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Career was easy call

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"I want to show you something."

Johnny Holliday is standing in the front hallway of his home in Kensington. His graying hair is parted, as always, perfectly to the left, not a single strand out of place. He grins, flashing his immaculately white upper teeth, and gestures toward the wall.

"I am as proud of this stuff as I am anything in the world," he says.

His voice, a syrupy blend of Johnny Carson and Bob Barker, goes quiet.

Johnny Holliday - John to his friends, Dad to his three adult daughters - has spent a lifetime describing the world as it unfolds in front of him. But in this moment, he is struggling with what he wants to say. It's hard to communicate, emotionally, what's in front of him.

It's a painting. Sailboats in a regatta gliding across vivid blue water, their jibs creamy white, their hulls painted with intoxicating shades of red, orange and green. His wife, Mary Clare, painted it. In the living room, he pauses in front of a sculpture of a beautiful, full-figured woman, naked and expressionless. That's hers, too. He points to another painting on the far wall, this one a frameless, heavy piece of mahogany wood, cut into the shape of a fireman's heavy black coat and canary yellow helmet. His wife painted it in her studio after Sept. 11. Nearly every piece of artwork in their house is hers.

"I came home one day, and Mary Clare is outside, crouched down, buzzing away with a saw!" he says, looking at the fireman's uniform. He grins again, unsure what to say next.

"Pretty cool, huh?" he says.

"He's always been a step or two behind in learning the lingo," says Mary Clare, when this scene is recounted to her a week later. She laughs, and it's clear she's seen this scene play out countless times. In June, the couple will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary.

Touchdowns? Three-pointers? Behind-the-back passes and rim-rattling dunks? That stuff is easy for the Voice of the Terrapins to describe. Always has been. Put a microphone in front of him and you'll find an audience eager to listen.

But his love of family? The beauty of his wife's artwork? The pride he has for his three daughters and his numerous grandchildren? Even the connection so many people feel they have with him after years of hearing his unmistakable vocal cadence on the radio? Those are much harder to put into words.

"I really have been blessed," Holliday says.

Even if you've never met him, if you love University of Maryland sports, it's likely that you feel, at least a little bit, like you know Johnny Holliday. Even if you don't like his on-air approach, you feel like you know him. For 28 years, it's his voice that has filled kitchens and living rooms, and blared from car radios. It's his eyes that have described the Terrapins' athletic glories as well as their disappointments. Coaches, players and athletic directors have come and gone, but Holliday has been, in some ways, the one constant.

Holliday will be courtside with the Terps tomorrow, as they make their first NCAA appearance in three years, a first-round game against Davidson. And for him, life could scarcely get better. Each day, whether he is at home or on the road, Holliday, 69, rises around 4 a.m. so he can record the morning sports wrap-up for ABC radio, which is broadcast around the country. (His body rarely requires more than five hours of sleep, he says.) When basketball season ends, he'll begin preparations to host a pre-game and post-game TV show for the Washington Nationals on the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network. He's also busy promoting a book he wrote with Stephen Moore, their second together, called Hoop Tales: Maryland Terrapins Men's Basketball, Great Moments in Team History.

On top of that, he's hosting his first charity golf tournament, The Johnny Holliday Scholarship Classic, which will raise scholarship money for disadvantaged kids. It's a cause close to Holliday's heart, since he was one growing up in Miami.

And at some point, he'd like to fit in some theater. Holliday is an accomplished stage actor and singer, and has played the lead in countless productions over the years, including roles in Follies, 42nd Street, Company, The Music Man and Me and My Girl.

Some years, during football season, Holliday will call a noon Terps game in North Carolina, hop on the team charter, land at BWI Marshall Airport, jump in his car and race to the theater. He'll arrive just in time to change clothes and make the 8:30 p.m. curtain.

"And I never, ever missed a show," Holliday says, a proud smirk on his face. "The understudy was always standing by, but I never missed a show."

And even though he'll turn 70 during the 2007 football season, he has no plans, he says, to slow down or fade away anytime soon.

"I guarantee this is how his life will go," says WBAL-TV's Gerry Sandusky, a good friend of Holliday's who also worked with him as a radio color analyst during the early 1990s covering Maryland football. "He'll continue to go full speed ahead until he's probably 90 years old. When he feels like he's had enough and he's lived enough, he'll lay down one night and die in his sleep. But he'll never be the kind of person who would only do theater, or only do home games, or only do basketball. He has such an incredible amount of energy."

Early announcing That energy is hard to miss when Holliday is on the air. And he has been using it to his advantage since he was a kid growing up in Miami. In 1956, he charmed his way into his first radio job at 17 in Perry, Ga. And though music was what originally lured him to radio, his friends say sports was always his first love.

"He and I used to play a lot of stickball growing up," says Donald Lewis, a financial planner who lives in Atlanta and remains Holliday's best friend. "And it's funny, but he used to announce the games while we played them. I never thought much of it then, but it's obvious that it was practice for him. He was a great athlete, he just didn't have great size. But he's always been one of the nicest people I've ever met, as far back as I can remember."

Holliday's blend of passion and kindness was particularly apparent during a game Feb. 11 against Duke, when Maryland guard Greivis Vasquez scored 18 points to lead the Terps to a 72-60 win.

"GREIVIS! GREIVIS! GREIVIS!" Holliday bellowed into the microphone after a layup by Vasquez put the Terps up 13 late in the game. "Boy, he has really been a spark today, and now Mike Krzyzewski wants a timeout!"

It was a career day for Vasquez, who grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, but Holliday had an ulterior motive for shouting Vasquez's name with such enthusiasm. A few days before the game, Vasquez relayed to Holliday that his parents and family in Venezuela listened religiously to Maryland games on the Internet.

"But Greivis," Holliday asked, "do they understand any English?"

"They don't," Vasquez replied.

"Then how do they know what's going on or how you're doing?"

"Usually by how much excitement you have in your voice when you say my name," Vasquez told him.

And so Holliday decided to put a little extra oomph into his words, realizing that even in a foreign language, sometimes in radio you manage to connect with people in a way that's hard to explain. Holliday is quick to point out that he's not, by any stretch, an iconic figure like Vin Scully, Ernie Harwell, or even Chuck Thompson. But still, he can hardly walk into a restaurant or stand in line to buy a soda without waves of people walking up to shake his hand and ask him what he thinks about the Terps.

"It's kind of an uneasy feeling when people walk up to you and tell you, 'You know, we turn down the sound on our TV sets and turn on the radio,'" Holliday says. "They say stuff like, 'Don't you ever retire,' and that's really, really nice. But it also makes me a little uncomfortable, because I don't put myself in that league with some of these other guys. It's hard for me to make that connection."

Holliday has a computer in his office, next to his plaques and souvenirs he's gathered over the years. And like many people in the athletic department, he does check out, on occasion, what the Internet message board buzz is saying about him. He knows it's silly, but he does it anyway. His critics, though small in number, say he's slipping a bit. That he doesn't follow the action as well as he used to, or that he forgets to bring up the clock, or stumbles over players' names too often. And though he mostly dismisses it, or argues that it is the right of the fan to complain, the look on his face when he discusses it suggests their words sting. Just a touch.

His peers counter by saying that it's a far more difficult job than he makes it look. It's Holliday who has to throw questions at basketball coach Gary Williams just seconds after the final buzzer goes off. And Williams, as well as Terps football coach Ralph Friedgen, can be surly and intense, even in victory. When they lose a close game, every question can feel like walking on eggshells, even though Williams and Friedgen consider Holliday a friend.

"You can't be a journalist in that situation," Holliday says. "No way. ... I've learned over the years that there is a certain way you can go when they win. Anything goes. But if they lose, there is no joking. It's get them on and get them off."

In some ways, Holliday sees himself as the first line of defense for Williams and Friedgen, especially when he hosts their weekly radio shows at various restaurants in the area. People stand up or call in, unscreened, to offer their pointed criticisms.

Says Sandusky: "It's an unbelievably difficult tightrope walk, and you can't even begin to appreciate just how difficult it is unless you've done the job. You have to be honest, but you also have to be able to talk to a coach who is emotionally strung out and possibly upset after a loss. And you have to do it in such a way, knowing that next week you're going to have to talk to him, and you might have to talk to him for six years, or 10 years, or 20 years. If you're just the listener's advocate, and you pound on a guy, you'll wear out your welcome pretty quickly. But if you just throw softballs, you'll have no credibility with your listeners. Johnny handles it so well."

Friedgen says Holliday helped him navigate, in some respects, the difficult waters that are common for a first-time head coach. Before getting the Maryland job, Friedgen had never been saddled with the numerous media responsibilities he has now, and wasn't always at ease behind a microphone. Holliday helped him relax.

"He's so easy to work with," Friedgen says. "Our radio show is one I think we actually both enjoy and have fun with. I'm amazed at how prepared he is. He's got all these facts and figures on his yellow pad, and the conversation never dies. He throw lines at you that just put you at ease. I don't know that I've ever seen him flustered."

On stage Because his voice is familiar to so many, it's a bit unsettling, at first, to watch video of Holliday on stage, to hear him sing with such gusto, sometimes in a thick accent. In 1991, Holliday played the role of Bill Snibson in Me and My Girl, a popular British musical put on by the Harlequin Dinner Theatre in Rockville. It required him to use a cockney accent. For his performance, Holliday was nominated for a Helen Hayes Award, which recognizes excellence in professional theater in the Washington area.

On stage, behind the mask of heavy makeup, he was virtually unrecognizable. When he watched a tape of that performance recently, he did so with a nostalgic smile on his face, and quietly whistled along to the music as he watched the screen version of himself prance around stage. He still knows most of the words. It feels, in some ways, like opening night was last week, not 16 years ago.

"There isn't a person in theater who has worked with him and doesn't adore him," says Toby Orenstein, director of Toby's Dinner Theatre in Columbia, where Holliday has been in several productions. "He's the opposite of a diva. I wish we could get him more often."

Holliday credits Orenstein with persuading him, in 1999, to take on his most challenging, and ultimately his most rewarding role, Buddy Plummer, in Follies. He wasn't sure he was right for the part and hesitated to accept because of the degree of difficulty. Orenstein challenged him, questioned his courage at the audition and accused him of making excuses. Furious, and determined to prove her wrong, he accepted the part. Which is exactly what Orenstein wanted. It will be the best thing you've ever done, she said while he fumed.

"I'm not sure he was used to people telling him how to do things," Orenstein says.

"It was one of the great psych jobs of all time," Holliday says.

Shortly after the show opened, a friend told Holliday and Orenstein it was one of the best renditions of Buddy Plummer he'd ever seen.

I told you so, Orenstein said.

In Follies, the character of Buddy Plummer is an aging traveling salesman who, throughout the play, reflects on the choices he made as a younger man and how he has lived his life. Holliday was forced to do some reflecting of his own in 2003 when, after returning home from what was supposed to be a minor operation for a double hernia, he woke up in the middle of the night with his stomach distended. His abdomen was pooling with blood. He would spend 10 days in the intensive care unit while doctors tried to control the bleeding.

"I woke up in my hospital bed, and my priest, John Enzler, was there," Holliday says. "I told him, 'You're not just passing by, are you? I'm not going to die, am I?'"

I hope not, Enzler told him. But you're going to have to work hard to get through this.

It wasn't the first time Holliday had been confronted by his own mortality. In 1975, he and his middle daughter, Tracie, took a private plane to Virginia to deliver food and clothing to a 90-year-old woman whose rural home had been damaged by floodwaters. After reading about the woman in The Washington Post, Holliday wanted to help, as well as show his daughters that not everyone had been blessed with advantages they had. On the return trip, the plane, a Cessna 172, struggled to land during high winds and crashed. Tracie was fine, but Holliday needed to have his spleen removed and spent 28 days in the hospital. His first near-death experience, however, was not nearly as painful as his second.

"I was scared," he says. "And lying in that hospital bed, I was pretty depressed. I could barely talk. I wondered if maybe I might never work again."

Even when doctors repaired the complications that arose from his double hernia surgery, he wasn't out of the woods. His heart, monitors showed, was at times beating out of rhythm or rapidly out of control. Doctors recommended he have a tiny defibrillator implanted to occasionally shock it back into rhythm. It was just a precaution, but it might save his life. He wasn't interested.

"I couldn't understand how you go in for a hernia operation and come out with a defibrillator," Holliday says.

He thought about it for a few days. He got an emotional phone call from Gary Williams. He talked it over with his oldest daughter, Kellie, a doctor. He mulled long and hard about the things he potentially could miss: Mary Clare's art shows, trips to see his daughters, the births of more grandchildren. His office was full of broadcast awards, but his most cherished possessions were pictures of his family and notes he'd received over the years from his girls, including one from his youngest daughter, Moira, scribbled down when she was very young with a rainbow of felt-tipped markers. To My Dad: The Best Guy I Now, it reads.

More to come Both his parents, Holliday felt, had died before their time from cancer. They'd missed so much, and he didn't want that to happen to him. There was more he wanted to see.

Months later, defibrillator implanted just below his left collarbone, he was back doing Terps games. And he was back on stage singing, this time at the University of Maryland, working with student actors as part of a fundraiser. Doctors told him that if his defibrillator had to shock his heart, it would feel like getting kicked in the chest. It wasn't a huge deal if it went off, and wouldn't require a trip to the hospital or anything, but it might hurt. And it would definitely stun him. It had gone off once while he was gardening and knocked him flat on his back.

That night on stage, while he was performing the song "Havin' a Hunch" from Seussical: The Musical, it went off again. Holliday, ever the professional, didn't even miss his next cue. He finished the song and finished the show, and no one knew a thing until he told Mary Clare after the show.

"That's what you call focus," he teased his wife after the show.

"When we told his doctor about what happened, we couldn't stop laughing," Mary Clare says. "His eyes were as big as saucers. The show must go on, we told him."

Holliday can't stop grinning as he tells that story. Or any story, really.

In a few minutes, he goes into his kitchen and grabs a picture off the refrigerator of his granddaughter, Maggie, born seven months ago. She's the first girl born after seven grandsons, and she looks just like her mom, Moira, he says. He goes into the next room and holds it next to a picture of Moira when she was Maggie's age, and he's right. The resemblance is uncanny.

Holliday is quiet again. He knows the photo says more than he ever could.

kevin.vanvalkenburg@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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