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'Fly High Eli': Huge crowd mourns loss of student-athlete

Dave Samson / The Forum1 / 6
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Eli Johnson turns a double play May 2016. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor3 / 6
Eli Johnson at bat for the Moorhead Spuds in a game from May 2016. Johnson, 19, passed away Monday, Sept. 11. Michael Vosburg / Forum Photo Editor4 / 6
Eli Johnson tries to get the puck past a Rogers High School goalie February 2016 at the Moorhead Sports Center. Dave Wallis / The Forum5 / 6
Dave Samson / The Forum6 / 6

MOORHEAD — A mournful crowd of more than 500 people gathered inside Concordia College's Knutson Campus Center Wednesday, Sept. 13, for a vigil in honor of 19-year-old student-athlete Eli Johnson.

"No matter how crowded this room is, it's not crowded enough without Eli," said Dr. Eric Eliason, dean and vice president of academic affairs, reading a statement from President William Craft.

Eli Johnson / Submitted photo

The Centrum was overflowing, so much that many stood along the perimeters of the room and outside to join in song and prayer that was "aided by the fragile and flickering candlelight," said the Rev. Elizabeth McHan.

McHan said at the candlelight vigil that it was "good to gather in the midst of our grief" and remember Johnson, who died Monday, Sept. 11. It remains unclear what caused his death.

Johnson's family was in attendance, including his parents, Nate and Annie, and sister Madeline.

The family requested in lieu of flowers, gifts in honor of Johnson go to Concordia College Athletics. The funds will be used for student-athletes struggling with mental health illnesses.

"The room is so full for a reason," said a tearful Rachel Bergeson, deputy director of athletics. "He was a hero, and I say this with certainty because I have two boys that adored Eli."

Eli Johnson tries to get the puck past a Rogers High School goalie February 2016. Dave Wallis / The Forum

Bergeson said the crowd was reflective "of how loved Eli was," as a friend, student, nephew, brother, son and teammate to many who will cherish "memories with Eli on the ice, on the field and on the bus."

"He was so much more than a talented athlete. He was your Eli," she said.

The entire Cobber baseball team, all dressed in maroon, stood up during the ceremony along with dozens of others in attendance to acknowledge those who played on teams with Johnson throughout the years.

Johnson was captain of the Moorhead High School Spuds baseball team and hockey team, as well as the Moorhead Blues Legion baseball team. After graduating in 2016, the accounting major continued his successful baseball career onto college where he played for the Cobbers.

David Samson / The Forum

An outpouring of grief and condolences on social media honored Johnson this week.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the Johnson family. #FlyHighEli," read one Facebook post by the Moorhead Babe Ruth Baseball and Fastpitch Softball Association.

"As a kid, Eli was as active as you could be," Johnson's obituary reads. "At the age of three, he was already hitting the outdoor rinks with his dad and his passion for sports and the outdoors only grew from there."

On his Cobber baseball bio, Johnson described his dream job as "anything outdoors," and among his bucket list was "shooting an elk with my bow." The bio stated what he's most thankful for: "My family and the boys" of the Cobber baseball team.

"The loss of Eli Johnson has been felt across our campus and community," said Ahna Van Valkenburg, Student Government Association president. "He was one of our own."

A loss like this is "unexpected, confusing and incredibly upsetting," Valkenburg said, adding that the vigil was a time to "hold each other up and comfort one another."

"Every heart has a place here tonight," Eliason said, "Even when it feels like it's falling apart."

The family invites the community to attend a visitation and memorial service wearing Cobber, Spud or Blues baseball gear, or Johnson's favorite color, baby blue.

"Eli was known for his welcoming spirit, infectious smile and his phrase known to many, 'Come One Come All,'" his obituary states.


Visitation: Sunday, September 17, 2017 from 2:00 — 3:30 PM with a prayer service beginning at 3:30 at St. Joseph's Catholic Church, Moorhead, MN.

Memorial Service: Monday, September 18, 2017 at 11:00 AM at St. Joseph's Catholic Church.

Interment: St. Joseph's Catholic Cemetery, Moorhead, MN.

Online guestbook and video tribute at

Kim Hyatt

Kim Hyatt is a reporter with The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead and a 2014 graduate of the University of Minnesota Duluth. She started her newspaper career at the Owatonna People’s Press covering arts and education. In 2016, she received Minnesota Newspaper Association's Dave Pyle New Journalist Award and later that year she joined The Forum newsroom.

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