Timothy Van Buren was a 17-year-old high school senior weighing whether to take a college football scholarship or pursue his boyhood dream of becoming a firefighter.

A week ago, he died when a bullet from a .357 magnum handgun pierced his brain in what Prince George's County police say they believe was a game of Russian roulette.

"There were two paths he could have traveled, and both would have led to success," said Antwan Jordan, chief of the Boulevard Heights Volunteer Fire Department, where Van Buren volunteered. "Instead he's dead. This is so tragic."

Last night, hundreds of his classmates mourned the Suitland teen's death at a candlelight vigil at Forestville Military Academy, where he led the football team in rushing last fall.

"He really was a great kid, a very well-liked kid," said Forestville Principal James Smallwood. "He was the kind of kid who would just walk up and start talking to you."

Police said yesterday that they were conducting "a death investigation," as they do in accidental shootings or death by natural causes.

Cpl. Debbi Carlson, a police spokeswoman, said officers responded Friday night to a report of a shooting at the home where Van Buren and his family lived. They found him suffering from a gunshot wound. Two friends were also in the home.

"It looks like he asked both the people inside there to play Russian roulette, and they denied his request," Carlson said. "At that point, he pointed the weapon at his own head and pulled the trigger. Whether it was an accident or suicide, we are not sure. That's all still under investigation."

His mother, Curle Yates, said Van Buren had no reason to commit suicide. "He had everything to live for," she said. A running back who rushed for more than 700 yards and scored seven touchdowns in his senior year, Van Buren was considering a football scholarship from Robert Morris College in Pennsylvania.

Yates said she does not know where the handgun came from and said she does not own a gun.

Eight days before he died, Van Buren had fought his first fire as part of a search and rescue crew in District Heights, Jordan said. "He was so excited," he said. "As soon as they were done, he said, 'Now what do you want me to do?' He was so eager to help."

Van Buren's body will be transported to Lincoln Cemetery tomorrow on the station's silver, black and white Engine 171 firetruck.

Last night, hundreds of his classmates filled the Forestville school's cafeteria, many wearing the green Army uniforms used at the public military academy. Students passed boxes of tissues, sobbed on their parents' shoulders and held one another.

Yates, weeping, sat on the front row near a mannequin decorated with Van Buren's green dress uniform, complete with medals. He was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant posthumously and his football jersey number, 40, was retired as a tribute.

"I can hear Tim say: 'Don't be sad about my life. I'm going to be with God,' " Smallwood said, drawing sobs from the audience.

In an interview before the vigil, Yates said she last talked to her son about 3 p.m. Friday, when she called to check on him. Van Buren, who was out of school because of last week's snowstorm, had escaped the doldrums by heading out with a couple of his friends. Yates had taken her mother to play bingo. His older sister had gone to an ice-skating show.

About 10 p.m., Yates rounded the corner in her car and saw "all these police cars, ambulances and firetrucks" on her street. Then she saw her car and realized that her son was home.

"I knew something had happened to my child," she said. "I slammed the car into park and just ran down the street. They wouldn't let me in the house. I asked what had happened to my son, and they wouldn't tell me. I kept asking, but they wouldn't tell me anything."

Nearby, she saw the two friends who had been with her son sitting in separate police cars.

"Finally, I saw the van from the medical examiner's office pull up in front of my house, and I knew my son was dead. I knew my baby was dead," she said.

Forestville varsity football coach Charles Harley said he believes the death was accidental. He said that Van Buren was a "young man who was always in complete control" and that he might have played Russian roulette without considering the danger.

"Since he was always in control, he probably thought, 'This won't happen to me.' "

Staff researcher Meg Smith and staff writer Josh Barr contributed to this report.