Gov. Roy Cooper told Woody Durham on Wednesday that he knew Durham long before Durham knew Cooper. Growing up in North Carolina, Cooper was among the untold thousands in this state who came of age to the familiar soundtrack of Durham’s voice on the radio.
Durham, the longtime play-by-play voice of North Carolina football and men’s basketball games, visited the governor’s mansion on Wednesday while Cooper signed a proclamation designating June Aphasia Awareness month in North Carolina.
A little more than a year ago, Durham, 75, went public with his diagnosis of Primary Progressive Aphasia. It’s a degenerative neurocognitive disease that affects his ability to speak while, at first, sparing other neurological functions that eventually also become susceptible to deterioration.
For a man who made his living with words, as the voice of UNC athletics for 40 years, the disease has been especially cruel. Durham, though, has continued to go on the best he can. He continues to be a regular at UNC sporting events, and he spends his days with his wife, Jean, and other family members.
Raising awareness of aphasia has become a priority for him, as well, and Durham shared his fight of the disease in a series of stories The News & Observer published in early March. Durham on Wednesday stood behind Cooper while he signed the proclamation.
Others afflicted by aphasia joined him as part of the Triangle Aphasia Project: a teenager whose ability to speak suffered after he endured a stroke; an older man confined to a wheelchair; a widower whose wife died at 58 after she suffered for eight years from aphasia.
The disease can affect the old and the young; people who are recovering from brain injuries and people who have never before experienced a neurological disorder. In Durham’s case, it struck without warning, gradually affecting his ability to communicate before it progressed to a point at which doctors could diagnose it.
Before he signed the proclamation, Cooper shared public remarks. He said that by 2020, two million Americans will be afflicted by some form of aphasia, whether it results from a stroke or a brain injury or, as in Durham’s case, an underlying neurological disease.
There is no cure for the various forms of aphasia. Durham’s hope has been to maintain what hasn’t been lost, and to prevent, as best he can, the further erosion of his ability to speak. He attends regular speech therapy sessions, but those don’t bring back what is already gone.
“It’s got to be one of the most frustrating things I can think of,” Cooper said.
The youngest of Durham’s two sons, Taylor, stood by Woody’s side behind Cooper. Taylor Durham, like his older brother, Wes, followed his father into sports broadcasting, and is the play-by-play voice of Elon athletics. Woody Durham is also a regular at the games Taylor calls on the radio.
The elder Durham wore a Carolina blue blazer with a Tar Heel pin on the lapel. Cooper, a 1979 UNC graduate who earned his law degree from UNC in 1982, spoke of listening to UNC games on the radio when he was growing up, in a time before most every football and basketball game were on the television.
He complimented Durham’s ability to paint a picture with his words and how, after listening to Durham, “you knew exactly what was happening.”
“Thank you, Governor,” Durham told him.
Toward the end of his address, Cooper spoke of the need of awareness for aphasia. It’s a disease that many are unfamiliar with before it disrupts their lives, or the lives of someone they love.
Cooper used one of Durham’s most well-known lines during his 40 years as the voice of the Tar Heels, a line Durham used to urge Tar Heels fans to practice their most trusted superstition in hopes of turning luck in UNC’s favor. Now Cooper used it as a cry to raise awareness for the disease that is robbing Durham’s ability to speak:
“You’ve got to go where you go,” Cooper said, before Durham finished the sentence …
“And do what you do.”