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Don’t bet against Bears running back Matt Forte

Ever since he was kid Bears running back Matt Forte’s work ethic has been one keys his success football field.

Ever since he was a kid, Bears running back Matt Forte’s work ethic has been one of the keys to his success on the football field. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Forte’s rushing and receiving numbers with the Bears:

Year G Att. Yds. Avg. TD Rec. Yds. Avg. TD

2008 16 316 1,238 3.9 8 63 477 7.6 4

2009 16 258 929 3.6 4 57 471 8.3 0

2010 16 237 1,069 4.5 6 51 547 10.7 3

Total 48 811 3,236 4.0 18 171 1,495 8.7 7

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Updated: November 16, 2011 1:22AM

SLIDELL, La. — Matt Forte made his NFL aspirations known when he first picked up a football at age 7, and he ignored anyone who discouraged or even tried to temper his goal.

Including his parents.

A captain at Tulane in 1977, Gene Forte provided his son with a detailed breakdown of the number of high school football players who earn college scholarships and the small percentage of those who actually play in the NFL.

Gene recalls telling Matt when he was in middle school, ‘‘There are only 2,000 people in the United States who are going to play professional football every year.”

To which Matt replied, “And I’m going to be one of those 2,000.”

Matt’s in the NFL, of course, and he’s one of the league’s most productive and versatile running backs. But he’s largely overlooked, just as he was coming out of high school and college, not even ranking among the top 100 players in an NFL Network special this offseason.

“He was under the radar then,” Gene said, “just as he is now.”

But Matt isn’t fueled by those slights, instead leaning on his faith, specifically Romans 8:28: “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”

He doesn’t know what his future holds, but one of his immediate concerns is to sign a long-term extension with the Bears. Under his current deal, Matt is scheduled to make $550,000, $725,000 less than his backup, Chester Taylor, who last offseason signed a three-year contract that guaranteed him $7 million.

General manager Jerry Angelo said the team’s “intent” is to work out a deal, but running-back contracts are tricky. Matt plays one of the game’s most indispensable positions, but one that league executives generally plug with dispensable players.

The question for a running back is always this: He’s proved durable and effective, but for how many more years?

But people in Slidell and New Orleans know not to bet against Matt Forte.

Shaped in Slidell

After graduating from Tulane, Gene Forte received some invitations to NFL training camps but immediately accepted a job at Shell instead. After a few years, Gene and Gilda decided they wanted to settle in a community that would nurture their two boys, Matt and Brian.

About 30 miles northeast of New Orleans, Slidell was established in the 1880s, when a new railroad connected New Orleans to Meridian, Miss.

It’s a charming community, where children can safely ride bikes to the many parks and where locals regularly greet strangers with a hug.

The public schools are well-regarded, and the streets are quiet by 10 p.m.

“It was the perfect place to grow up,” Matt said.

A boy with boundless energy, Matt could ride his bike on assorted trails to different parks that had basketball and tennis courts and even a swimming pool. While Brian is laid-back, Matt is constantly on the go. On weekends and in the summer, he’d wake up at 8 a.m., pick up a tennis ball and throw it against the garage until other kids came to play with him.

“He always was looking for something to do,” Gilda said. “The only time he was quiet was when he was asleep.”

When he was 4, Matt watched his brother play soccer and cried because he wasn’t allowed to play. But he participated in soccer, baseball, basketball, gymnastics, karate and swimming, although his father wouldn’t let him play football until he was 7.

“He actually wanted me to play baseball or golf,” Matt said. “He said you could play those until you’re 40.”

Gene, after all, didn’t pursue the NFL largely because of three knee operations in college.

He coached his boys in numerous sports, although he headed to his office with Shell at 4:30 a.m.

“Gene was such an involved parent,” said Gilda, who did her part as well, hosting film sessions at the house. “He didn’t give them opportunities [to get in trouble]. Things were always so structured.”

As he looked back, though, Matt said he was thankful his parents provided such a great childhood for him and his brother.

“I appreciate and respect my mom and dad for how they raised us,” Matt said. “They provided more than enough for me and my brother to be successful.”

Unusual drive

When Matt first said he wanted to be a professional football player, Gene told him he’d have to work harder than anyone else.

“That must have been a profound statement because he always worked harder than everyone else,” Gene said.

And he started young.

When he was 8, Matt’s father bought a pull-up bar that attached to the top of the door. Every night, Matt would jump up, grab the bar and do as many pull-ups as he could.

When he was 10, Matt read a story that said carbonated beverages can lead to cramping.

He hasn’t had a soda since.

When he was 16, unprompted by his parents, Matt headed to Sunday school at 8:45 a.m. every week.

His parents would show up for the 11 a.m. service.

And before his freshman year at Tulane, Matt’s mother discovered him outside their house, running sprints in the street — at 1:30 in the morning.

“He has an unparalleled work ethic,” said Greg Davis, the running backs coach at Tulane. “Nobody’s going to outwork him.”

After dominating at Slidell High School, Matt only received two scholarship offers, one from Tulane (where his father went) and one from McNeese State (where his brother went).

Upon arriving at Tulane, the Green Wave had a junior who had played behind Mewelde Moore, only the second NCAA player to gain 4,000 rushing yards and 2,000 receiving yards. The coaching staff also had recruited three other running backs, including a highly touted one from Houston.

“Matt was the least recruited of the bunch,” Davis said.

Gene told Matt he should expect to be redshirted.

But after only a couple of spring practices, Davis and other coaches recognized Matt’s intelligence and athleticism.

Within two weeks, after starting at the bottom of a crowded depth chart, Matt climbed to No. 2. He started his first game in November, gaining 216 yards and scoring four touchdowns against Army.

“I don’t buy the hype thing,” Matt said. “You still got to go out and play.”

Whether the Bears give him the extension he wants or not, Forte intends to honor his rookie contract.

But he also suggested that waiting could make contract talks next year “more difficult.”

“You push your body to the limit all the time, and you produce,” Matt said, “you feel you should be compensated. I’ve heard Emmitt Smith say plenty of times: ‘A team always likes you to commit to them.’ ’’

But will the Bears commit to him?

Matt, 25, got married in July, and he has an infant boy, which makes security all the more important.

“The motivation is to provide for my family,” he said. “You can’t play this game forever. I like Chicago, and you want an extension so you could play your whole career here.”

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