He had never done anything like this before, not in any of his eight years in the NFL. It was in December 2012 when Chris Johnson, a veteran Baltimore Ravens cornerback, approached his coach, John Harbaugh. Johnson asked for permission to address the team in the auditorium of the Ravens training facility. The subject was domestic violence.
Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs had just murdered his girlfriend. Belcher then drove to the Chiefs practice facility, got out of his car, and -- after thanking the team’s coach and general manager for the opportunity to play football -- shot himself. The murder-suicide that orphaned a little girl brought about a rare moment of soul-searching.
But to Johnson, the day had additional significance. A year earlier, almost to the day, Johnson, then playing for the Raiders, was watching film with his teammates. Midway through the session, he got a text from his mother.
It was three words long: “He shot her.”
The “her” was Johnson’s sister, Jennifer. The “he” was Eugene Esters, her estranged boyfriend and father of their daughter. They two had been quarreling when Esters unfurled a gun and shot Jennifer. She was pronounced dead at the hospital.
While Esters was sentenced to life in prison, Johnson asked for his release from the Raiders. He moved back home to Texas so he and his wife, Mioshi, could care for his two nieces. He then became an outspoken advocate against domestic violence. “Something good had to come out of this,” he reasoned.
That day in Baltimore, he offered a variation of a speech he had given at rallies and at women’s shelters. He stressed that violence cannot be an option. That it is essential to talk about problems. “As a man your pride is so strong and you don’t want to have to go to someone and say, ‘OK, I’m having a problem with my wife or my girlfriend.’ You try to take it into your own hands. By the time you do that, you made a mistake.”
A few weeks later the Ravens won the Super Bowl. Ray Lewis retired. Ed Reed decamped first to Houston, then to the Jets. Chris Johnson would never play another NFL game, retiring at 34.
Now living near Dallas, Johnson woke up Monday morning and, like innumerable others, had strong visceral reactions to seeing TMZ video of Ray Rice slugging his now-wife in a casino elevator. There was anger and horror, but also a sense of betrayal.
Though he and Rice played on opposite sides of the ball, they were friends. So were their wives. When the NFL announced Rice’s penalty, Johnson graciously declined comment to SI. “I prayed and thanks for the opportunity,” he wrote via text. “But I’d rather speak on the difficult issue of domestic violence as a whole, rather than the actions of just one man.”
On Monday, though, he minced no words. “I’d never seen that type of person that he is, that I had seen this morning. And to see that, [him] striking a woman like that, me personally, me losing my sister to domestic violence, I don’t have respect for a man who puts his hands on a woman. At all.”
What the hell happened? Johnson has a theory. “You have Ray Lewis gone, Ed Reed, you have a younger team and you don’t have that veteran leadership and that police in the locker room anymore,” he said. “You don’t have anyone that can sit down with Ray and try to talk to him about basically family-oriented people and about women and domestic violence.”
Like so many, he takes issue with the penalty. “Moving forward, to make a statement to the men in the league -- and really in the world -- if you do something like this, you have to suspend them for a year,” he said. “Plain and simple, you have to make a statement for these men to stop hitting these women.
“Ray is the only one that got caught on camera. Now everybody is thinking Ray Rice is a bad person. But that’s not the first person that I have heard being in the league 11 years that they have put their hand on a woman before. It’s bad what you saw on camera, but I think Roger Goodell has to go back and re-evaluate this. If not, I think he’s going to get a whole bunch of people on him about what type of league this really is.”