RALEIGH — Sitting in his office at the campus of the State Highway Patrol Training Academy, Sgt. Joe Bright’s buoyant personality is hard to reconcile with the man in a photograph taken of him during a training session.
Lines of sweat run down the trainee’s cheeks as Bright screams at him from inches away, his face contorted into a mask of eye-popping rage. For Bright, the ability to be more than one person is part of the job.
“I can turn on a dime,” says Bright, 44. “And I want them to see that. As a trooper, you may have to bring this person under control with a baton or Taser, but once it’s done, it’s time to take care of that person.”
These days, nearly every new trooper spends some time learning from Bright’s example. He heads up recruitment efforts and is second in charge at the academy, often working directly with recruits who endure months of military-style training.
And most Saturdays this time of year, he takes on his most visible role, as security for N.C. State University football team at all of its games, a job he first took on under Chuck Amato 13 years ago.
A former East Carolina University football player whose career was cut short by a brain tumor, Bright relishes his time on the sidelines. But those who know him say his weekend work is just one of many venues where Bright serves as a model of what a trooper should be.
“The best gift someone can give someone is something of themselves, and that’s what he does every day,” says 1st Sgt. Tyrone Ross, commandant of the academy. “His mannerism, his professionalism, the way he conducts himself, the time he gives. What he does for the Highway Patrol can’t be measured.”
‘Get up fighting’
Bright grew up on his family farm in Virginia near the North Carolina border. His father worked at the Ford Motor Company, and the family raised hogs and chickens, corn and peas.
He played basketball for his church, and because of his size – he’s now a muscular 6 feet, 4 inches tall – he was asked to play football as an eighth grader. He was athletic, but knew so little of the game, he says, that he would mess up plays.
He spent nearly the entire year on the bench, with his father watching from the stands. He wanted to make his father proud, so he embarked on an intense training regimen to get better.
“I lived eight-tenths of a mile up a dirt road, and my next-door neighbor was my grandma,” he says. “All I had to do was train.”
Coaches were so impressed with his efforts that he went from warming the junior varsity bench to starting on the varsity team at defensive end as a freshman.
He went to East Carolina on a football scholarship. A series of intense headaches turned out to be due to a plum-sized tumor on his brain stem, which required immediate surgery.
He was a junior at the time, and went from being in top physical shape to shuffling from his couch to the TV to get exercise during commercials. But in a few weeks, he was back in class; he bears a vertical scar down the back of his head.
“My father didn’t raise me that way, when I’m knocked down to stay down,” Bright says. “He raised me to get up fighting.”
He played briefly after the surgery, but mainly turned his eyes toward graduation and a career in criminal justice, which he chose after taking a course with a former state trooper.
He did an internship with the Ayden police, and worked as a campus police officer for a year.
But he was impressed with the prestige and reputation of the N.C. Highway Patrol, and was thrilled to be accepted into what is considered the state’s elite law-enforcement agency.
Bright says he idolized his own trainers at the academy, and never envisioned returning as he settled down into a position working the roads north of Raleigh.
“I thought I’d be writing tickets for 30 years,” he says. “I didn’t put myself in that category.”
He came the academy in 2006, specializing in defensive tactics, and recently took over his current position, similar to an assistant principal at a traditional school.
‘Never give up on your life’
His days now begin at 3:20 a.m., when he wakes up and heads to the academy. He lifts weights until 4:25, naps for 20 minutes, and wakes the cadets to do their training exactly at 5 a.m.
He also keeps a set of dumbbells under his desk, for easy access in idle moments.
The academy is intense, intended to prepare recruits for the dangerous job of roaming the roads alone. More than 60 troopers have died in the line of duty since 1929.
The basic school for new recruits runs 29 weeks. Trainees spend all week at the campus, without access to cell phones or any other link to the outside world.
They live in dormitories and walk the campus looking straight ahead, chins up, never stepping on the grass. Bright says about 30 percent of people who start the program don’t finish.
The first few weeks are what Bright calls the “commitment phase,” during which the trainers purposely stress students in various ways.
“We need to make sure they can handle that stress,” he says.
Beyond basic law-enforcement techniques, the course includes useful information such as state geography. Recruits also learn details on each of the 20 troopers who have died violently while on duty.
Bright says he also instills in his students the lessons he learned from his brush with a deadly tumor.
“In this environment, anybody can take your life,” he says. “But you never give it to them. You never give up on your life. ”
Bright is also the point person for incidents where officers use force, gathering evidence for the board that oversees such cases.
His work with the Wolfpack team is unpaid, but allows him to travel to away games across the country. He serves as a general security presence, coordinating escorts when the team travels, and protecting the coach.
He says working with three Wolfpack coaches – Amato, Tom O’Brien, and current coach Dave Doeren – has been a highlight.
“They’re great men, great personalities,” he says. “From the locker room to the field, you can feel the energy.”
He figures he was given the job because of his background in football, but he takes it seriously.
“When you’re in this position, you’re representing not only your agency, but the university and yourself,” he says.
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