CHICAGO – Late Sunday night, after a 24-20 win over the Philadelphia Eagles that put them back into a first-place tie in the NFC North, some of the Chicago Bears' younger players hit the town to celebrate. However, Matt Forte was nowhere to be found. The rookie running back – the breath of fresh air in the Windy City's rejuvenated backfield – was sitting in the basement of his suburban home, falling asleep watching game tape.
His father Gene, who isn't ashamed to call his son "probably the most boring person there is," could only chuckle.
"This is at 22 years old," Gene said. "And you have some of everything out in Chicago. He can go out and all that kind of stuff. But he comes home, talks to his parents a while, and then falls asleep watching the game."
Boring or not, the rest of the city breathes a sigh of relief as a result.
This is a franchise that in the grand scheme is only moments removed from a repetitive cringe. From the ugliness of Tank Johnson's release, the salaciousness of Brian Urlacher's paternity battles, to the embarrassment of Lance Briggs' Lamborghini misadventures, quiet wisdom can be found in a late night of talking to parents and passing out on a couch at home. Particularly when it comes from Forte, who in only four weeks has shown the makings of the star running back that might – just might – finally be the best long-term solution since Walter Payton. In fact, the Bears might have found a player with the power of Thomas Jones, the pass-catching abilities of Neal Anderson, and a conviction to his team that is … well … the opposite of Cedric Benson.
"He comes through when you need him," said Bears cornerback Nathan Vasher. "Especially in big games, big stages. We needed that. There's nothing more important."
It's not hard to feel the point the Bears' players deliver when they talk about Forte, who leads all rookie running backs with 494 total yards from scrimmage to go along with a pair of touchdowns. To give some perspective, it took the much-maligned Benson seven games last season to amass two touchdowns and 510 yards from scrimmage. Indeed, the same Bears locker room that never embraced the work ethic of Benson – and there are those who privately question whether he loves playing football – are sermonizing about Forte's contributions.
They use words like "work," "respect," "study" and "dedication." And if you read between the lines, you hear loud and clear what Bears veterans are saying: He's everything the running back spot lacked since the trading of Thomas Jones before the 2007 season.
A guy who, as center Olin Kreutz said, "Just does his job. He realizes he's a rookie and tries to earn respect. That's how you earn respect – be quiet, do your job, study hard and work hard. That's what he has done."
Summed up safety Mike Brown, "The bottom line is, we can count on him and he's going to come through."
That's strong praise for a second-round pick out of Tulane who almost no Chicago players knew existed only a year ago, when Forte was just beginning to pile up 2,127 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns as senior for the Green Wave. Statistics that were impressive, but also brushed aside by some scouts who said Forte ran too tall and lacked top end speed and elusiveness. Now Forte is sitting atop a stellar group of rookie running backs that have taken the league by storm: Tennessee's Chris Johnson, Oakland's Darren McFadden, Dallas' Felix Jones, Carolina's Jonathan Stewart, Houston's Steve Slaton, and a few others.
And yet, that's hardly unusual. Forte has been passed over before, only to come out stronger, faster and more confident. Tall (6-foot-2) and well-built (218 pounds) for a running back, Forte speaks with the softness of someone sitting in the front row at church mass. But his game has always delivered a boom, from the time he was an all-state player at Louisiana's Slidell High School.
Despite being his district's 5A offensive MVP as a senior, Forte was bypassed by every major college in the country.
"Everybody ran like roaches, except for Tulane," his father Gene said.
Part of the problem was Forte's speed, which wasn't considered on an elite Division I level. And part of it was that – like now – he produced on the field without the flash that gets other running backs noticed.
"He's got something deceptive," said Tulane running backs coach Greg Davis, who helped recruit Forte. "Guys were just falling off him, but he had these subtle moves that were hard to see. You don't know if that will translate. But guys fell off him at the college level, too. The first day we put him in pads, he had a run where I thought two guys had an angle on him, and he went right past them for like 80 yards. And I said to myself 'Whoa, look at this big sucker.' ;"
But it was a humbling experience for Forte, who had gotten letters from bigger schools but never heard from them when it counted most.
"That was hard, because I didn't really expect that," Forte said. "I went to all the camps and things like that. I thought I would be at a bigger school. But I said, hey, this must be where God wants me to be. It was a humbling experience. I think it matures you going through something like that."
So Forte went and played for the Green Wave, whom his father captained in 1977, and which bore the brunt of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and played 11 road games during Forte's sophomore year. After that season in particular, Forte had amassed enough quality college tape that the coaching staff believed he could have opted to transfer out to an SEC school and spend the last two years of his career playing for a major program. Certainly people would have understood. Forte's parents had lived in their newly built house in Slidell a grand total of 24 days before it was flooded by Katrina (on the birthday of Forte's mother, no less). And the Tulane program was in emotional tatters.
But the lessons of adversity are both telling and building, and Forte had learned those lessons from his loving stay-at-home mother Gilda, and his father Gene, who still rises at 4:30 a.m. to make a trek to the Shell Oil job that he has had for the last 30 years.
As Gene often told his son, "You've got to work at what you want."
And that is exactly what Forte did his final two years at Tulane, putting up 859 rushing yards as a junior before a knee injury ended his season, then doubling up on Tulane's offseason workouts before his senior season, when former UCLA coach Bob Toledo took over the program and told Forte's father, "He's going to rush for 1,000 yards this season."
What Toledo didn't know was that Forte would do it twice, delivering the most amazing season that Toledo had ever seen from a running back.
"We told everyone in the NFL the same thing – this guy, if he was playing for me at UCLA, he would have been a Heisman Trophy guy," Toledo said. "I told them, 'He is better than DeShaun Foster was for me, ok?' But people wouldn't listen to me. They said 'Oh, well, you're playing in Conference USA.'
"I told everyone. The Saints are kicking themselves in the butt right now. I can tell you that. … Matt is such a great guy. You see so many of these guys in the NFL and they are clowns. They screw up in their everyday life, and it upsets you when you get a guy like this who has all this physical ability and he's a great human being on top of that. He's a can't-miss guy."
Only four games into Forte's rookie season, and his detractors have scattered like, as Gene might say, roaches. And not just because of his 123-yard debut against Indianapolis or his 155 yards from scrimmage against a tough Tampa Bay defense. Indeed, even Forte's tough games … like Sunday's 85 total yards against Philadelphia – have been reason for rejoicing in Chicago, which has suffered through the shortened tenures of previous "saviors" Rashaan Salaam, Curtis Enis and Anthony Thomas.
Despite struggling against consistent defensive fronts geared to stop him, Forte delivered two key plays: a chip block that gave quarterback Kyle Orton just enough time to throw a touchdown pass to Devin Hester, and a 10-yard run on third-and-4 in the fourth quarter, which helped the Bears eat clock and close the door on the Eagles.
"He's one of the best backs in the league right now," Brown said. "It seems like he's been in the league for a long time. He seems like a veteran. The game isn't too big for him or too fast for him. I mean, really. He's our No. 1 guy on offense. We need to get him the ball as much as we can."
A visitor mentioned to Brown that for this team – for a Bears franchise that has been looking for a permanent running back solution for so long – it must be a relief. Brown just grinned and laughed.
"Who are you telling?" he said.