A.J. Eckmann ran a 3-mile race in 15 minutes, 48 seconds at the Capital City 7 on 7 Invitational earlier this month in Helena.
Amazingly, that blazing time is not the most impressive accomplishment the Jefferson High School senior has pulled off this school year.
Eckmann has led the charge in bringing mental health awareness to the forefront of his community, trying to make it so other teenagers will never have to know what it is like to lose a good friend to suicide.
“It’s not normal to come to school sad and depressed,” Eckmann said. “It’s something we can all recognize and help out with.”
Last November, Eckmann and the community of Boulder was shocked when popular student-athlete Denis Karasev took his own life.
“It was obviously really tough having something like that happen,” Eckmann said. “It’s one thing to lose your friend. To lose your friend because it was his own choice was really hard for me.”
The death of Karasev was the first suicide that hit home for Eckmann, and he wants to make sure it is the last.
First up came the “Run for 75,” in honor of Karasev, who wore No. 75 on the Panthers football team. Eckmann organized the 4.75-kilometer race on Homecoming weekend to raise money for the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).
“It’s not easy to put on a race like that,” Eckmann said. “You have to get city permits and things like that. But we had over 90 people run, and we got donations. We raised more than $1,300. It was good.”
Karasev’s mother, Anya Walker, was one of the runners in the race that will continue for years to come, thanks to the National Honor Society advisers, who will take the reins and lead the event into the future.
“It will serve as a reminder of suicide and be in memory of Denis and others who died from suicide,” Eckmann said.
Tim Norbeck is the Superintendent of Jefferson High School District No. 1. Count him as one of the impressed.
“What he is doing for his peers amazes me,” said, Norbeck, who was the principal at Butte Central before taking the job in Boulder two and a half years ago. “Kids really are trying to help their peers. This is an issue that needs to be discussed.”
The race, as it turns out, was only the beginning.
Late last month, Eckmann made a presentation to the school administration. He wanted to implement into the SOS Signs of Suicide program high school curriculum.
“I talked to them for a while on what they could do as teachers to help kids who suffer depression,” Eckmann said.
After presenting to the school officials, Eckmann made his pitch to parents of students. He showed the parents a training DVD and got them to sign off on participation in the program.
Then, the program was put in place, where students participated in through their English class. Students watched the DVD, and Eckmann and some of his peers led a discussion with each class.
“We talked about our experience with Denis and some signs we should have recognized,” Eckmann said. “It helps kids understand the seriousness of depression. It really is something people struggle with and it is nothing to be ashamed of.”
“Kids open up and share,” Norbeck said. “That’s what you want them to do. This was all brought on by this 18-year-old kid. I was taken back by the race itself.”
Norbeck said everyone was caught off guard by the death of Karasev.
“Denis was a good football player and a good student. He was well liked,” Norbeck said. “He wasn’t a loner type of kid. He wasn’t picked on.”
“It made people more aware of how real suicide is,” Eckmann said. “Before it was something you heard about.”
Eckmann, who also starts at guard on the Jefferson High basketball team, says understanding the signs and getting help is the key to suicide prevention. Students need to understand they have to get help for friends, even if it means that friend might get mad at them in the short term.
“It’s something that you don’t want to regret later,” Eckmann said. “You want to do the right thing and get him help — even if it’s for yourself.”
“It is selfish to deal with it by yourself when people are out there who want to help you.”
English class was picked because it is a class each student — freshman through senior — must take each year.
“We knew we’d get everybody in English,” Eckmann said.
That was really easy to figure out for Eckmann, a future statistical science major who scored a 32 out of a possible 36 on the ACT.
Currently, Eckmann is working getting accepted to Duke University.
“It’s like a 9 percent acceptance rate,” he said of getting into Duke. So, Eckmann is applying through the university’s early-decision process, which has a much higher acceptance rate.
Norbeck says Eckmann would be a major gain for Duke.
“I think he would be a great candidate for the place,” the superintendent said.
Eckmann’s cross country times have already put him on the map with the Blue Devils. He will run for Duke once accepted to the University.
“I have to get accepted to the school on my own,” he said. “Then I am guaranteed one of 20 spots on the team.”
The 15:48 in Helena is Eckmann’s career-best time. Last year he ran 16:41 at the Class B State meet, which was good for fifth place and All-State honors.
“Last year I had 16 flat, but nothing under 16,” he said. “It was frustrating, so it was good to get under 16 this year.”
Saturday, Eckmann will close his high school cross country career at the State meet in Great Falls. Eckmann has been running upwards of 40 miles per week with the goal of taking the top spot at State this time around.
He says he feels good heading into the race.
“I’m pretty excited to run,” Eckmann said. “I’ve done all that I can do at this point. Through the first two miles I just want to put myself into position to see what happens.”
No matter what happens Saturday, though, Eckmann couldn’t possibly top what he has done for the students at Jefferson High School.
Norbeck said Eckmann’s work to make mental health the topic of serious discussion will certainly leave a lasting effect in Boulder and at Jefferson High School.
“This is what the kids need to see,” he said. “It’s one of their peers stepping up for them.”