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For Noah Pettigrew, a long, winding journey finally brought him down Tobacco Road.
The Valwood two-sport athlete and 2019 GHSA Class 6A state champion wrestler signed a letter of intent with the University of North Carolina Wednesday morning.
“North Carolina has always been my dream school,” Pettigrew said. “This means a lot, actually. It’s been my goal since I started to always get to college, so this means a lot. I’m ready to get the Tar Heels going.”
Pettigrew will join a Tar Heels team that went 8-6 and finished 18th at the NCAA Championships in Detroit this past season.
“Ever since (head coach) Coleman Scott got there and Tony Ramos, I’ve really looked up to them ever since I started wrestling and now they get to be my coaches, so that’s how I knew that was going to be the spot,” Pettigrew said. “So far, it’s been a family. Me and the guys have just been Snapchatting, talking it up, ready to get up there. All of the parents are close. All of the coaches are close. It just feels good having that family atmosphere.”
Pettigrew’s high school career began across town at Valdosta High School under head coach John Robbins. As a freshman, he highlighted the Wildcats’ first Traditional state championship victory with an individual title in the 195-pound weight class.
Looked at as the future of the Wildcat wrestling program, Pettigrew’s wrestling career took a turn as he transferred to Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey for his sophomore year.
Expected to be an impact player at Blair, Pettigrew’s journey took another twist in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to the virtual cancellation of sports across the country, wrestling was one of the casualties of the pandemic – placing Pettigrew’s wrestling career on hold.
Eventually, Pettigrew found his way back a few miles from where his wrestling career got its start as he enrolled at Valwood School for his senior year of high school.
“Those experiences, they taught me how to be humble when I lose and humble when I win,” Pettigrew said. “I came out, I got to the finals (at Blair) one time and lost. Then two weeks later, I drew the same dude and beat him in a crazy match.
“It just taught me to keep working for something, keep grinding and my friends around me were always pushing me, so it was good.”
As fate would have it, Pettigrew got his first taste of a different sport with the Valiants – serving as a running back and linebacker under head coach Justin Henderson.
Having bulked up to 220 pounds, Pettigrew found the transition to football rather seamless.
“I feel like, coming from wrestling, my low center of gravity really helped a lot,” Pettigrew said. “When I hit, I like to get real low and drive through just like I do in wrestling.”
In 11 games with the Valiants, Pettigrew finished the season as the team’s leading rusher – carrying the ball 170 times for a team-best 1,250 yards and 14 touchdowns with six 100-yard rushing games.
As a linebacker, Pettigrew had 40 total tackles and seven tackles for loss last season.
Pettigrew’s success on both sides of the ball garnered him GISA Region 3-AAA All-Region honors.
“I actually really liked football,” the 5-foot-11 Pettigrew said. “If I was a little taller, I’d probably play football.”
Henderson opened Wednesday’s signing ceremony by speaking on what seeing his running back and linebacker realize his dreams means to him.
“Congratulations to Noah and his parents. It’s been a long journey,” Henderson said. “I know a snapshot of Noah’s life and what he’s had to do, what he’s put his body through, the traveling, the extra hours outside of school. It takes a special talent to be a Division I athlete, very special talent and it also takes a special work ethic and habits, especially competing in an individual sport. You can’t just call up the guys. If Noah called me and said let’s go out there and wrestle a little bit, I’d say, ‘No, absolutely not.”
“You’ve got to look for opportunities and in wrestling, there’s not a lot of opportunities down south other than school wrestling. If you’re D-1, you’re at work from August to August. There is no offseason. The amount of time, effort and money that they put into this, this is their payday right here.”
After a winding journey that brought Pettigrew to three different high schools with state and national championships won along the way, the newest Tar Heel believes his road to Tobacco Road has taught him to make the most of whatever life puts across from him on the mat.
“Well, it’s taught me to go from a big high school to little and maximize so I give the best that I can whenever I can,” Pettigrew said. “It doesn’t really matter what time or whatever, I’ve got to go get that win and overcome.”
Shane Thomas is the sports editor at the Valdosta Daily Times.