Here’s an article I did while at the Wilson Times newspaper from June of 2013. It’s on Wilson native Jay Bissette, who works as the equipment manager for many sports at Duke University.
It’s the type of story I enjoyed the most, the oddball kind of feature. It sprung from an email I got while searching for story ideas when I first started in Wilson. Over a year later, the story finally got done.
Bissette’s sweet gig
Wilson native’s dream job has him working behind the scenes of Duke University athletics
DURHAM — Deep inside the Murray Building on the Duke University campus is a framed jersey.
It’s not of Christian Laettner or Sonny Jurgensen.
No, it’s the No. 37 of former Blue Devils’ lacrosse standout Michael Manley.
Even a big Duke University supporter may ask — “Who?”
Best to let the man whose office the jersey adorns — Hunt High School graduate Jay Bissette, the Blue Devils’ equipment operations manager for men’s lacrosse and men’s and women’s soccer, explain.
“My first Final Four our sports information director lost one of our starting defenseman’s, Mike Manley, jersey in a cab in Baltimore,” Bissette said at his desk in the men’s lacrosse locker room.
“That was kind of my welcome to the equipment world with lacrosse. I was like ‘Holy crap! This is the one piece of equipment you have to have. If you don’t have a helmet, we’ve got another. You don’t have a stick, no worries. But a jersey?’”
The SID had taken the jersey to a press conference in 2010. Bissette admits to being a little frazzled by the incident at the time.
“Now, we joke about it and laugh about it,” he said. “Me, our strength coach and physical therapist were at an Orioles game and I don’t remember the game. I was so fired up.”
But Bissette didn’t panic. Instead, he got serious.
They called the cab company, no dice.
They made sure the jersey wasn’t somewhere else.
Then, Bissette made some phone calls.
First, he called back to Durham and found someone working.
“We had a blank jersey sent up early delivery in the a.m.,” he said. “We knew a guy that owned a printing business in Baltimore. We went to it in the morning and had it printed the day of the game.”
Manley, Bissette said, was a rock abo ut not having his jersey.
However, he found out that Manley actually wasn’t so cool.
“Everyone told me later he was freaking out, because he was really superstitious about his number and his jersey,” Bissette said.
But when the game started, Manley was wearing his familiar No. 37 and no one was the wiser.
Duke went on to win the NCAA championship with a 6-5 victory over Notre Dame in the title game.
The jersey made the trip to the 2013 NCAA championships as well.
Duke won that one as well, taming Syracuse 16-10 in the final.
Now, whenever Bissette is in Baltimore, one eye is usually trained to see if someone is wearing the original.
“It’s our joke when we go back,” he said. “If we go to a bar or some sporting event or riding through the city everybody is looking for the blue No. 37 jersey.”
Quite a long way away from his first foray into helping out teams.
STARTED A TOB
Bissette, the son of Debbie and John Bissette, got the itch to be part of the action when he helped out on the field and as a bat boy in the debut season of the Wilson Tobs back in 1997.
But it wasn’t until high school when he helped Randy Raper’s staff at Hunt that it started to become a passion.
“I started as a football manager in high school,” Bissette said. “Randy Raper, Tom Nelson and Russell Williamson — what I did with them kind of sparked it. You build relationships with them. I’m really close with coach Nelson still, and with his daughters. I was a baby sitter for them. They’re almost like a second family to me. We still talk all the time. I go and see the m when I’m home. When they come up here, we get together.”
Nelson remembers Bissette being completely enamored with sports.
“He loved sports. But, he wasn’t the most athletic guy around,” he joked. “But you could see it then, he loved everything about sports. It didn’t matter if it was basketball, baseball, football, whatever. He just wanted to be around it.”
Bissette also got his first taste of seeing a team excel while with the Warriors as the head student manager.
Hunt traveled to Winston-Salem to take on Parkland for the 3-A East Region championship. The Warriors lost, 28-20, to the eventual state champions.
“He sort of hung around us all the time and eventually became just like one of the coaches,” Nelson said.
And Bissette also become very close to the Nelson family — including baby-sitting for Nelson’s daughters.
“We used to joke about us claiming him on our taxes,” Nelson said. “We saw him so much. But seriously, he really is a member of our family now.”
Even though, as Bissette joked — “How hard it is to see him coaching at Fike now. But I still love him.”
Next was East Carolina University.
Bissette didn’t manage during his first semester in Greenville. But he realized it was a mistake.
“I missed it,” he said. “So, I went to the football office and got in touch with the equipment manager and started as the low man on the totem pole student manager.”
He came on board just as John Thompson was coming in as the replacement for Steve Logan. Two years later, Skip Holtz replaced Thompson and by that t ime, Bissette was the head student manager.
He saw the lowest for the Pirates program — the 3-20 record of Thompson — but was also on the field when they traveled to the PapaJohns.com Bowl in 2006.
Bissette became a trusted member of Holtz’s staff and was eventually trusted wearing a headset and tracking plays and results for the coach during games.
“Skip was great to me,” he said. “I was the head student manager. We just connected. It was really cool to see that aspect and still be able to do your job. I owe him and a lot of the people at East Carolina so much.”
Bissette applied for a bunch of internships with NFL teams and the New York Jets accepted him for a six-week training camp internship.
“I had known they would take two season-long interns after that and I felt confident I could handle it and do it,” he said. “But then right after graduation, I was still at East Carolina and the guy who was at Duke, who originally hired me at East Carolina, called me with a job. A season-long internship at Duke with full benefits.”
The decision was easy, it was off to Durham.
A BLUE DEVIL
He was an intern for Ted Roof’s last football staff in 2007.
After Roof was fired, David Cutcliffe took the reins and he was promoted to a full-time assistant equipment manager of football.
Then, on Jan. 1, 2010, he was offered his current job.
“Honestly, I had no clue what lacrosse was when I took the job,” Bissette said. “But I knew we were pretty good. I had never even been to a lacrosse game before that.”
Fla sh forward a few months and he had his first NCAA championship ring.
Even better, in 2012 he was named to the staff of the under-19 United States men’s lacrosse team as it headed to the Federation of International Lacrosse men’s U-19 world championship in Turku, Finland.
“He’s got it made,” Nelson said. “He’s doing what he loves and it has taken him so far. It’s taken him all over the country and all over the world. He’s one lucky individual.”
At the world championships, Bissette said he learned many things. Skills such as dealing with the language barrier, finding a way around in a foreign country and just the closeness of a unit so far from home. Not to mention the newest skill — cooking spaghetti dinners for a large group of hungry teenagers for two weeks. Oh, and how to do laundry for the entire team with a washing machine “the same size, or smaller than most machines in a home.”
However, success didn’t come quickly to the United States side, as was expected.
A U-19 team had won every gold at the event since its inceptions in 1988, but the 2012 edition was felled twice in the pool play portion of the tourney.
That meant fighting back through the adversity.
A players’ only meeting was called, and since he was friends with both coaches and players, Bissette was able to talk to the team beforehand.
“I walked in and told them ‘We’re Americans. We don’t back down. We go after it,’” he said. “‘If you guys really want to do this, you’ll figure it out and you’ll know how to do it, how to be successful.’ And I fin ished by reading my favorite quote, from ‘The Battle of Midway’ by Walter Lord. It’s the one that is hanging here (at the entrance to the locker room) above the door.”
“They had no right to win, but they did. And in doing so, they changed the course of the world. Even against the greatest of odds, there is something in the human spirit — a magic blend of skill, faith and valor — that can lift men from certain defeat to incredible victory.”
The team went on to win the world championship, beating Canada in the final.
“We kind of started clicking after that meeting. Not because of anything I said, but they figured it out,” Bissette said.
Duke players Kyle Keenan and Kyle Turri were on that U-19 squad.
They both remembered the quote, and that Bissette gave it to them. They also smiled when talking of a photo Bissette had taken and then posted on Twitter.
“We took a picture of us holding the championship trophy,” Keenan said. “Then he posted it with a caption that said something like ‘One down, now on to Philly.’”
The NCAA championships this year were in Philadelphia.
And after Duke won, another picture was taken.
“So we’re in the locker room after the game, and I said ‘Can you believe it?’” Bissette said. “We said let’s do it again next year, it’s a lot of fun doing this. I’ll always be forever grateful to Kyle and Kyle for allowing me to be a part of that.”
Turri said the trio have become tight.
“It was awesome that Kyle and Jay and I were all from here and shared that,” Turri said. & ldquo;Not many people understand just how important a guy like Jay is. Behind the scenes he really makes things work for the 47 guys on the team. Every day he’s there getting us what we need.”
Added Keenan: “I’m one of those OCD guys. So having my equipment just as I want it is crucial. And he makes sure we are all ready.”
And that special relationship between him and the players makes every moment worth it.
“It’s the friendships and relationships that you build along the way,” Bissette said.
Some folks ask him, “Why not try to work for Mike Krzyzewski?”
Bissette just smiles at the suggestion that basketball is somehow better than lacrosse or soccer.
“I’m actually fine with being the lacrosse and soccer equipment manager,” he said. “Everyone says ‘Oh, Duke basketball, that would be cool.’ But I love working with these kids and I’m happy here. Seeing the lacrosse and soccer kids come in every year, to interact and be a part of their lives to help teach them it’s not all about winning and losing. Remember, I tell them, you guys are graduating with a degree from Duke.
“That is pretty cool.”