For many years, a member of the GAA Board of Directors has presented a “My Carolina Story” at each of the board’s quarterly meetings. As our Carolina family seeks ways to stay connected during these challenging times, board members are sharing their stories with all of our alumni. Hark the Sound.
“Jim had decided he wanted me to become Woody Durham’s color analyst for the upcoming Carolina football season. I was 19 years old.”
April 10, 2010
I want to thank fellow Chapel Hillian Eleanor Morris for inviting me to speak this morning, and I want to thank Kraig Holt for covering for me at the last minute in January. I hope it wasn’t an inconvenience Kraig. I got a chance to read your speech, and it was terrific.
On Oct. 12, 1961, just a few yards from here, President John Kennedy spoke on University Day and received an honorary degree. On Oct. 15, 1961, just across the street from here, Dean Smith blew the whistle to start his very first practice as head basketball coach. On Oct. 16, 1961, just across the stadium from here, I was born. It was most certainly the least significant event in Chapel Hill that week, but that’s how my Carolina story began.
My mom and dad had just arrived in Chapel Hill two months earlier. My dad had earned a Ph.D. from Cal-Berkeley, and the first university to offer him a position to teach Russian and Russian literature was UNC. The Soviets had launched Sputnik four years earlier, and universities across the country were desperate for anyone who could teach Russian. So much so that when my dad flew here to interview for a position in the Slavic languages department, a certain university eight miles down the road heard he was in the area and wanted him to drop by for their own interview, an interview that would basically be paid for by UNC and the taxpayers of North Carolina. My dad saw right through it, not so politely said no and instead accepted Carolina’s offer on the spot.
My first exposure to the University was the occasional visit to my dad’s office on the fourth floor of Dey Hall. The building was unique for me because it was the only place in town where you could find last names almost as strange as ours. We lived next door to Archers and Vinsons and Prices, but at Dey Hall my dad worked with Debreczenys and Kunstmanns and Friedrichs.
But my first real connection to the University took place in Carmichael Auditorium. As a 7-year-old, I fell in love with basketball. My dad had purchased a season ticket during Billy Cunningham’s days at Woollen Gym. Now, I was finally showing interest in Carolina basketball, but I was without a ticket. In February of 1969, my dad decided to take a chance. It was the last home game for Rusty Clark, Bill Bunting and Dick Grubar. As we approached the front door at Carmichael, my dad tried to convince the usher to let me in without a ticket. The usher grimaced but after a long pause, he said, “I said no.” “Great, thank you,” said my dad, and he led me into Carmichael by the hand. I was panicked, as we walked by the trophy cases in the smoke-filled lobby. “Dad, dad, he said no, he said no.” I thought any minute the police were going to swarm upon us and lock us up for years. My dad laughed, “Don’t worry.” And so I sat on my dad’s lap for the entire game in the second-to-last row in Carmichael Auditorium for my first Carolina basketball game, a 40-point romp over the Citadel. There was no doubt after that night where I was going to college.
For the next 16 years, I missed only two home games: Once because of strep throat, and the other time because of a bad test result in math. I was there the afternoon Walter Davis hit the shot against Duke, and there the night a freshman named Phil Ford finally turned away David Thompson and the Wolfpack. At the conclusion of games, I would wait in the tunnel just outside the Carolina locker room, so I could shake hands with the players. Steve Previs once gave me his sweatband. I saved it in my drawer at home just in case he ever needed it back. I have autographs on the cover of Carolina basketball yearbooks spanning 10 years. Thanks, Bill Chambers. Your signature and those of your teammates still sit in a special compartment back home in Connecticut.
I have a confession to make. I didn’t get into Carolina on my first try. Early acceptance? Try early rejection. There was no waiting list for me. I didn’t deserve to get into Carolina. I was not only a lazy student, but my mother’s fast descent into a maddening depression at home made it nearly impossible to focus on my studies. Tar Heel sports were my only escape as my mom battled her imaginary demons on a nightly basis.
But I was lucky in one respect. There was a back door into Carolina. The Evening College. I didn’t even apply to any other university. I took three classes at night my freshman year, and armed with additional credits from AP classes from high school, I was accepted the next spring into the General College.
But something else happened my freshman year that set me on my eventual career path. I had been working at WCHL radio since my senior year in high school, filing live reports on Chapel Hill Tiger football and basketball games. The fall of my freshman year at UNC, Woody Durham’s statistician for the Tar Heel Sports Network, a senior named Evan Appel, decided he wanted to sit in the stands with his girlfriend for his final football season. Bob Holliday asked me if I wanted to take Evan’s place. I’ll never forget my first game in the Tar Heel Sports Network booth. As we were preparing to go on air, Woody had his favorite multicolored Bic pen out and was getting ready to write down the name of his new statistician. I watched from behind as Bob gave him my name. Woody did a double take. “Is he a student?” he asked suspiciously, as if there was a distinct possibility I could in fact be an alien from a newly discovered planet. But I must say from that moment on, Woody Durham treated me with the utmost respect, as if I was a veteran broadcaster of 17 years, instead of a pock-marked 17-year-old kid.
My responsibilities grew with the Network. Woody and Jim Heavner, the executive producer and owner of WCHL, trusted me to interview Tar Heel players and opposing coaches for pregame and postgame broadcasts. The radio work became my life. I did not have the typical student experience at Carolina. I didn’t live in a dorm, I didn’t have much of a social life. I lived at home, to help my dad take care of my mom and, truthfully, to have access to my dad’s car to get to interviews and the radio station.
Dad’s Oldsmobile came in handy one afternoon in February 1981. I was sitting in the stands at Carmichael, waiting for basketball practice to end so I could interview Al Wood. He obliged and then made a request. “Do you have a car?” “Yeah, why?” I asked. “Can you give us a ride back to Granville Towers?” “Who’s us,” I asked. “Oh, just me and a few of the guys.” Well, a few guys turned out to be Al, manager Joe Stroman, Jimmy Black, James Worthy and the gentleman sitting over there, Sam Perkins. All in my dad’s Cutlass. Al, Jimmy and Joe packed into the back. James sat shot gun, and Sam, who almost certainly doesn’t remember this, sat in the front middle seat, his knees over the dashboard. We seriously considered using Sam’s left foot on the accelerator – he is a lefty, after all – but we decided that might not be such a good idea. So I drove, carefully, from Carmichael to Granville Towers. To be honest, I was less concerned with my dad’s Cutlass than I was with the fact that I had Carolina’s post-season hopes resting on my driving in this precarious situation. The whole way Jimmy Black and Al Wood were giving it to Sam, the freshman, from the back seat. Jimmy at one point said, “Hey Sam, I saw your girlfriend the other day.” “Oh yeah,” said Sam. “Yeah, she was working construction.” No response from Sam. On and on the razzing went. No reaction from Sam. I thought, he really is Silent Sam. Finally, Jimmy tried to roll down the back window. “Hey man, your back window is busted, it won’t roll down, what’s wrong with it?” “That’s news to me, man, I don’t know what’s wrong.” I frantically tried to punch a bunch of buttons. Nothing worked. Finally, the freshman in the front seat piped up. “It’s because of child safety.” We all just looked at Sam, stunned by his precociousness. Of course, he was right.
Three weeks before classes began for my junior year, Jim Heavner called me into his office at the radio station. Bob Holliday had left the Tar Heels Sports Network to join WRAL. Now Jim had decided he wanted me to become Woody Durham’s color analyst for the upcoming Carolina football season. I was 19 years old. I wrote at the top of my note pad, “Holy shit.” I’m not going to lie. I didn’t think I was ready, but I couldn’t say no. I was pretty darn nervous for that first broadcast, the home opener against ECU. For whatever reason, when Woody threw it to me live for my opening words, I nailed it. The rest of the broadcast felt natural. Woody helped just by treating me professionally. He never rolled his eyes or complained that his sidekick was a 19-year-old student. I’d like to think I would be so patient and understanding in that situation. I’m not so sure. Of course, it helped that Kelvin Bryant scored six touchdowns that day in a 56-0 victory. What made the broadcast even more special was when I got home, even my mom had listened. Her mental illness had stabilized to some degree. She didn’t know the difference between a quarterback and a linebacker, but she gave me a big hug nonetheless.
The time-management skills and the discipline I learned working the sports radio beat carried over into my class work. I made better grades at Carolina than I did at Chapel Hill High and not because the classes were easier. Somehow, the light went on in my sophomore year. The subject matter was more enlightening, the professors more inspiring. I decided to major in journalism. Back then, one could major in radio, television and motion pictures. I figured I could get the broadcast experience with the Tar Heel Sports Network. What I needed to learn was how to write. Whatever writing skills I have to today are because of professors like Kathy McAdams, Raleigh Mann and Carol Reuss.
The best professor I ever had, though, was Dr. James Leutze. His military history classes were so engaging, I remember turning around one day toward the end of one of his lectures to check how much time was left in the class. When I saw there were only five minutes to go. I remember just saying, “Damn.” That had not happened too often in my scholastic career. I’ve been lucky as a 60 Minutes producer and a former Olympic researcher for ABC and CBS Sports to have traveled the world. But I tell anyone who will listen that the best trip I ever took was with Dr. Leutze and 29 other fellow Carolina students for a monthlong tour of the European battlefields of World War I and World War II in the spring of 1982.
That spring of ’82 was magical for another reason: New Orleans. I was fortunate enough to be in the Superdome with Woody and Jim, only a few feet away from James Worthy as he started dribbling down court, the national championships in his hands after an improbable pass from Fred Brown. For a kid who had grown up in Chapel Hill, who had lived and died with the Heels every season, it was a treat to be on the court, watching the good guys in blue and white cut down the nets. When we were finally off the air, I found a phone on press row and called my dad in Chapel Hill. People have asked me if I missed being on Franklin Street for the epic celebration that night. My only regret was not being able to sit next to the man who had taken me to my first Tar Heel game.
I thought about that last week, as I took my 6-year-old son, Ben, to Madison Square Garden for the NIT final against Dayton. Ben likes to look at the pictures I have on my wall at home of the postgame celebration from the ’82 championship game. He wanted to know if the Tar Heels would go just as crazy as they did that night against New Orleans if they beat Dayton. “Sure,” I said with some uncertainty. This was the NIT after all, and this was a Carolina team that had already lost 17 games. Wearing his Carolina sweatshirt, Ben cheered his heart out last Thursday night. And even after his dad had secretly given up hope with about three minutes left, Ben kept talking about the great comeback the Tar Heels were going to make, like Linus eagerly awaiting the Great Pumpkin. But finally with 16 seconds left, reality hit hard. He buried his head in his hands, trying gamely to hide the tears. As his shoulders heaved, I tried to console him, telling him it was just a game. Just the NIT. But deep down, I suspected we had another real Tar Heel in the family. As we left Madison Square Garden, between sobs, he said, “Daddy, I wish we could play N.C. State every game.” With that, I was certain that the tradition will continue in our family.
Thank you for your listening to my Carolina story.