RALEIGH — He still sounds like Chopper Harrison, that classic radio rasp as scratchy as ever, a voice curdled by thousands of Marlboros.
There isn't much hair left, though, the once-great mop of gray curls that a '70s rocker would envy thinned down to a few gaunt strands. And the swagger with which he paraded around Carolina Hurricanes games and down Glenwood Avenue is long gone, replaced by a shuffle and assisted by a cane.
Cancer has taken its toll on Chopper, who turned 59 in September. It's been more than a decade since he arrived in Raleigh and used his popular morning show on 96 Rock as a platform to become the Hurricanes' loudest and most prominent supporter - at a time when there were very few.
"I remember management coming up to me and saying, 'Quit talking about the Hurricanes; nobody cares about hockey down here,' " Chopper says. "I said, 'Oh, OK,' and the minute I went on the air I'd start talking about hockey again."
Hurricanes coach Paul Maurice, at one point, would call his show at exactly 8:36 a.m. on the morning of weekday games, even if he was in Los Angeles and the sun was still somewhere over Missouri. The Hurricanes eventually brought Chopper into the fold, putting him on the ice to host the intermission activities.
The apex of his involvement came in 2001, when Chopper spent four nights on the roof of the RBC Center in a sleeping bag - before anyone was willing to pay to call it the RBC Center, before the Hurricanes ever won a playoff series - all in the name of bringing an All-Star Game to Raleigh.
A superfan returns
Ten years later, it's here. Chopper wasn't sure he'd live to see it.
He was working in Minnesota in 2009 when doctors found a tumor between his heart and lung. When it was deemed inoperable, he came back to Raleigh, where he was the morning DJ at WBBB-96.1 from 1999 until he was let go in 2004. Those were, without question, the best days of his life, and the proof is all around him.
The living room of his apartment has stacks of giant metal frames propped against the walls. These are his most treasured possessions: framed Carolina Hurricanes jerseys signed by Rod Brind'Amour, Jeff O'Neill and Ron Francis, a game-used Arturs Irbe stick, photos signed by Brind'Amour and former Cane Bates Battaglia. "Thanks for all the hassles," reads the inscription from O'Neill on his No. 92 jersey.
Brind'Amour. Francis. Irbe. Names from a different time, a different generation - the generation that made hockey work in the Triangle, people Chopper idolized and idealized.
"That is a time in life I'll never forget," Chopper says. "I miss all the old guys."
It's all he thinks about, all he talks about. He's not doing chemo anymore. This is his therapy.
Chopper is making the best of a difficult situation, making amends, embracing his newfound faith, admiring the view of the woods from his living room. But he draws his strength from the past, and the relationships he built then.
These people keep him going. His parents and two brothers all died long ago. This is his family now: Brind'Amour, Bret Hedican and a handful of others.
He was a guest at Brind'Amour's wedding last summer and spent Christmas with his family the past two years. Hedican, the longtime Hurricanes defenseman, paid Chopper's bus fare back and forth to Minnesota when he was being treated at the Mayo Clinic. Former team president Jim Cain takes Chopper to church on Sundays. Many helped him when he was moving from hotel to hotel this fall, before his disability payments came through and he moved into the apartment where he lives now.
Just as they're Chopper's links to his finest days, Chopper means something to them: He's a reminder of a time when the Hurricanes weren't that big a deal, and he was one of the few people who really, truly cared.
"He was a good guy, one of those guys you want to help out," Hedican says. "He always was down in the locker room and gave his support to the team. He's had a tough run with his health over the last year and some. You want to do everything you can to support him on an emotional level as best you can."
Kid becomes 'Chopper'
The kid named David Martin from Fargo, N.D., got his start at the student station at Arizona State University, became Chopper Harrison in San Antonio in 1989 and never looked back. He worked in Houston and Denver and Philadelphia and St. Paul before coming to the Triangle in 1999.
Chopper played hockey. Raleigh had just gotten a hockey team. It was like an arranged marriage. His love-it-or-hate-it, rock 'n' roll morning show had all the usual morning-zoo silliness, but with a heavy dose of hockey talk. Battaglia, O'Neill and Dave Karpa were regulars, but almost every Hurricanes player, coach and broadcaster was on from time to time.
Fans who didn't know Chopper from the radio came to know his antics on the ice during the intermissions, screaming "Over here!" into the microphone to encourage cheering as the Storm Squad tossed T-shirts into the stands, or advising the crowd that "They can hear you in the locker room!" When a couple from Morrisville won a contest to get married on the ice, Chopper was the best man.
With his unkempt explosion of gray hair, ankle-length black leather coat and irrational exuberance, he cut quite a figure. If he sometimes crossed the line into buffoonery, so be it. As far as he was concerned, it was all in service of the team.
"The only drawback Chopper ever had was sometimes he was so overzealous he would go over the top," says Ken Lehner, the team's onetime director of marketing. "It was just a situation where unfortunately things weren't done the exact right way. We had to tone him back, rein him in a little bit. But I don't want to dwell on the one or two situations where we had to sit him down. There were a hundred other times he was the perfect fit for what we were trying to do."
Bad times, too
Out of public view, he was even less restrained - wandering through the dressing room after games, haranguing his favorite players into coming onto his show, roaming the premises like he owned them.
He thought of himself as a larger-than-life figure, and acted the part, inside and outside the arena. Chopper burned many bridges while acting the big-timer, living a life of excess in a town that, despite its rapid growth, was still small enough to turn its back on him, collectively. By 2006, when he was arrested for driving drunk during the Stanley Cup finals, he was off the air and largely off the radar.
"I was mean to a lot of nice people," Chopper says. "It'd be nice to go around town apologizing. There were some things I did in this town I'm not proud of. But this kind of stuff humbles you."
Whatever one thought of his antics at the time, he cared about the Hurricanes when no one else did, a lone voice in a market all too willing to ignore the team. He made people into fans, and while some may not know Chopper, they never left the Hurricanes. The players who were around then, who called into his show day after day after day, have never forgotten.
That includes Erik Cole, the last active player who knew Chopper when he was on top of his game. When Chopper had to leave Brind'Amour's wedding early, fatigued and needing to take his medication, Cole helped him to the car waiting to take him home.
He put his arm around Chopper and said, "Chop, don't ever think we've forgotten what you've done for us." It's a story Chopper tells often, as valuable to him as any of the jerseys or pictures in his apartment.
Guest star on the air
Others remember as well. As part of its All-Star weekend programming, 96 Rock has invited him to return to the air as a guest. Chopper is understandably excited about this. "I'll be able to at least say goodbye, in the way that I wanted to," he says.
Last season, Cain took him to a Hurricanes game. Even in his wizened state, fans on the concourse recognized him. When the Hurricanes put him on the scoreboard, the crowd applauded.
Once, Chopper might have stood and waved his arms, making a scene. On that night, he just sat and soaked it in, overcome with emotion.
"I'm not Chopper Harrison anymore," he says. "I'm David Martin. I was so into myself when I was doing radio. God has blessed me. He really has. I may have this stupid disease, but he's blessed me, he's made me appreciate - it's like he opened up a door and said, 'You did it your way, now let me show you what life is all about.' "
Now it is the relationships he built that he really values - the ties to his friends and heroes alike, the ones he tried to make into stars, the ones who take care of him now. They appreciated the publicity he brought them. Now, they're repaying him, many years later, in a far more meaningful way.
There was one favor still to be repaid. The man who slept on the roof of the arena to help bring the All-Star Game didn't have a ticket to the game until a team staffer called him last week to offer him one.
Chopper never complained. He had his heart set on a different game next month. "More important than the All-Star Game, I want to be there when they retire Rod's jersey," David Martin says. "That means more to me than anything."