Blake’s poetry. Blake and Gibran understood that Joy and Suffering are the two poles between which the current of life passes.
    Kahlil wrote, “For he who has not looked on Sorrow will never see Joy.”
    Now, I have been diagnosed with “Primary Progressive Aphasia,” a part of dementia that undermines my speaking to others.
    When I was diagnosed, I realized that my speaking will be compromised over my life.
    And reading the biography of Gibran, I also realized my “compromised speech” that’s part of my Life’s Sorrow and will see Joy again. Every Day.
    Today, I am celebrating with my wife, family, and friends. And, we will celebrate and continue with Joy in our Life!

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