A FEW days after the Bears selected him in the second round of the 2008 draft, running back Matt Forte was scheduled to attend a minicamp at Halas Hall, the team's headquarters, in the leafy suburb of Lake Forest, Ill. This would mark his first day as a pro athlete, so Forte found himself agonizing over his entrance. He did not lack confidence—after climbing in four years from a nearly unrecruited high school player to a star at Tulane to the 44th pick in the draft, Forte was certain that he belonged in the NFL. But how best to convey that readiness and the attitude that accompanied it?
He had an image in his head, something he'd seen many times on TV: a bus pulling up to an NFL stadium on game day, a door swinging open and players spilling out. They were always wearing unwieldy headphones and sober expressions and ... what else? Suits, Forte thought; they were always wearing suits. So he wore his first tailored suit to minicamp—a gray number with light-purple details—while Chicago's other rookies turned up in shorts, sweats, sneakers, flip-flops. "A couple guys looked at me like, Wait, were we supposed to wear suits?" Forte recalls. "It was pretty funny, the looks on their faces."
That humor was not universally appreciated.
"Matt is an unusual guy—and I don't mean unusual as in weird or strange," says Jerry Angelo, who as the Bears' general manager from 2001 to '12 drafted Forte. "Even though he's quiet, he has a lot of confidence in himself. [Wearing] a suit to that minicamp, he was saying, I'm here for business, I'm a professional. Now, if you're a guy who's never worn long pants in your life, you might be offended by that. So he rubbed some people the wrong way. But was he good for the business of the Chicago Bears? He was exemplary."
Now 28, Forte sits on a wooden bench in a small children's park near his home, not far from Halas Hall. His wife, Danielle, scoots from swing set to slide to seesaw with their 18-month-old daughter, Nahla. It's a hot, late-summer evening; the sky is a cloudless blue and the air as quiet as sleep. The regular season has not yet begun. "I still have that suit," says Forte. "It's got special meaning."
On this day, though, he is wearing long workout shorts, a T-shirt and blue-and-white Air Jordans. Practice and meetings are finished for the day. "My father always told me, First impressions last," Forte says. "That was going to be my first day on the job—a real job. I couldn't believe I was going to be playing football as my career. So I wanted to be a professional.
"And people noticed. Coach Lovie [Smith, who would be fired by the Bears after the 2012 season] noticed. He mentioned it to me. There's something about having an attitude that allows you to handle your business the way it's supposed to be handled."
The story about the suit bears the faint scent of legend in Halas's hallways, not just for its rarity, but also for its prescience. Forte showed up dressed for the job he sought, not one he possessed, as if he were already the reliable veteran that he would become. If some of his peers saw his minicamp attire as outlandish, others in the building saw it as a sign of maturity and preparedness. "He walked in high-pedigree, high-IQ, strong-willed, driven to be a great player," Angelo says. "You wish every player you draft had Matt Forte's intangibles."
Forte started the 2008 season opener, taking his fourth NFL carry 50 yards to the house against the Colts. He has since been the lead back in 95 of Chicago's 100 regular-season games and both of its playoff appearances. (His only extended absence was for a right-MCL sprain in '11.) In his six-plus seasons Forte has rushed for 6,924 yards, third in the NFL behind the suspended Adrian Peterson (8,849) and Chris Johnson (8,132). He has accumulated 10,037 scrimmage yards, also trailing only Peterson (10,296) and Johnson (10,175); and among running backs his 365 receptions trail only Darren Sproles (381) and the also-suspended Ray Rice (369). He became the first player in history to rush for 900 yards and catch passes for 400 yards in each of his first four years in the league.
And he does not rest. Last season, according to Pro Football Focus, the 6'2", 218-pound Forte played 940 snaps, the most by anyone at the position since PFF began tracking the stat in 2007. Since '08, no running back has been on the field more.
Four games into the 2014 season, little has changed. Forte has played 37 more snaps than any running back in the NFL and caught five more passes. His ground yardage has come slowly, in part because Bears center Robert Garza and guard Matt Slauson each went down in the season-opening loss to Buffalo and in part because Chicago's schedule has included the first- (Jets), second- (49ers) and third-ranked (Bills) run defenses in the NFL. In Sunday's 38--17 loss to the Packers, which dropped the Bears to 2--2, Forte rushed for 122 yards on 23 carries and caught five passes for another 49. In the swirl of Chicago's boom-or-bust offense, he is a rock of stability, the one option that is always there.
Forte has built his career in near silence. He has neither nickname (All Day, Shady) nor catchphrase (Beast Mode) to underscore his production. He lacks the flying dreads that make Johnson, Steven Jackson and Eddie Lacy look just a little more dynamic. He also lacks a rap sheet, unlike Peterson or Rice, who was taken 11 picks behind him in the 2008 draft. What Forte does have is the rock-solid, every-down reliability that teams crave. "He walked into this room as a true professional," says Garza, a 14-year veteran. "That's very rare in a young guy. Since then, he just comes to work every day and tries to be great." In a league built increasingly on quarterbacks and receivers alone, he is the exception, evoking generations lost to history, where the running back was not just prized, but heroic. With each passing week, he looks more like the last of his kind.
In reporting profiles on professional athletes, you find the truth often lies in words not spoken, interviews left ungiven. Not today, players say, tacitly conveying that the subject isn't worth praising. But there are exceptions. When Bears players are asked to offer commentary on Forte, walls drop. Coach Marc Trestman and quarterback Jay Cutler speak almost exclusively in formal press conferences; for Forte, they grant one-on-ones. Trestman puts down a slice of lunchtime pizza and hammers home points already made. "That guy," he says, "is all about team. I can't say enough about him. I can't say how good it is that you're here doing a story on him."
Inside the locker room, tight end Martellus Bennett waves off an approaching writer with the standard, pseudo-intimidating—because a man in a towel is only so scary—"Not talking today." Informed of the topic, he melts. "Forte, he's even keel," says Bennett. "We've got a lot of emotional guys on our offense. Forte just keeps showing for the next rep. He's the same year as me, but he's the veteran that I emulate."
During the off-season Bennett and Forte would meet several days a week for training, most often on a self-powered treadmill for a long series of short, all-out sprints. "He wears a shirt that says work horse," reports Bennett, "and that's him. Forte does not wear down. He challenges you. I'm on the treadmill, dying, and Forte is like, 'We've got six more to go.' Dude never gets tired."
Cutler: "He's a fun dude. A little sarcastic at times. When things get out of control in the locker room he'll step up and whip somebody into shape. B-Marsh [wideout Brandon Marshall] is his favorite target for that. But any way you put it, he's one of the leaders on this team. And he works harder than anybody else."
FORTE'S GRANDFATHER Ulycess Forte was a minister in East Texas for more than 50 years, most of them at the Cedar Springs Baptist Church in the small town of Hooks, which sent Billy Sims off to Oklahoma, where he won the 1978 Heisman Trophy. Ulycess—parishioners had trouble pronouncing his name and settled on, phonetically, You-yes—and his wife first had two daughters and then, in 1956, a baby boy named Ulycess Gene Forte, whom they mercifully addressed as Gene. Gene grew to be 6'3" and 240 pounds by the time he was a senior defensive lineman at Texas High in Texarkana, and from there he went to play football at Tulane. A tour of the Superdome construction had gotten him interested; dinners in New Orleans sold him. "Some people pick a college for the academics and some people for the football team," says Gene. "I picked Tulane for the shrimp creole, the gumbo and the redfish." Fueled by that diet, he grew to 270 pounds by the time he was a senior captain, but three MCL surgeries dulled his desire to make a run at the NFL.
Instead Gene took a warehouse job with Shell Oil (he retired in June, after 36 years) and started out working seven days on, seven days off. He met his wife, Gilda, on a trip to Lake Charles, La., during one of those off weeks, and they eventually settled in Slidell, half an hour northeast of New Orleans on the far side of Lake Ponchartrain.
The couple had two boys. Matt was the younger, born in December 1985; by age six he was begging his father to play football, and by seven he was cracking pads with kids two years more experienced. He suited up with the Slidell High varsity as a freshman, and by his senior year he made second-team all-state as a running back. Many FBS programs took a look at his stats (2,432 rushing yards, 31 touchdowns by the end) and sent letters and postcards seeking more information, but only Tulane offered a Division I scholarship.
It wasn't until father and son talked to coaches from Mississippi State that Gene finally began to understand the lack of interest. "They wanted him to play fullback," Dad says. "He was almost 6'2" and 225 pounds, and I'm standing next to him at 6'3", 270 or more. They expected Matt to grow into my body—and that's too big for a tailback."
Rivals.com rated Forte as only a two-star recruit, which, his size aside, is vaguely confounding; Forte ran an acceptable 10.68-second 100 meters as a senior. Whatever the cause, it didn't bother Forte. "Good education," he says of Tulane. "My dad went there. Only Division I offer. Pretty easy choice."
Forte climbed quickly over three other freshman running backs into the weekly rotation, and in a November victory over Army he rushed for 216 yards and three TDs. His four-year roommate, lineman Michael Parenton, got a daily dose of Forte's passion. "We had a parking garage next to our dorm," says Parenton. "Late at night Matt would come walking into the room, drenched in sweat, and I'd say, 'Man, what were you doing?' He'd say, 'Running up and down the garage stairs.' He was constantly doing stuff like that. During the season he would go to the rec center in the evening and take an abs class with students. In the summer we had workout groups at one o'clock and three o'clock—and Matt would run with both of them. The guy was just driven."
Still, Forte's middle two seasons at Tulane were a struggle. In 2005 the team fled New Orleans ahead of Hurricane Katrina, then bounced from Jackson, Miss., to Dallas to an abandoned dormitory at Louisiana Tech. The Green Wave played 11 road games that season and won only two; Forte averaged just 3.9 yards. A year later he rushed for 859 yards over his first nine games but then tore his left meniscus and posterior cruciate ligament while making a tackle after an interception. Chris Scelfo, who had recruited Forte, was fired after that season and replaced by veteran Bob Toledo.
What might have been a lame-duck senior season for Forte instead turned bountiful; Toledo simply gave him the ball. "We start spring practice, and here is this big, strong, fast guy who can do pretty much everything. He reminded me of Marcus Allen," says Toledo, who was an assistant at USC when Allen was a freshman.
Forte carried 361 times for 2,127 yards and 23 TDs, and he caught 32 passes for another 282 yards. Tulane went 4--8. "We were a bad football team with one great player," says Parenton, now an NFL scout. Any remaining doubts regarding Forte's NFL readiness were allayed when he was named Senior Bowl MVP. Questions about his speed were similarly quelled when he ran a 4.46 40 at the NFL combine. In what may be the last running-back-intensive draft, five backs were taken in the first round (Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson), 10 in the first three rounds. At No. 44, the Bears found themselves choosing between Forte and Rice.
IT'S PROVED to be a terrific pick. (That was true even before Rice torpedoed his career.) In Chicago, Forte is used primarily as a three-down ballcarrier whose long, gliding stride disguises his lethal top-end speed. "Never looks like he's running," says Bennett. "Reminds me of Chris Paul, the way he's so smooth." (Forte has been hearing since high school that he is "deceptively" fast, a backhanded adverb usually reserved for scrappy slot receivers. "What does that mean?" he asks. "Fast is fast—right?") But Trestman also splits Forte out as a wide or slot receiver, where he's a vital element in one of the NFL's most dynamic passing attacks. Forte's 74 receptions in 2013 were third among backs, behind Pierre Thomas (77) and Danny Woodhead (76).
Additionally, Cutler leans on his running back to share checks and adjustments. "[Matt's] like another quarterback," says Cutler. "He's looking at the linebackers, the safeties, finding a soft spot. He'll be talking to me late—I mean, like the last five seconds before the snap—saying, Left! Left! Left! We run a lot of our offense through Matt."
During team and position meetings, Forte scribbles in a spiral notebook. "They give us iPads for film," he says, "but I like to write things down. You write it down, you're going to remember it." Says one NFL executive, "Running backs are not known for their intellect on the field, but this guy is an exception."
So it is a sweet time in Forte's life. He lives in a sprawling gated home in an exclusive suburb and drives a custom 2004 Jeep with Kevlar fenders and 38-inch wheels. He married Danielle, who works in public relations, in July '11; they worship together at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Summit, Ill., where Danielle's father, Jimmie L. Daniels, is the pastor. Nahla was born in March of last year. One complication: Forte also has a three-year-old son, Jaden, who was born to an ex-girlfriend eight months before he married Danielle. That pregnancy made headlines in Chicago, where the phrase baby mama was frequently invoked. Jaden lives in Louisiana with his mother, but Forte says his son flies to Chicago with Forte's parents for home games. "He's like me, full of energy," says Forte. "All he wants to do is play football. He's got a little Bears uniform."
The dark side of Forte's value and versatility is that a year ago he was exposed to more potentially explosive hits than any player in the NFL. His running style—"He's elusive," says teammate and former opponent Jared Allen. "He'll make you miss, where a guy like Adrian [Peterson] is just going to try to run over you"—provides some protection. Forte also takes pride in avoiding blow-up collisions. "You have to run physically and hard," he says, "but you try to keep it on your own terms." He learned his lesson as a rookie when, 11 plays after that long TD against Indy, Colts hit man Bob Sanders blew Forte up as he bounced off a linebacker. "He got the best of me," says the back. "I couldn't move my arm."
Forte says that he's never had a head injury—but, like most NFL players, he grades on a curve. "I've never had a concussion," he says, and then pauses for a beat. "That I know of. I've been dizzy a bunch of times. You get hit, you're dizzy for like 10 seconds, and then it comes back. That happens. I think guys going low into your knees is worse."
The devaluation of the modern professional running back is no longer breaking news. NFL bean counters spend their money most aggressively on quarterbacks and, from there, at the edge of the formation, on pass rushers, wide receivers, offensive tackles and cornerbacks. Tailbacks are increasingly viewed as useful yet replaceable, with notoriously short life spans. Forte will be 29 in December, with 10 years of heavy usage, dating to his freshman year at Tulane. "Matt stayed the whole four years in college, played home games on turf," observes Angelo. "Because of the short shelf life of running backs, anybody that plays more than five years with high production, that's icing on the cake." In 2012, Angelo signed Forte to a four-year contract worth $32 million, $18.1 million of it guaranteed. It's highly unlikely that Forte will match that deal after the '15 season.
Cutler says, "I think [Forte] is getting stronger by the year. We take care of him in OTAs and mini-camps, giving him days off." Trestman talks more like a man living in the moment: "I don't overthink it. Matt is a three-down player. He does not come off the field. We're going to play the play at hand, the game at hand." Once mediocre in pass protection, Forte is now vital in helping protect his QB.
In the meantime, he does what the modern veteran does to survive. He drinks smoothies of spinach, ginger, turmeric and Greek yogurt; he subjects himself to contrast (ice-hot-ice) baths and dry needling. He uses a Graston tool to rub down scar tissue that develops beneath the skin. No potential recovery method is left unexplored. "Seven years ago I was a young cat, I didn't know anything about rehab," he says. "I feel better now than when I was a rookie."
That's the necessary mix of hubris and denial. Forte is smart enough to know the reality awaiting him. Back at the park he reclines on his bench. His daughter wobbles past, and Forte yells to her, Heeeyyy, little girl.
"I do think about the long term," he says. "This goes by fast. I can't believe I'm in my seventh year. Later on I want to be able to play catch with my kids. My father had bad knees but would squat right down like a catcher. I want to be able to do that."
Danielle lifts Nahla onto the bench. "I feel good," says Forte, "but this is a dangerous sport, and 28 years old is on the cusp of being old—which is crazy, but it's true. They say you're 29 or 30, and you're either at the end or at the cusp of being at the end. I just thank God for letting me play this long."
Next to him, the little girl lets her head drop onto her mother's shoulder, and her eyelids fall as if weighted. Because everybody gets tired eventually.
Forte played 940 snaps in 2013, the most of any back since the stat was first tracked in 2007. In 2014? He's on pace for 1,048.
Rushing yards by Forte since he entered the NFL in 2008—third in that time behind only Adrian Peterson and Chris Johnson.
Receptions by Forte during that same span—third among backs behind only Darren Sproles and Ray Rice.
Photograph by David E. Klutho Sports Illustrated
SMOKIN' MIRROR Forte erased any notions of a slow start to 2014 with his 5.3 yards per carry and 10 total first downs against the Packers on Sunday.
TODD ROSENBERG FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
BUSINESS AS USUAL Forte demonstrated his professionalism with a natty rookie arrival and a debut-game TD run (left), and the Bears have counted on him ever since. He's missed only five games out of a possible 100.
NAM Y. HUH/AP
CIRCLE OF LIFE From his father (bottom, at Tulane), Matt (with Danielle and Nahla, below) inherited size, strength and an alma mater. Mercifully, he was spared the family forename.
BOB ROSATO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
[See caption above]
DAVID E. KLUTHO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FORTE)
STRETCH PLAY Forte cuts a slick silhouette as an out-of-the-backfield receiving threat. In fact, his 3.8 catches per game outpace another handsy Bear: Walter Payton.