Career was easy call

Nearing 70, Johnny Holliday keeps listeners up to speed on the Terps

March 14, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun reporter

"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.

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