'A great life in between the dashes': Teen remembered as upcoming Squirt tourney focuses on mental health
Moorhead's Eli Johnson died by suicide in 2017. As his sister, family and others recall Eli's life, a mental health program and hockey tournaments are just some of the efforts to help others in need.
MOORHEAD — Madeline Gebhart has dreams she was able to get to her brother in time.
She awakens to a world in which he’s an accountant or pursuing a career working outdoors. He’s most certainly helping people. He loved people, none more than his teammates, his boys, from a life of hockey and baseball in this Minnesota border community. Perhaps he’s somewhere quietly being the life of the party, letting his smile do the talking.
Whatever he’s doing, he’s giving her something new to brag about. She’s been bragging about him since he was skating at 3 years old. She cried the day he was born, as he took her chance at having a sister. But on the bitterly cold January night he was born, she crawled into the hospital bed with him, and her new baby brother took her heart.
For a brief moment, there’s relief and possibility. The relief she got to him. And the possibility of what he, the best person she knew, could be doing.
But the feelings vanish. And she is met with reality. Her brother, Eli Johnson, died by suicide on Sept. 11, 2017, at the age of 19.
“Waking up and having it hit you that you’ll never talk to him again,” Gebhart, 28, said. “Every day your body physically hurts from the loss. A phone call I never wish I would’ve gotten. He was hurting so much and I couldn’t help.”
Now in its third season, the Eli Johnson Memorial Hockey Tournament for Squirt Bs takes place Dec. 2-4 at the Cullen Hockey Center. The tournament provides an opportunity to remember Eli as well as to continue conversations about mental health. It's just one of the projects in place to remember him.
Memories of Eli
The Johnson family has not touched Eli’s bedroom in their Moorhead home. The house is filled with pictures of him smiling. He never held a room with his voice, but anyone who knows him knows his smile brought an audience.
Mental illness is a sickness. And I don’t want anyone to feel alone like he did.
They look out the window of their home and there’s Madeline playing goalie for him or four square, discovering yet another talent of his. Inside the house, there’s memories of him returning the favor and playing Barbies with her.
The Johnson family still have his phone number saved in their cellphones. They wear his clothes, hoping his smell will reappear for just a moment.
“I have a hard time letting go of anything Eli,” Annie Johnson, Eli’s mother, said. “Every inch of our house, of our life, as we move through the day, there’s something that brings Eli to our mind. Always.”
Every day is Eli for the Johnson family. But every day is without Eli.
Annie hates the word suicide. Gebhart struggles when she hears sirens or sees the flashing lights of a police car.
The family does not talk about the day Eli died. It’s too traumatic, and they’ve studied that it’s harmful to discuss the details.
But they won’t stay silent. They fight through the pain, in the hopes no one else will feel it.
“Eli had a great life in between the dashes,” Annie said. “I look around our house and all the pictures of him smiling. He was polite, he was respectable, he was just a perfect kid. Eli was sick, not a bad person. He wasn’t trying to hurt anybody. Mental illness is a sickness. And I don’t want anyone to feel alone like he did.”
The Johnsons found a voice for Eli, but it took a community.
‘Doing nothing isn’t an option’
The stories of Eli, whether about his athleticism or how people gravitated to him, seem like folklore in Moorhead. Even from Day 1, there’s pride in his mother’s voice when she talks about how he was a 17-minute birth and he slept through the night. He was a captain of the hockey and baseball teams at Moorhead High School, moving on to Concordia College in Moorhead to play baseball.
He was never big, but he was seemingly good at everything and took any challenge to heart.
Longtime Moorhead hockey and baseball coach Tony Kunka said the most grounders he’s ever hit was at Eli. Kunka wears something baby blue at every game he has coached since Eli died. It was Eli’s favorite color, which his sister and mom said simultaneously with a laugh, “It’s ‘cause he looked good in it” when asked why.
“He certainly wasn't the biggest or the strongest, but his compete level was higher than most,” Kunka said. “He always wanted to practice and he would come early in order to get more work.”
He smiled, he was talented and he was loved.
Gebhart says people still come up to her to tell her stories about Eli, whether they knew him for five years or five seconds. It’s as if Moorhead never wants his story to end.
Amber Ferrie, a 43-year-old accountant, has three kids who play hockey in Moorhead, where she was born and raised. Her husband worked with Eli on strength training from the time he was around 10 years old. It was seeing the pain in the community and on her husband’s face that pushed Ferrie to do something.
“Eli Johnson was not a marginalized kid. He was the guy,” Ferrie said. “Captain of multiple sports teams, well-liked. This is not the kid that is shy and quiet in the corner. He, for the most part, was someone every parent hopes their kid becomes so that was eye-opening. This was a kid all our kids want to be, so we all saw our kids in him.”
This was a kid all our kids want to be, so we all saw our kids in him.
Ferrie was scrolling through Twitter while at the rink for one of her son’s games two years after Eli’s death. She saw Osseo Hockey tweet about it’s upcoming Mental Health Awareness Day in honor of Max Marvin, a hockey player in Warroad who died by suicide at 19 in December of 2018.
She contacted Max Foundation board member Conway Marvin, hoping to get a blueprint on where to begin. He told her to go for it. After emphasizing to him she was not a mental health professional and looking for a little more guidance, he said something that stuck with her: “I’m not either, but what we learned with Max is you don’t have to know everything, but doing nothing isn’t an option.”
So Ferrie teamed up with Gebhart, Megan MacFarlane, who was captain of the Moorhead girls hockey team the same season Eli was captain of the boys team, and fellow hockey mom Lezlee Bertie.
They started small with a youth hockey game that brought Moorhead and Warroad teams together. Mental health professionals were at the rink to answer questions, information was handed out and a conversation was started.
Ferrie said parents in the community wanted more.
What began with just one youth hockey game is now M3, a nonprofit organization that is spreading mental health awareness throughout Moorhead. Starting at 5 years old, hockey players are taught about mental health as part of their training. The curriculum continues throughout their hockey years.
M3 hosts a golf tournament in which parents and their child answer questions at each hole stemming from anxiety to how the child would like the parent to act in the car after a game. They host two hockey tournaments, one of which is the Eli Johnson Memorial Hockey Tournament , where the discussion of mental health will be openly discussed with several experts and resources on hand at the rink. The tournament also features an "All Eli Team," with those selected representing the characteristics Eli emodied.
The M3 organization added people like Kelli Gast, a professor of social work at Concordia.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in anxiety in sports,” Gast said. “The pressure and stress has always been there, but social media adds to it. The culture of youth sports has created a lot of pressure on kids and taken the fun out of it. I think it might have always been there and we just weren’t talking about it. Now, we are.”
And just last spring, M3 released a free app called M3 Moorhead. Ferrie figured kids liked going to the rink, so she brought the conversation there. Now, it’s on their phones in the form of an app that has ways to get help and information about issues like depression and anxiety. The app even has videos from hockey players tied to the area like former Fargo Force and current Los Angeles Kings forward Alex Iafallo explaining how they deal with things like returning from injury or stress.
“I think it’s about talking about it,” Gast said. “Like using the word suicide. People are afraid of the word, but we need to teach kids that there is never anything that’s bad enough that that would be the action you would take. Teachers have been telling us that Moorhead youth hockey kids have alerted them to other kids they are worried about. That is through education and awareness.”
A dog named Chuck
Gebhart moved back with her parents right after Eli died. She often sat at Eli’s grave at St. Joseph's Cemetery in north Moorhead and cried. Inscribed on the gravestone is “Come one, come all,” a phrase Eli often said, along with a baseball bat and a hockey stick. His jersey numbers 23, 20 and 3 are also on the grave with hearts separating each.
On one visit, a few months after Eli died, Gebhart was alone at Eli’s grave when a small white dog came up and sat with her. He licked her face as she cried. His name was Charlie and his owner had fallen asleep in his car.
“That was Eli telling me he was OK,” Gebhart said.
If we kept track of how many smiles we had about Chuck, it’d be endless.
She set out to find a dog just like Charlie. Sure enough, on a dog rescue website, she came across a little white dog named Chuck. Gebhart wrote about the connection she felt to the dog when reaching out to the foster parents, saying they were destined to have him. But Chuck had already been adopted. Gebhart was heartbroken, but told the foster family to please contact them if anything changed.
Two weeks later, Chuck was returned to the foster family.
“Eli set that up,” Gebhart said. “He knew we needed Chuck.”
In getting Chuck, full name Chuck Eli Johnson, the Johnsons found out his foster family had a son named Eli. Chuck has a baby blue collar with “Come one, come all” on it, which went well with his blue tux he wore to Gebhart’s wedding.
“If we kept track of how many smiles we had about Chuck, it’d be endless,” Annie said. “You can’t help but smile with him. Just like Eli.”
If you or someone you know needs help, “988” is the three-digit, nationwide phone number to connect directly to the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.