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."