In sister's tragic death, ex-Raider Johnson finds his rallying cry
December 5 started out like a typical football Monday for Raiders cornerback Chris Johnson. He arrived at the team facility around 7:30, went to special teams and positional meetings, and watched tape of the previous day's game, a 34-14 loss to the Dolphins in Miami. Early in the afternoon, before the team went out on the field for a walkthrough, Johnson went to his locker to check his cell phone for messages.
That's when his world unraveled.
He had a text from his wife, Mioshi, who was living back home in Fort Worth with their three children, saying there was a family emergency. While Johnson read that, a team receptionist passed along a message from Mioshi to call her immediately. Johnson's first thought was that something had happened to one of his kids.
Then he read this chilling text from his mother:
Johnson's sister, Jennifer, 33, had been shot by her estranged boyfriend in Fort Worth. The man also had shot Johnson's 53-year-old mother, Della Johnson.
Jennifer was standing in a parking lot in her apartment complex, trying to jump-start her car, and Della was sitting in her own car, helping, when Eugene Esters shot Jennifer multiple times before also shooting Della. Jennifer and Esters had a 2 ½-year-old daughter together, but Jennifer had broken off the relationship and asked Esters to move out of their apartment.
Johnson went upstairs and told coach Hue Jackson that he had to leave for Fort Worth. The Raiders got Johnson a ticket on the next flight to Dallas and took him to the San Francisco airport. Before he boarded the plane, he received a call from his mother's fiancée, who told him Jennifer had died.
"It was just an unbelievable reaction," Johnson told SI.com in his first public comments since the tragedy. "From California to Dallas is already a three-hour flight. It felt like it was 24 hours before I could get there. I thought if I could get there quicker, there would be a different outcome."
Johnson could have done nothing to help his sister even if he had been there when she was shot. She died before emergency medical personnel could transport her to a hospital.
"I'm glad she didn't have to suffer and go through all that trauma and drama," Johnson said. "She died a very bad death, but to me, the way she died, I think was more peaceful than trying to be revived and bullets taken out of her and getting cut open. That's the thing I think about now."
An eight-year veteran who was a seventh-round draft pick of the Packers in 2003, was traded to the Rams in '05 and then played five seasons (2007-2011) for the Raiders, Johnson had his best NFL season in '09, when he started 15 games, intercepted three passes and broke up 18 passes. He's now a free agent, having been released by Oakland in early March, and hopes to finish out his career with a team closer to his home in Fort Worth. The Cowboys and Texans would be the most ideal options, but Johnson and his agent will see how the free agent market plays out.
In the meantime, Johnson continues to cope with his sister's death.
"I just didn't understand why the guy took my sister's life, knowing she had two little girls that were solely dependent on her," he said.
Chris and Jennifer were close siblings while growing up in the same house (an older sister stayed with their grandmother), even though Chris sometimes would listen in on Jennifer's conversations with her friends and then go tell their mother.
"She and I were closer than anybody else," Chris said of Jennifer. "She was a really big part of our family. She was like the molder. If something went wrong between me and my mom or my other sister, she would always mold the family back together. She was, I guess, the peacemaker.
"She was just a joyful young lady. If a person didn't know her and she walked into a room, in 15 or 20 minutes, by the time she had met everybody, it would be like you had known her for 15 or 20 years. She had a very bright, intelligent mind; she spoke well."
Johnson stayed only a couple of days in Fort Worth after Jennifer's death before going back to Oakland (he returned the following week for her funeral). He knew that the longer he was in Texas, the harder it would be to control his emotions. He needed to stay strong for his family because of all the roles he had: as a son to Della, who suffered a wound in the shooting; as an uncle to Jennifer's two daughters, little Solia (they call her So-So) and 13-year-old Sidney; as a husband to Mioshi; and as a father to his children, daughter Krissy and sons Chris Jr. and Bran.
"To me," Johnson said, "the definition of a man is a guy who takes care of his family."
Yet Jennifer's death filled him with an anger he thought he could take out on the football field. He had started the first three games of the season at cornerback, was inactive for the next seven games because of an infection stemming from a sports hernia surgery he had late in training camp, and didn't play in a Nov. 27 game against the Bears. He had played as a reserve against the Dolphins, making three tackles and breaking up a pass.
But his mind wasn't right after he got back to Oakland. He couldn't focus totally on football because he kept thinking about Jennifer.
"It was like when she left, a part of me left," Johnson said.
The Raiders made Johnson inactive for that Sunday's game in Green Bay, and then placed him on the injured reserve list with a non-football injury for the final three games. After the season, Johnson wanted a new contract with the Raiders, but there wasn't enough cap room. So he asked to be released.
Johnson and his wife have taken Sidney into their home in Fort Worth, and Solia now lives with Della. While he still may not be able to comprehend his sister's death, he has learned something from it.
"I look on [football] as a blessing because there aren't too many people that get an opportunity in life to be living the dream of an NFL player," he said. "Before, I might let somebody else take the last two reps in practice. Now, I take them because tomorrow isn't promised to you.
"My message is two messages, really. Live life to the fullest every single day. I wake up every morning and I make sure I try to do everything I want to do. And also if you're a woman or young lady in any type of abusive relationship, get out of it because it's not going to do nothing but turn worse."
Jennifer may be gone, but her spirit lives on in Johnson, who has a tattoo of Jennifer as a memorial over the left side of his ribs. He thinks of her every day, and he draws strength from her when he needs it.
"I try to honor her in everything that I do, as far as lifting weights, running, whatever," he said. "The things she can't do any more, I can do. So I try to push myself a little bit harder. When I'm tired on that last rep or whatever I'm doing, I think about her to get that last boost I need. She would want me to do whatever I could to be the best at what I'm doing.
"The rest of my career is dedicated to my sister."
On the morning of the last day of Jennifer's life, Johnson traded texts with his sister. It was business stuff mostly, nothing personal. Now, he wishes they would have talked.
"I never can talk to her again," he said. "I never got to tell my sister I love her."