By Aaron Wilson, The Baltimore Sun
11:48 AM PST, January 26, 2013
Tattoos adorn the torso and arms of Ravens reserve cornerback Chris Johnson, covering his body in a mosaic of smiling faces and names.
It's Johnson's way of paying tribute to his family, of ensuring that those loved ones remain close to his heart.
"This way, they're always a part of you," Johnson said. "They're literally on your skin permanently, just like family is permanent to me."
On the left side of his ribs is a tattoo of a face and two numbers. The face is that of his sister, Jennifer Johnson. The numbers represent the years she lived: 1978 to 2011.
A little more than a year ago, Chris Johnson was exchanging general text messages with Jennifer and preparing for his next game with the Oakland Raiders. Then, she was suddenly gone.
Jennifer Johnson, 33, was shot multiple times and killed by her estranged boyfriend, Eugene Esters, on Dec. 5, 2011, in an apartment complex parking lot in Fort Worth, Texas, according to Tarrant County court records.
"I'll never get to talk to my sister again or tell her that I love her," Chris Johnson said. "You can't figure out why things happen the way they did. As a Christian and as a man, you have to keep going forward. I needed to push forward and be strong. I didn't have time to wonder why.
"As a man, as a father, as a husband, as a son, I believe you have to have more strength than your average person. Your family is depending on you. If you break down, they don't have a solid foundation. I try to be that foundation for my family."
Chris Johnson's strength was tested in the minutes, hours and days after he learned of the shooting. His mother, Della Johnson, also had been shot by Esters that day. She survived the attack, which stemmed from an argument between Jennifer Johnson and Esters about visitation rights with their 3-year-old daughter, Solia.
The devastating news reached Chris Johnson while he was at the Raiders' practice facility, watching film of a loss the previous day to the Miami Dolphins. A text message from his mother read: "He shot her."
His sister had a 14-year old daughter, Sidney, as well as Solia.
Suddenly, they were without parents.
'My sister is with us'
So Chris Johnson, 33, and his wife, Mioshi, took in Sidney while his mother assumed responsibility for Solia.
"If it had happened to me, my sister would have done the same thing for my kids," said Johnson, who has two sons, Chris Jr. and Bran, and a daughter, Krissy. "Everybody is doing fine. Solia is still a child. She doesn't really know what went on. Sidney is taking it in stride.
"It's a little bit harder for her because she knows the situation, but she gets up with a smile on her face. We try to uplift the kids and not talk about the bad things. I know my sister is with us in spirit. She's in the girls and my mom, and she's a part of me."
The girls' presence is a constant reminder of their mother, who grew up extremely close to her younger brother.
Esters remains incarcerated in the Tarrant County Correction Center on charges of capital murder and attempted murder after being indicted by a grand jury. He has been assigned a Feb. 25 court date.
"I just don't get why he would do this to my sister since he knew she had two girls depending on her for everything," Johnson said. "It makes no sense; it never will. We have to look to God for all the answers. As a human being, we'll never come up with the conclusions."
Johnson paused for a long moment when asked to describe his sister.
"She was a people person," he said. "She was very smart. She brought everyone closer together with her sense of humor. She was very goofy. If a room was solemn, she would make a joke and have everybody laughing. She just had a good spirit.
"Sidney is the same way. When she laughs, that's my sister inside of her. I try to honor my sister in everything I do, and I've dedicated the rest of my career to her. I push myself that much harder."
When Johnson joined the Ravens in November 2012, he didn't volunteer any information about his sister's death. After eight years in the NFL, he has learned how to stay focused on his job.
After being released by the Raiders following the 2011 season, Johnson tried out for the Detroit Lions and New York Jets before signing with the Ravens on Nov. 13.
Five days later, Johnson played against the Pittsburgh Steelers and forced a fumble in the Ravens' 13-10 win at Heinz Field.
A 'powerful' speech
Johnson has had limited opportunities to make an impact on the field, but less than a month after joining the Ravens, he wanted to share his story with his teammates.
On Dec. 1, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher allegedly murdered his girlfriend and then committed suicide in front of then-general manager Scott Pioli and then-coach Romeo Crennel. Four days later, Johnson asked Ravens coach John Harbaugh whether he could address his teammates. It was the one-year anniversary of his sister's death.
"Never in my life had I gotten up in front of the team, but I knew it was important and I felt the spirit," Johnson said. "I let them know I was having a normal day when I got a call telling me my sister was dead. It was the same situation as Kansas City. I told them you never really know what a person is going through as a teammate outside of those white lines. When you leave these doors at work, you might have hell at home and then you go to work and put on a front.
"Unfortunately, Jovan Belcher didn't talk to anyone and he did something there's no coming back from. He needed a friend. I told the guys, if you need advice, go to each other as brothers and don't be afraid to ask for help. I said, 'I don't understand what this world is coming to, but, as a Christian, I pray about it and ask for guidance and to be strong for my family.'"
Struck by his words, teammates approached Johnson to shake his hand, hug him and tell him how much they respected his courage to share.
"It was so powerful what Chris said," Ravens tight end Dennis Pitta said. "I didn't know him at all and I immediately wanted to be there for him. I admire what he stands for. He's a great person. I'm proud to be his teammate."
That sentiment about the soft-spoken newcomer still resonates inside the Ravens' locker room.
"Chris is a great guy," cornerback Cary Williams said. "No one knows how they will react to a situation until they're faced with adversity. He stood up like a man. I can't say enough about how much I respect him."
Standing in the team auditorium at the Ravens' training complex, Johnson said he was immediately affected by how his teammates reacted to his message.
"It was like a shock," he said. "They didn't know me. I had been there for a few weeks. It's hard to break down and show your true feelings rather than hide them. They said my words touched them. I told Coach Harbaugh if just one or two people can benefit from what I spoke on, that means a lot to me. I couldn't reach my sister when she died, but I felt like I have to reach somebody else right now.
"Football helps take my mind off the hurt, the pain and the frustration. In Oakland, I almost broke down because I didn't have anyone to talk to. I felt like no one cared. Here, not everybody is a loner. You're not by yourself. These are my brothers."
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