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Ray Rice's former teammate takes on domestic violence

While the NFL grapples with how to handle domestic violence, Chris Johnson is using a family tragedy to fight back

FORT WORTH, Texas – A hand-stenciled motto hangs above the front entrance of the Johnson family home.

"A family that prays together stays together."

In this household, teamwork, love and faith are paramount.

And when his former teammate Ray Rice made headlines for knocking out his then fiancée, Super Bowl champion Chris Johnson and his wife felt it personally.

“I look at my nieces every day and see two beautiful girls that will never be able to grow up with their mom,” Johnson said.

In 2011, Jennifer Johnson's estranged boyfriend killed her and wounded her mother.

On December 5, 2011, while playing for the Oakland Raiders, Johnson got the shock of his life. His 33-year-old sister, Jennifer, had been shot and killed by her estranged boyfriend, leaving the Texas native and his wife to care for her two daughters. Johnson's mother, Della was also shot, and survived. His sister’s killer, Eugene Esters, was sentenced to life in prison following his brief trial in 2013.

“[The shooting] changed me, my family, drastically,” Johnson said. “This is real life stuff. It's nothing that you can take back after you do it.”

Mioshi Johnson's family has also been touched by tragedy. In 2002, she lost her first cousin to domestic violence.

“At that time it was just something that I think my family kind of figured was an isolated incident. Things just got out of hand, went too far and we just focused on our family and us being the victims,” she said. “So once we were dealt that loss of losing my sister-in-law, I vowed to help victims.”

A death not in vain

Since returning to Dallas after Johnson's retirement from the NFL, the couple have spoken at women's shelters and worked with Women Called Moses, a nonprofit connecting victims of domestic abuse that serves hundreds in the southern region of Dallas. Mioshi Johnson also founded the Dallas and Fort Worth-based Pretty Smart Girls, a mentoring program for teen girls.

“As a brother, I can't let my sister really rest without me being a voice for domestic violence, because I think I'm really cheating her,” Chris Johnson explained. "This is a nationwide issue."

The statistics they point to are staggering.

A woman is beaten every 15 seconds across the country and 1,500 women are murdered every year by husbands or boyfriends, according to the FBI. The National Center For Injury Prevention And Control estimates healthcare costs associated with domestic violence at more than $4.1 billion dollars a year.

Another statistic is particularly significant to Chris Johnson:

"Seventy percent of domestic violence actually happens once the person tries to leave," he said. "My sister was trying to leave and you know a couple days later she was killed."

He asked the Raiders to release him so he could be with his family. But after a few months, he couldn't keep away from the gridiron.

“I don't think my sister would want me to retire like that,” he said. “She was always a cheerful and joyful person and for me to sit around and mope all day long and I think I wasn't really doing justice to her.”

After working out with a number of teams, the cornerback got a call from the Baltimore Ravens telling him to suit up. His final season in the NFL took him to the 2013 Super Bowl in New Orleans where the Ravens beat the San Francisco 49s, 34-31.

“I just dropped to my knees and just thanked God that he placed me with that team,” he said. “At the same time, I just had so much emotion because I was going to give up my career to be with my mom and my nieces and my family, but I knew my sister didn't want it to be that way.”

In his short stint with the Ravens, Johnson had another powerful moment. Less than a month after he signed, Kansas City Chiefs linebacker Jovan Belcher shot the mother of his child, and then turned the gun on himself. A few days later, on the first anniversary of his sister's death, Johnson addressed his team in the locker room on the subject of domestic violence. One of those team members was Ray Rice. 

A platform for change

Chris and Mioshi Johnson, seen here after his Super Bowl victory, took care of his sister's daughters after she was killed by her estranged boyfriend.

The Johnsons were appalled after seeing the video showing 27-year-old Rice striking and knocking his then fiancée unconscious inside a casino elevator back in February.

“I wouldn’t say it's hard to look at him,” Chris Johnson said. “I don't really have respect for a man who hit a woman.”

His wife also took it especially hard, because she's friends with Rice's wife, Janay.

“Just like everybody else, when the second tape hit and I saw it, I was horrified. You know, that's a friend,” she said, “I texted her and said, ‘I just saw the second video and I have tears in my eyes.' And she said, ‘I refuse to go back to that moment because I'm so much further than that right now.’”

The way the media constantly replayed the video further victimized Janay Rice, Mioshi Johnson said, and it didn’t broaden the discussion to domestic violence nationwide.

“If you're going to show it, then show it and say this is happening every three seconds in America,” she said. “This is somebody's life, so how can we prevent this from happening to the next person?”

In July, after he was charged with assault, Rice was originally handed a two-game suspension and a $500,000 fine. But after the video showing the violent attack surfaced on September 8, the incident and the NFL's light punishment provoked a national response. Even the White House weighed in. The Ravens released Rice and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell reversed his decision, suspending Rice indefinitely.

Rice appealed his suspension due to evidence of "a lack of a fair and impartial process, including the role of the office of the commissioner of the NFL," according to a statement from the NFL Players Association.

“I got it wrong on a number of levels, from the process that I led to the decision that I reached,” Goodell declared at a news conference, following a week of silence. “But now I will get it right and do whatever is necessary to accomplish that."

Goodell announced that the NFL would partner with agencies that work on the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault and establish a conduct committee. He hopes to have it in place by the Super Bowl.

But Chris Johnson was unconvinced by Goodell's mea culpa. After the announcement, he took to Twitter, calling for his resignation:

Backlash has also mounted after ESPN uncovered that Ravens management knew about the infamous videotape and pushed for leniency. Mioshi Johnson believes the league shouldn't be treating these as isolated incidents at all, but should instead acknowledge the scope of the problem and be more proactive in combatting it.

“They need to know so they don't think it's just that one guy and his wife. No, it's the 1 in 4. It's the 600 a week," she said. “…Not Ray and Janay. Not [Ray] McDonald. Not who didn't get to play. But what are the reasons and the prevention and the help we can do for domestic violence?”

Her husband agrees the problem is much bigger than Rice.

"This has happened way before Ray was on tape, and also it's still going on the day after it got caught on tape," he said. "On a daily [basis] here in Dallas, you see on the news a woman's getting killed or a woman's getting beat up by a man."

But Chris Johnson also believes that the handful of pro players – Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Jonathan Dwyer and others – who have recently been benched for incidents of abuse provide an opportunity.

“This is a negative platform for the guys that have been in these incidents," he said. "But I think it's a platform for … the right people to step forward and be able to help these women out."

And as the third anniversary of his sister's death approaches, Chris Johnson continues to share his story with anyone who will listen.

“I've seen my mom go through domestic violence. Right now my older sister is going through domestic violence,” he said. “I was one of the guys a couple of years ago where, well let me just be quiet, you know. But when my sister got killed, now I have to speak on it.”

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