- After 10 seasons in the NFL—during which he was the game’s busiest running back—the former Bear and Jet reflects on his career high points, the value of the multidimensional back, why his Chicago teams couldn’t get over the hump and the state of the game as he leaves it
On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Matt Forte picked up his five-year-old daughter from her half-day pre-Kindergarten. Daddy, daddy! Nala shouted gleefully as she ran toward her father. Forte took her hand and the two walked back to his car, Nala chattering enthusiastically about her morning at school.
It’s moments like these, as simple as school pickup duty, that reinforce Forte’s decision to retire after a 10-year NFL career. “I get to see my daughter smile and run up to me, which I didn’t get to do much when I played,” he says. The former Bears and Jets running back will be remembered as one of the best multidimensional running backs in of his generation, part of a trend of backs who excelled as both rushers and receivers—and who fought to be compensated in a way that reflected their dual role.
Forte racked up five seasons with 1,000-plus rushing yards, all with Chicago, and earned two Pro Bowl nods. From 2008, when he was drafted in the second round out of Tulane, through 2017, he was the NFL’s top workhorse, with more touches (2,910) and yards from scrimmage (14,468) than any other player in the league. Forte also caught more passes in that span than any player in his draft class except Pierre Garçon—more than Jordy Nelson, DeSean Jackson or Martellus Bennett.
Forte played eight seasons in Chicago before signing with the Jets in 2016. He had a respectable 813 rushing yards in his first year in New York but was limited by injuries to just four starts in 2017, what would be his final season. Forte says his goal when he entered the league was to play 10 seasons, and once he hit that mark, it was the right time to assess his health and legacy. “If you can’t move like you need to or used to, you’re at higher risk for injury, and people won’t remember you the same,” he says. “They’ll remember your last years, when you fell off.”
As he drove Nala to their home in suburban Chicago, we asked him to look back on his 10 years in the NFL.
THE MMQB: How have the first few months of retirement been?
FORTE: I’m having fun with the family time, because so much of your time is put into football when you’re playing a professional sport. I have three kids, Jaden, seven, Nala, five, and Matthew, two. I’ve also been around Chicago doing some different television shows so I can get more reps behind the camera because I plan on doing some broadcasting, some radio, but also getting into the acting world as well. I don’t want to pigeonhole myself to just sports, I’m looking into doing some daytime TV and morning shows, like Michael Strahan does.
THE MMQB: What is your overall health like, and why did you decide to retire now?
FORTE: I had to take an assessment of my health. I’ve had some injuries, but I didn’t tear an ACL, and I didn’t have a ton of concussions, so I was blessed on that front. I did have arthroscopic surgeries on both knees. I had those meniscus tears, and when they removed that cartilage, it doesn’t grow back, so it is tough on your knees after awhile.
But that wasn’t the main factor of my retirement. It was that I had done mostly everything that I wanted to do. I wouldn’t have any regrets not playing, besides the fact that I didn’t get to play in a Super Bowl or win a Super Bowl. I wasn’t going to continue to put my body at risk and sacrifice all that family time to go out there not at my best, just to try to get a ring.
THE MMQB: You only made the playoffs once in your career, 2010 when Chicago lost to Green Bay in the NFC title game. What was that season like for you?
FORTE: It reminds me of how tough the NFL is. Even if you are a good player, you don’t get to go to the big game all the time, or the playoffs all the time like some other teams do. It’s definitely the ultimate team sport because it takes everybody to go out there and win games.
THE MMQB: What would you say was your career highlight?
There are many highlights, which is why I felt so good about shutting it down. My rookie year, my very first game, being able to come out on a large stage and rush for over 120 yards and have a big long touchdown run in front of my parents, my first touchdown run, that was awesome. [Forte took his fourth NFL carry 50 yards to the house against the Colts on Sunday Night Football]. It was at the end of the first quarter, and we were actually trying to drive down there so we didn’t give the ball back to Peyton Manning. We were at midfield, and it was third and 3, and that’s a good position on offense, because you could run it quick or throw the ball, the defense doesn’t know. We had been throwing the ball on third down, so this time we decided to run a trap play. They had two 3 techniques, where the middle of the defense was wide open. That’s a perfect look for a trap play. You’ve got two 3 techniques, and your center blocks back and the guard pulls and traps the other 3 technique and the other guard goes up to the linebacker, so I remember vividly that [Bears center] Roberto Garza cut the linebacker and I was able to get right through in between. There was a deep safety, and if I could make the safety miss I had a chance to score a touchdown. [Colts safety] Antoine Bethea was coming towards me, and I made it look like I was going to straight or I was going to cut to the left and I cut back right across his weak shoulder to the opposite side he was coming. After that, I just took off toward the end zone and saw nothing but green turf.
It was super exciting. I didn’t even realize what I was actually doing—I was just running as fast as I could. It was an unbelievable feeling when I crossed the end zone line and realized that it was a touchdown. The whole crowd was silent because it was an away game. It took the breath right out of them.
THE MMQB: Was there any point in your football life where you doubted you’d ever make it to the NFL?
After my very first practice when I was seven years old, I’m riding home in the car with my dad, who played college football, so he played at almost the highest level. I said to my dad, ‘I’m going to be a professional football player.’ I just had my mind made up: I’m going to be in the NFL. He looked at me like, okay. You don’t know what it takes. That’s good ambition but you’ve got a lot of work to do. But I was dead serious at seven years old that I was going to the NFL. All the way through high school and most of college, I never really tapered off of that.
But the lowest moment would have been my junior year [at Tulane], toward the end of the season. There were three games left and I was right on the verge of a thousand yards, and on an interception I tackled a guy and I tore my PCL and lateral meniscus. My season was over, and it was a bummer because I didn’t get my thousand yards. I was 141 yards short. It was my junior year and I have to get surgery, and I’m like, how am I going to recover from this and have a good enough senior year? I go to Tulane—it’s not like the SEC where it’s big-time football. I was worried.
It just shows you how God has his own plans for everybody. This was a test. Did I trust him? And I did. I worked super hard coming off of that injury and did double workouts during the summer into my senior year. Then I rushed for 2,127 yards my senior year, and got noticed by the NFL. That injury was a low point, but sometimes you need to be at your lowest to get to the highest point.
THE MMQB: You had five 1,000 yards seasons, all in Chicago. Did you keep a close eye on your rushing yards, or just let it happen?
FORTE: You just kind of let it happen because there are so many games in the season, I just knew if I was producing like I could each and every game, I would be where I wanted to be. If you had three or four games left and your team is struggling, then yeah, you take a look at it like, what do I need to do for these next couple games? Obviously a goal all the time is to do that as a running back, but I always have put the team first. People say, would you rather have a Hall of Fame jacket or a Super Bowl win? I would always take a Super Bowl win.
THE MMQB: This year’s draft class was just the third since 2000 to have seven running backs go in the first two rounds, joining your draft in 2008 and the 2010 draft. No draft since 2008 has seen five backs taken in the first round. What do you think of the value of the running back and the prevailing theory that teams can find running backs late in the draft and can handle the position by committee?
FORTE: We had a really good class that year. Some guys are still out there, Jonathan Stewart is still playing, Jamaal Charles is a free agent but he wants to play. One of the best classes I think personally that has come out. I’ve been talking about this since this draft, and the [idea that running backs are devalued] is a shame. We are one of the most valuable assets on offense, because we have to do everything. Tight ends block and catch, but they don’t get the ball as much as the running back does. A receiver catches the ball down the field, and they block in the run game a little bit if they want to, depending on the receiver. I’d get 20 carries and eight catches—that’s 28 times you’ve got the ball in your hands. That’s production and usage right there, so why shouldn’t the value be higher on that?
If you have an all-purpose running back who can play every down and is consistent, you know what you are going to get, day in and day out. The game is about matchups. If you have a team that has really good defensive lineman but their secondary isn’t that good, you want to try to create mismatches in the secondary, and if your running back can catch the ball and run routes like a receiver, then you can do that.
They are watering it down, because they are saying you can get so many running backs and do it by committee, which you can. You can get a guy who is a runner, and a guy who is a catcher and a guy who can block, but for the guys who do it every single down, their value should still be high because of what they add to the team and how much production and work they put in.
THE MMQB: You made a name for yourself as a multidimensional back, part of a sort of revolution of guys who could run the ball and work as a receiver. What was it like to be part of that revolution, and did you see it as one?
FORTE: When I was growing up, the value of the running back was high. Everything was run-heavy. You had Emmitt Smith, and Marshall Faulk who was all-purpose as well. Look at the value that Faulk added to the Greatest Show on Turf because he could run routes like a receiver and had great hands. That’s what I think you have to look at: Does this guy add another dimension to the offense? If you are a great runner, and your opponent is shutting the run down, you aren’t going to have 150 yards every game. If you have an every-down running back, like me, I didn’t care if they were stacking the box, because I would say, alright coach, split me out and if they bring a linebacker or a safety, we’ll deal with the matchup from there. Or free release me out of the backfield where I’m one-on-one. If they’re playing zone, I can catch the ball underneath. If they’re playing man, I got one-on-one routes against these linebackers. It adds another dimension to that offense.
I was happy to be a part of that revolution, as you say, because if it’s a passing league, and the running back is catching the ball, then I’m involved in the passing game. The value is there.
THE MMQB: Le’Veon Bell is currently negotiating with the Steelers for a new contract that he argues should reflect his dual-role value. If he gets that kind of contract, what do you think it will mean for guys in your mold, who are involved in both the run and pass game?
FORTE: I think guys are going to work on being an every-down running back instead of pigeonholing themselves to be a runner. Naturally by trade, we run with the ball. I was giving an interview before the draft and one of the knocks on one of the running backs was that he didn’t have elite hands. And I said, well, coming out of college I didn’t have elite hands either, but in the NFL I caught more balls over my 10-year span than any other running back in my class. It’s something you can work on. I think guys are going to look at it in college to say, man, I need to add this to my game. I didn’t want to come off the field. I wanted to be in every single play and help my team win.
THE MMQB: Did you ever have to fight with coaches to stay on the field?
FORTE: No, they left me out there. And that was the thing I was fighting against when I was doing my contract negotiation. My third year going into the league they brought in a third-down back, Chester Taylor. And nothing against Chester, but I played on third down. So I was like, why? And then he was making millions more than me because was still on my rookie contract. I ended up playing out my fourth year, even though I had already outplayed my contract. And then the next year, 2012, I was franchise tagged. We tried to work out a deal, and they franchised me and this is how you go through the struggle as a running back. I had outplayed my contract but I was handcuffed. A player has to do what’s best for him—it’s how business goes. If you produce above and beyond your expectations, the team can give you a contract if they want to, but they might not. If you produce below it, they can cut you and break the contract. When I was going through the negotiations, they were like, you signed a contract, you knew what you were getting into, stop whining about it. I’m like, I’m not whining, I’m just trying to get what’s due based off of production.
THE MMQB: The Bears franchise tagged you in March 2012 and you came to an agreement on a contract that July (four years, $32 million, with $17 million guaranteed). Do you think you were compensated fairly for your production and the value you brought to the Bears?
FORTE: I was happy with it. I basically had to come to an agreement with myself and family, like, what is enough? They franchise tagged me because they didn’t want me to hit free agency. If I hit free agency, I probably make a lot more than what I signed for, because you have more than one team negotiating. The franchise tag is there to hold you, to keep you from going to free agency. I came to a point where it’s like, well, we’re talking about millions of dollars. Did I think that my four-year deal should have been higher? Yeah, of course, but the team negotiated their end and they’re trying to get the best value as well. I looked at it as, it’s a four-year deal and only this much of it is guaranteed, which was like $17 million. I looked at it as if, I’m going to get the full amount because I have been healthy my entire career and they are banking on me not producing as well. Some guys sign five- or six-year deals but never see the fifth or sixth year. I went with the four and made every single penny of the contract. Most people don’t earn the full amount, especially running backs, because they cut you at the end.
THE MMQB: The Bears haven’t had much success since Lovie Smith was fired in 2012. What about the Bears and Lovie worked? Do you think it was a mistake that he was fired when he was?
FORTE: It was that Tampa 2 defense that he had, with one of the greatest linebackers to play the game right in the middle [Brian Urlacher] orchestrating it all. It was a perfect storm to have that. The 2010 season, the defense carried us. They were holding people to 13 points a game. If we can score 17, 21, points we’ll win every game. A lot of people say defense wins championships, but I think it is defense and a balanced offense where you run and throw the ball. Lovie motivated those guys, and they loved playing for him. We had such a great locker room.
A lot of success and failure can come based on decisions made that are out of your hands. Lovie was fired the year we won 10 games, and the crazy thing is the Bears haven’t won close to 10 games since. It’s unbelievable. In the NFL, it is hard to win 10 games, and it ended up we didn’t go to the playoffs with the way it shook out that year, but still, you have to look at the body of work. We won 10 games, and the next season we are still building. It takes time to build these things, and with all the pieces and parts that we already had, to disrupt it and bring in a new head coach, it messes it up. And there are ripple effects. If I could rewind time and go back and make something happen, I wish we would have kept Coach Lovie and added in the draft and free agency and maybe hired a new offensive coordinator. It would have been an awesome thing to have Coach Lovie there and just changing up the offense, because the defense was stacked. We had just got Brandon Marshall that season and the next year we got Martellus Bennett, and we started adding these pieces on offense, but then our defense fell apart. We missed the boat.
THE MMQB: What teammate had the biggest impact on you?
FORTE: Since I play offense, most people think it would by guys on offense but really it was the defensive guys. Last weekend I was hanging out with Anthony Adams, who was on the team when I first got there, Peanut Tillman, Nathan Vasher, Johnny Knox, Jason McKie, they were all over at my house. A lot of defensive guys because I practiced against those guys every day. I would watch them, because you look at the 2006 Super Bowl defense and it was Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Peanut, Mike Brown. Adewale Ogunleye, and they were still there once I got there, So as a rookie, I got to see how real professionals conducted themselves and compete against them in practice every day.
THE MMQB: When you go to a Bears game today, 90 percent of the jerseys in the crowd are wearing jerseys of retired players—yours is popular, Ditka, Walter Payton, Dick Butkus, etc. The fan base has been kind of stuck in the past. Do you think the Bears are finally going to be creating a new era now with new head coach and a young offense?
FORTE: I hope so. I want there to be some continuity there. When I was with the Bears I had three different head coaches and five different offensive coordinators and three different general managers, so there is no consistency, You look at the Patriots, you see consistency there, right? Bill Belichick has been there forever, the quarterback has been there forever. I’m not saying those type of guys come along every day. but it is hard to win if you don’t have that consistency. They just switched coaches again [to Matt Nagy], and I hope can stay around for a long time and I think [GM] Ryan Pace is doing a pretty good job of getting the players and coaches around that make sense.
THE MMQB: What souvenirs do you plan keep from your career?
FORTE: I got a bunch of jerseys and helmets that I traded with different guys, but the main thing would be four mannequins, two with my Pro Bowl uniforms, one with the Bears and one with the Jets uniform. And also I can interchange any of them with college, because I still have college jerseys. I think back, what would be cool as a kid to go see? My dad had this huge trophy that he got from being team captain at Tulane, and I always thought that was the coolest thing in the world. So seeing the full uniform with the helmets and shoulder pads, I feel like my kids will think it’s pretty awesome.
THE MMQB: Do you remember the hardest hit you took in your career? When was it?
FORTE: The first game. I went ahead and got it out of the way. I got my “Welcome to the NFL” hit in the first game. I caught a screen pass and I was dragging a linebacker, he got my ankle, and I was trying to get more yards and I saw Bob Sanders coming at me the last second. He is known for being a hitter, and he got my shoulder—he got up underneath my shoulder pad and it hit right on my deltoid and my arm was like a noodle for like a minute. I had to come out of the game for a second, and then I went back in. I was proud that I took his hit and then went back in the game and finished. That was the hardest hit, and I realized after the game, once you’re struggling for more yards and the play is over with, just go down. Live to fight another day.
THE MMQB: Are you worried about the future of football? Where do you think the sport is headed?
FORTE: Parents not wanting their kids to play in little league football is ridiculous. I played starting at seven years old, and we’re not running fast enough to give anybody concussions and do all that stuff. I don’t know anybody I played with that had a concussion playing little league football because we were so tiny, we weren’t even running hard enough, and that’s when the helmet technology wasn’t even close to where it is now. The helmet technology is getting better. They are continuing to do studies to work on keeping head trauma down. It is scary because of CTE and different guys getting that, and I am glad that was brought to the attention of everyone so we can take those preventive steps. What benefit is it to play 10 years in the league if you can’t even function five, 10, 15, years after you’re done playing?
I’m all about wanting to make the game a safer game but still keeping the game and the integrity of the game as NFL football. It is thin line, and it is hard to say. I don’t have the answer for it. You want to change the rules to make it safer, but at the same time this isn’t a game to make friends. When I go out there on game day, I might know somebody on the other team, but when the ball snaps in between the lines, we’re not friends and I ain’t trying to make friends. I’m trying to impose my will and win the game. Football is not nice, and it’s not meant to be. It’s tough when people’s lives are being changed or altered through the physicality of the sport. I don’t have the answer.
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