RALEIGH, N.C. — The track and field community was in mourning after North Carolina assistant track coach and former Southwest High School standout Antonio Pettigrew was found dead Tuesday morning in the back seat of his car, parked on a bridge overpass in eastern Chatham County.
Pettigrew, 42, and a 1987 graduate of Southwest, was about to enter his fifth season coaching the Tar Heels’ sprinters, hurdlers and relay teams. He also was a four-time national champion and 10-time All-American while spending 1991 and 1992 as a sprinter at St. Augustine’s College.
Friends who searched for Pettigrew when he failed to show up for work contacted sheriff’s deputies after finding him in his car on a bridge on Highway 751 near Jordan Lake, according to a Chatham County Sheriff’s news release.
Chatham County deputies and EMS found Pettigrew dead. The sheriff’s report said there are indications that Pettigrew may have taken the sleep aid Unisom, but it’s unclear if that caused his death.
An autopsy was requested by the local medical examiner. Chatham County Sheriff’s spokesman Maj. Gary Blankenship said officers have no reason to suspect foul play.
Pettigrew and his wife, Cassandra, have a son, Antonio Pettigrew Jr.
“That was my heart,” said Willie Goolsby, who coached Pettigrew in track at Southwest. “He was just an outstanding young man, a great athlete and was concerned about young people. He always enjoyed talking to young people about making it, and he was role model for young kids.
“One thing I pride myself on was to pick talent, and I saw it in him back then. Not only from a work ethic standpoint but his attitude. He had the attitude that he was going to go to college and go to the Olympics.”
Wake County deputies responded to Pettigrew’s home in Apex after his wife reported him missing. He was last heard from at 10:30 a.m. Monday.
“Although we are still learning the circumstances, we are deeply saddened to learn of Antonio’s death,” North Carolina athletics director Dick Baddour said in a statement. “I was particularly impressed with the relationships he established with his student-athletes and the pride he took in representing the University of North Carolina. Our deepest condolences go out to Antonio’s family, particularly his wife and son.”
At his athletic height, Pettigrew helped set a world record in the 4x400-meter relay in 1998 and won an Olympic gold medal as part of a U.S. relay team two years later. By 2008, however, those athletic glories had been stripped because Pettigrew admitted to using performance-enhancing drugs.
“He went through some adversity and came out on the right end,” said Westside assistant football coach Joe Dupree, who was a freshman at Southwest when Pettigrew was a senior. “Any time you see a guy turn his life around and become a role model and he’s taken away, it’s difficult to deal with.”
Dupree said he last saw Pettigrew right after the 2000 Olympics.
“We all looked up to him,” Dupree said. “He was a hero. He was good at everything. You don’t have many guys go off to the Olympics from your town.”
Pettigrew was a 10-time All-American at St. Augustine ’s College, won two NCAA Division II titles in the 400 meters and helped the Falcons win two NCAA men’s national championships.
After graduating from St. Augustine’s in 1993, Pettigrew spent three years as an assistant coach at his alma mater under head coach George Williams. Pettigrew coached 30 All-Americans and helped the Falcons win NCAA men’s and women’s championships.
“He will not only be remembered for his accomplishments on the track but for the thousands of lives his success impacted,” said Williams, who also is the school’s athletics director, in a statement released by school. “He was a role model and mentor who will be sorely missed. His contributions to the success of the Saint Augustine ’s College track and field program will never be forgotten.”
In May 2003, Pettigrew was hired as head coach at Raleigh’s Cardinal Gibbons High School. He spent three years there, coaching boys and girls teams to state championships in track and field and cross country.
“We are all saddened and stunned by the news,” Gibbons athletics director Dean Monroe said. “Antonio was one of the most positive people I have ever met. He always had something good to say. He will be remembered here as having an incredibly positive influence on our young men and women.
“It was a pleasure to be around him. He brightened the day of everyone he came in contact with.”
Pettigrew’s past transgressions caught up with him, however, in May 2008, when during the trial of former Raleigh-based coach Trevor Graham, he admitted that he had used human growth hormone and the oxygen-boosting drug EPO from 1997 to 2001.
The International Olympic Committee stripped Pettigrew and his teammates of their 2000 Olympic gold medals in the 4x400-meter relay because of Pettigrew’s testimony. Pettigrew already had returned his medal.
The United States’ world record in the 4x400 relay set in 1998 also was stripped by track and field’s governing body because of Pettigrew’s doping admission. Graham was convicted of lying to federal investigators.
Pettigrew already was a member of the UNC staff during the trial. Baddour, UNC’s athletics director, consulted with faculty members, university administrators, investigators in the case and the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency before deciding that Pettigrew would keep his job. At the time, Baddour said Pettigrew’s remorse, willingness to speak out against drugs and cooperation with the investigation influenced the decision to retain Pettigrew.
Wayne Davis Sr., the father of former Southeast Raleigh High standout Wayne Davis, said Pettigrew was a hard worker who would give a recruit an honest answer. Davis Sr. said everyone makes mistakes, and that Pettigrew’s legacy should be based more on what he did for student-athletes than scandal.
“Someone might tend to think about the last thing in terms of the incident with the suspension,” Davis Sr. said. “I wouldn’t dwell on that. For me, I think of him as a true and hard worker and believing in what he did. And the main thing he did was for the kids.”
Former Clemson sprinter Treshell Mayo-Herndon, who is the aunt and coach of former Southeast Raleigh High standout Gabby Mayo, often interacted with Pettigrew at track events. She said he was even-keeled, level headed and humble.
“It’s a tragic situation because the program was building at North Carolina,” she said. “He was an integral part of the staff. Kids were going to the school because of his experience. It’s a tragic situation for the school and the ACC as a whole when a coach like that passes. ... It’s sad all the way around.”
N.C. State assistant coach Chris Coleman was a freshman member of St. Augustine’s track team when Pettigrew was a senior.
Coleman said Pettigrew’s success on the international stage brought recognition to St. Augustine’s.
He said the track world has suffered a tremendous loss because everybody in that tight-knit community knew Pettigrew and loved seeing him at meets in his Carolina blue shirt.
“Everybody’s just in shock,” Coleman said. “It’s hard to believe. He was just a great friend, and we’ll miss him.”
Telegraph staff writers Daniel Shirley and Jonathan Heeter contributed to this story.