JACKSON, Miss. – A George County 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 authorities say 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.
Sheriff Garry Welford told The Associated Press that he has asked the district attorney's office and the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation to look into the shooting to "avoid the appearance of impropriety" because one of his deputies was at the scene.
The sheriff said he could not yet say if the shooting was a suicide or an accident. The patrol car on the scene did not have a dashboard video camera; only about half the department's patrol cars have them, he said.
School officials said they were stunned by the news. Assistant coach Darwin Nelson, who went to the scene to help identify the body, said 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. The school has about 1,200 students and is located in southeast Mississippi.
"Us coaches need some counseling, too, I guess," he said.
Johnson rushed for more than 4,000 yards in his three-year 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. He finished the year with 1,559 yards, picking up an average of 7.2 yards per carry. He led the team with 24 touchdowns.
"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 the high schools, 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.