Editor's note: If you or a loved one is in crisis, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (1-800-273-TALK).
Aaron Ryback looks at the tattoo on his right biceps when he sits in his locker stall before hockey games.
“Luke 23:43” is inked on the inner portion of the Concordia senior's upper arm and framed with wings. “Eli” is printed within one of the wings.
“It’s nice looking down at my arm and having that little piece of him with me,” said Ryback, who is from Winnipeg, Manitoba. “I still think about him every day.”
Ryback is referring to Eli Johnson, who died by suicide more than two years ago. Johnson was 19 years old and Ryback had known him for a little more than a year. Johnson was one of Ryback’s best friends.
“He was a very positive person,” said Ryback, a forward on the Cobbers men’s hockey team. “He was loved by everyone, he put a smile on anyone’s face. He’d go out of his way to make sure that you were having a good day.”
Ryback is one of many who have gotten a tattoo to remember Eli. He also knows of six friends who have gotten some sort of variation of his tattoo based around the bible verse and the dates. Other family and friends of Johnson have come up with their own tattoo designs.
Johnson died Sept. 11, 2017. Ryback got the inner portion of the tattoo, which includes Johnson’s birth and death dates in Roman numerals, a couple of weeks later. About a month after that, the wings were added.
'Never be forgotten'
Tributes like Ryback’s are heartwarming to Annie Johnson, Eli’s mother.
“It means a lot,” Annie said as she choked up. “That’s the one thing our family wants is for Eli to never be forgotten. He was such an amazing person and loved by so many.”
Annie and her husband, Nate Johnson, have received items ranging from pictures to necklaces and also texts, visits and memorials to show support and honor their son. Annie said the kind gestures from family, friends and the community have been too many to mention, but each is appreciated.
“Anyone who knew Eli, we feel like when they reach out or come to us, we feel like it’s a part of Eli with us,” Annie said.
Eli played baseball at Concordia and was a multiple-sport athlete at Moorhead High School, where he also played hockey.
Madeline Johnson, Eli’s older sister, also has a tattoo to remember her brother. “Eli” is inked on her wrist in his handwriting. Madeline got the tattoo with two of Eli’s closest friends. She picked a spot that's easily visible by design so it’s always in her view.
People often ask her about the tattoo.
“I really like that because I get to talk about Eli,” said Madeline, who is 25 years old and a first-grade teacher in Moorhead. “Even though it’s hard and I get emotional, I love talking about Eli. I love saying his name and I love sharing stories about him.”
Since Eli’s death, Madeline has been active in bringing awareness to mental health issues and suicide prevention. The past two Septembers she’s organized a “Team Eli” for “Out of the Darkness” walks, which benefit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Madeline said “Team Eli” has raised more than $10,000 at each walk.
“It’s OK to not be OK,” Madeline said. “Mental health is something that does really need to be talked about. Just because Eli was the captain of the hockey team and was in kind of all these more tough sports and stuff, he still struggled, and that’s OK and that happens. But we need to reach out and we need to have these hard conversations and get help when we need it.”
'Fly High Eli'
Jayce Johnson is on the football and track and field teams at Concordia. He graduated from Moorhead High School in 2016 with Eli. The two were friends since childhood, and were often mistaken for brothers when they were younger because they looked similar and share the same last name.
Jayce remembers good times he had with Eli, whether it was playing for a variety of athletic teams or fishing for catfish on the Red River. In high school, Jayce said the pair would also head to the river if there was a big rainstorm and dive and slide around in the mud.
“As soon as you met him for the first time, you’d just see him smile and the way he carried himself and instantly you’re like, ‘That’s someone I want to be a part of, I want to get to know this guy,’” Jayce said. “He was just a fun character.”
Jayce has a tattoo on his left forearm to honor his friend. The bottom part of the design is a Viking compass, which ties into Jayce’s Swedish heritage, with an arrow at the top that points to an eagle, which is the top part of the tattoo. Around the perimeter of the compass, “Fly High Eli” is written three times in Runes.
"Fly High Eli" is a phrase family and friends have used on social media to honor and remember Eli.
“As soon as I see an eagle, the first thing I think about is Eli and being my eye in the sky,” Jayce said.
Jayce said his father, Bruce Johnson, generally doesn’t like his tattoos.
“As soon as I got this one and told him about it, he instantly started crying,” Jayce said. “He loved Eli.”
'We miss him so much'
The Cobbers had their senior night for men’s hockey Jan. 31 at the Moorhead Sports Center. Ryback asked Annie, Nate and Madeline to join him and his parents, Kelly and Laura, on the ice to be recognized prior to the game. Ryback said even though he knew Eli for just a little more than a year, it felt longer because they had such a strong friendship.
“It was emotional. I was definitely choked up,” Ryback said of sharing senior night with Eli's family. “It felt really nice to have them out there. It was fitting to have them there with my family.”
Ryback didn’t meet Eli’s parents until after his death, but he had been friends with Madeline through Eli and her time as a student at Concordia.
“It was such a nice thing,” Annie said. “There weren’t really any words when he asked us. Of course I cried because Aaron is such a good guy and he’s been so good to us.”
Madeline added that was a special moment for the family.
“That was so cool,” Madeline said. “With every year comes new obstacles, but knowing that it would have been Eli’s senior year of college at Concordia has been really tough.”
Ryback and Jayce both vividly remember where they were and how they found out about Eli’s death. Ryback was at men's golf practice and rushed to campus soon after he heard the news. Jayce was walking home from night class when he saw one of his friends, who also knew Eli, crying on a bench.
“That night and the weeks to come are the hardest thing I’ve experienced in my life,” Jayce said. “It’s one of the biggest losses I’ve had.”
Jayce said he initially felt “a lot of guilt” because Eli was one of his best friends.
“Where was I to help him when he needed help? That was one of the biggest things I struggled with for awhile,” Jayce said. “The big thing that helped me is knowing he’s in a better place.”
The day Eli died, Ryback said he received a text from Eli in a group chat, a message he still has saved on his phone. After his freshman season at Concordia, Ryback changed to No. 23 for hockey to honor Eli. That was the number Eli wore for the Spuds hockey team.
“There are definitely times where I find myself missing him,” Ryback said.
Madeline said many of Eli’s friends now refer to her as their big sister.
“That gets me, but it’s so thoughtful of them,” Madeline said. “It shows how much Eli made an impact on their lives and still does to this day.”
Annie said it’s important for the family to talk about Eli and his life, even though it can be painful.
“We don’t want anyone to go through and suffer alone like Eli did, and we don’t want any family to go through this,” Annie said as her voice cracked with emotion. “We have to be Eli’s voice. … It’s so hard. We miss him so much.”