MURPHY, N.C. — When the net finally snapped shut on Eric Robert Rudolph, his captor was not one of the scores of federal agents who trailed him over the years but a baby-faced, small-town cop who had worn a badge barely eight months.

On Saturday, the pride of this town of 1,650 was 21-year-old Jeff Postell, who arrested Rudolph in the early-morning hours while on routine patrol behind a Save-a-Lot supermarket.

"We're awfully proud of him," said fellow patrol officer Charles Kilby, the first officer to show up after Postell detained the man who turned out to be one of America's most sought-after criminal suspects.

The arrest placed Postell at the center of a moment in history that most cops only dream about. But the officer, who joined the force in July, played it down as being "just in a day's work."

But it marked an auspicious career start for a young man who had nurtured hopes of becoming a police officer even before graduating from Murphy High School a few years ago. As a teenager, Postell had joined Explorers chapters in Murphy and up the road in Andrews.

He was so eager to wear a badge that he put himself through the police academy and had to wait until his 21st birthday last summer so that he would be old enough to be sworn in as a member of the Murphy police force.

Before joining, he was working as a private security guard at a Wal-Mart store here.

"He's always had public safety on his horizon," said Mark Thigpen, chief of the 10-officer force.

Despite his youth, Postell distinguished himself for having an exceptionally sharp eye, Kilby said.

The rookie officer also showed an interest in community policing, and Thigpen put him in charge of the program to organize Neighborhood Watch and efforts to look out for the elderly.

"He's a fine, Christian young man. He is so humble that he wouldn't even swat a fly. He's a super kid," said Lillie Roper, 78, who knows Postell from the Baptist church they attend.

Even as news crews descended on Murphy, Postell, wearing his hair in a buzz cut, tried to steer acclaim elsewhere.

"I don't really deserve any credit — just doing the job which I was hired to do," he said during a news conference.

Postell declined to comment on whether he should get the $1 million reward the FBI had posted for the capture of the bombing suspect.

Roper said she hopes he gets the money. Postell's father died two years ago; the officer lives with his mother, a laundry worker at a nursing home. "They could use it," Roper said.

Reward or not, Mayor Bill Hughes bubbled with pride over his officer, declaring Postell "America's most eligible bachelor."

Hughes offered a morsel of understatement on a day brimming with statements about history in the making. Of Postell, he said: "I think his career as an officer has a very, very bright future."

By the end of the day, Postell asked his chief to excuse him from media interviews — the officer was tired after being up all night.