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The loss of Eric Montross hits home for those who have battled cancer themselves

The pain is real in so many ways with the death of a Tar Heel Legend.

Chestnut Hill, MA—March 5, 2019
Al Hood

Whoever said “Don’t meet your heroes” is either full of bull or never met Eric Montross.

You can see in the photo above that I got just that chance back in 2019. Meeting him was the perfect capper of a perfect day during my own cancer treatment. More on that in a bit.

Like most everyone else, I had no idea Montross’ cancer was that bad. I was worried when the announcement came in March, but when he appeared in the video during Live Action, he looked good and there was no reason to feel overly concerned. Sure, he wasn't going to travel with the Tar Heel Sports Network this year, but that was completely understandable. I could draw on my own experiences, knowing how difficult some days in my office job were while undergoing treatment, so I could only imagine the stress of broadcasting and traveling with that.

Cancer is devastating like that. It has no bias, it’ll take out the best and most innocent of us while leaving others with permanent reminders of their battle. There appears to be no rhyme or reason to it.

What’s been remarkable since the news has come out is the plethora of amazing stories about him. What’s even more remarkable is the amount of stories that’ll never come out because he didn’t want them to. If you haven’t yet, read Adam Lucas’ article from GoHeels, or check out the round up tweets from Awful Announcing or any other place on X, formerly Twitter, that has been celebrating Eric’s life.

Something that I am having a hard time comprehending — there are generations of Carolina fans who never got the joy of seeing him actually play for UNC. He graduated 30 years ago, which seems impossible to type. It wasn’t just the title win in 1993, though that was a big one of course, it was him being a part of the squad that finally got Dean Smith back to the Final Four in 1991. Remarkably, it was their first trip there since the ‘82 title. They even played it in Indianapolis, Indiana, Montross’ home state. He was part of a remarkable team that not only had that remarkable recruiting class of himself, Derrick Phelps, Brian Reese, Pat Sullivan, and Clifford Rozier who ultimately left for Louisville. They blended in with King Rice, Rick Fox, and George Lynch to get there, only to lose to Roy Williams and Kansas.

I was just finishing Elementary school when that game was played, so it really was the time that just about every important game would be seared into my memory. There was no such thing as a bedtime when the Tar Heels played, and thank goodness that was the case as I got to see the Bloody Montross game because of that. I saw the Cameron Crazies try to rattle him by dressing up as Frankenstein (by the way, when we talk about the Crazies used to be good, that’s what we mean), and then of course the title win in ‘93. They should have taken it in ‘94, as they had finally started to figure out how to play together with Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace, but an injury to Derrick Phelps in the Boston College game ended their run too early.

There’s a reason that Montross had so much good will in Chapel Hill when he returned in the 2000’s to call games for the Tar Heel Sports Network. He represented everything you wanted in a favorite basketball player, he was exceedingly kind, and he was just as much a fan as you were. It earned him the spot to come back, and then his work with the Tar Heels and his exuberant calls endeared him to a new generation of fans. They may have never seen him play, but they knew he cared and they loved hearing his voice.

I’ve spoken before of the kindness Eric showed me during my own cancer fight. That photo was taken by my wonderful wife a few moments after Eric had taken his time to speak with us after the Boston College win. Keep in mind, Eric had travelled up to Boston, ridden to the game, did all of the pregame, called the game, and stayed on the court to speak to a long line of UNC fans who had cued up afterwards. I was the last of them, and by this point the arena was long emptied out. That smile you see in the photo isn’t just put on for the picture. He had it on his face the entire time, including when he spoke to one of my friends about his father, the same friend who texted me the news on Monday morning. He spoke of my friend’s father because of course he knew him, and of course there’s a story of what Eric did with him that few people know — and I won’t share — because it was something private he could enjoy, away from the spotlight of people like me who were drawn to him.

Also, I’m only 5’8’, I’m standing on the first row of the bleachers a foot and a half off the ground while he’s flat-footed on the court.

It’s remarkable to see that photo, knowing that I was nearing the end of my successful cancer fight — tumor still inside but just a couple of months away from surgery — and that in five years time he’d be going through his own fight that wouldn’t end successfully.

For any cancer survivor, this news hit differently. It’s a constant reminder of just how lucky you were to be on the right side of the fight. It makes you question why you and not him. What happened to where such a wonderful human being couldn’t win this fight while you somehow managed to scrape through? Maybe you have scars, but you’re still here. You get to be in Atlanta watching Carolina and Kentucky play, and getting a chance to speak to Jones Angell before hand all while looking beside where he was sitting, knowing that should be Eric blocking your view in the seat beside him.

It also hits hard because my heart aches for his family. One of my first posts for Tar Heel Blog talked about missing my Mom, who also died of cancer. Much like Eric, she was in her mid-50’s, though this was a recurrence of a fight she had back in the late 90’s. Six months after she told us it was in her bones, she was gone. I miss her every day, and that hole that opened up when she passed is still there. For Eric’s son who was just engaged and his daughter who just graduated from Carolina, I know their world has been turned completely upside down. I wish I could offer some sort of comfort, because they are just beginning to feel something that will last a long time. For his wife, as well, I can’t imagine the grief she is feeling in both the loss of her husband and the pain her children are feeling.

It all is just incredibly unfair. We were all better for having Eric Montross here in so many ways, and he’s gone way too soon. Just saying “he will be missed” isn’t enough, but what else can you say?

See ya later, Big Grits.