Police: Mississippi prep star dies of self-inflicted gunshot wound

Updated: December 16, 2008, 2:28 PM ET
Associated Press

A George County (Miss.) High School football star died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound early Monday after being pulled over by a sheriff's deputy, authorities said.

It's not clear why 17-year-old Billey Joe Johnson was stopped in Lucedale, but the junior tailback shot himself with a shotgun after the deputy walked back to the patrol car to run a license check.

"The deputy was sitting in his patrol vehicle ... when he heard a gunshot and saw the victim laying on the ground by the driver's side door of the vehicle that Johnson was driving. A shotgun was lying on the victim," according to a statement from the George County Sheriff's Department.

Authorities would not immediately say whether they believed the shooting was a suicide or an accident.

Sheriff Garry Weford asked the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to look into the death, said Mississippi Department of Public Safety spokesman Charlie Cook.

School officials said they were stunned by the news. Assistant coach Darwin Nelson, who went to the scene to help identify the body, told The Associated Press that Johnson was one of the most promising athletes he's seen on the football field.

"We're just in shock," Nelson said. "To say that he had a world of potential would be one of the biggest understatements of the century. I just can't explain this."

Nelson said counselors were brought in Monday to talk to students.

"Us coaches need some counseling, too, I guess," he said.

Johnson rushed for more than 4,000 yards in his high school career. He had scholarship offers from universities including Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn, LSU, Mississippi, Mississippi State and Oregon, according to Scout, a national recruiting service.

Johnson said in August that he hoped to rush for 1,500 yards this season.

"I feel real comfortable with my role on the team. I just have to come out and do the best I can every Friday night. I'm going to give it all I've got," Johnson said in an August interview with the Sun Herald newspaper.

The Mississippi Department of Education and neighboring school districts have offered to help counsel students, said Barbara Massey, George County's superintendent.

"What a joy it was to watch him play football," she said. "Our sympathies go out to the family of this talented, talented young man."

Johnson helped George County to an appearance in the 5A state championships last year, where the team lost to South Panola High School, which until recently had the longest winning streak in the country with 89 straight wins.

George County had a record of 6-6 this season and was put out of the playoffs in the first round by Meridian High School, which went on to win the 5A championships by beating South Panola.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press