Former Hardaway High wrestler Xavier Woods drowned on Thursday in the Oconee River in Wheeler County near Brewton-Parker College, where he was attending school on a wrestling scholarship.
Woods, 18, and friends had gone to the river to hang out after class when he began to struggle in the river’s current, according to Wheeler County sheriff Maurice Johnson. The others present failed in an attempt to rescue him and called emergency services.
Johnson said he was dispatched and immediately went into “rescue mode,” but attempts to locate him were unsuccessful until 9 p.m., when they were able to recover the body near the area he was last seen.
No alcohol was involved in the incident, he said, calling it a “tragic accident.” He said he will investigate the death, as he does in all cases, but indicated there was no reason to believe anything else.
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“As a rule, we always investigate,” Johnson said. “We’ll talk to everyone that was there to give the family the closure they need, but nothing says anything other than this was a tragic accident.”
The drowning occurred on Thursday afternoon at the Wheeler-Montgomery County border by a bridge on U.S. 280.
The death shook Hardaway High, where Woods had starred on the wrestling team and was named second-team All-Bi-City in 2014 after going 40-10 and placing fifth at state in the 170-pound weight class.
He signed a scholarship to wrestle at Brewton-Parker on April 28 and had only begun attending the school a week ago.
Former Hawks wrestling coach Kevin Noviello, now a teacher and coach at Valdosta Middle School, said he had received numerous texts notifying him of what had happened since Thursday evening.
Noviello was particularly close to Woods, who considered the coach a father figure.
“I’ve been looking at a cover of him in In the Game Magazine, just reliving some moments,” Noviello said on Friday. “One of my fondest memories—he sent me a Happy Father’s Day text and included a picture of he and I at the state wrestling tournament. On the last day of school for the seniors last year, he brought me a picture. On the back, it said, ‘You’ve been like a father to me and I want to thank you.’”
Noviello said his heart broke the moment he heard because of the quality people that Woods and his family were.
“His mom raised a gentle person,” he said. “You never expect to hear something like this so early in life. He had so much potential. Not just athletically, but academically, too.”
He said he had called Woods’ mother, Judy, on Thursday night just minutes after she had gotten word of the accident.
“She was in tears,” he said. “She was telling me she was sorry, but it should have been me consoling her.”
Hardaway athletic director Jeff Battles said there weren’t enough good things he could say about Woods.
“He was just your prototypical great kid,” he said. “He always cared about others, always put others in front of himself. In the room, he was always willing to go above and beyond what was asked of him.”
No funeral or memorial arrangements have been made at this time. A memorial fund has been set up to help the family pay for funeral expenses. It can be accessed here.