IN DECEMBER 2012, Ravens cornerback Chris Johnson approached coach John Harbaugh and asked for permission to address the team. The subject was domestic violence.
Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Chiefs, had just murdered his girlfriend. Belcher then drove to Kansas City's practice facility and shot himself, leaving his three-month-old daughter orphaned.
To Johnson, the tragedy was grimly reminiscent. A year earlier, almost to the day, Johnson, then with the Raiders, was watching film with teammates when he got a text from his mom. It was three words: "He shot her."
The her was Johnson's sister, Jennifer. The he was Eugene Esters, her estranged boyfriend and father of their daughter. The two had been quarreling when Esters pulled out a gun and shot Jennifer. She was pronounced dead at the hospital.
September 15, 2014
Esters was sentenced to life in prison, and Johnson asked for his release from Oakland. He moved back home to Dallas so he and his wife, Mioshi, could care for his two nieces. He then began campaigning against domestic violence. "Something good had to come out of this," says Johnson, who returned to the NFL the following year.
That day in Baltimore he offered a variation of a speech he had given at rallies and women's shelters. He stressed that violence cannot be an option, that it is essential to talk. "As a man, your pride is so strong," Johnson said, "and you don't want to have to say, 'O.K., I'm having a problem with my wife or my girlfriend.' You try to take it in your own hands. By the time you do that, you've made a mistake."
A few weeks later the Ravens won the Super Bowl.
Now retired and living near Dallas, the 34-year-old Johnson had a strong reaction to the video of Ray Rice slugging his now wife. There was anger and horror but also a sense of betrayal. He and Rice were friends. So were their wives.
When the NFL announced Rice's initial suspension, Johnson didn't want to talk about it, but on Monday he minced no words: "I'd never seen in him that type of person that I saw this morning. And to see that, him striking a woman like that, I don't have respect for a man who puts his hands on a woman. At all." Like so many, he wants the league to take a stronger stand. "To make a statement to the men in the league—and the world—if they do something like this, you have to suspend them for a year," Johnson says. "It's bad what you saw on camera today, but I think Roger Goodell has to go back and reevaluate. If not, he's going to get a bunch of people getting on him about what type of league this really is."