By LENNY VANGILDER, Written for the LSWA
Recruiting services listed Matt Forte as a fullback coming out of Slidell High School. He would make his mark over four years at Tulane and 10 more in the NFL as a lead back.
To his former high school coach, Wayne Grubb, the letters next to his name didn’t matter.
“I always referred to him as a football player,” Grubb said. “He did other things like run track, but he was a football player.”
Forte – who rolled up more than 3,000 yards from scrimmage in high school, another 5,000 at Tulane and better than 14,000 in 10 seasons in the NFL – is part of the 2023 induction class of the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
The Induction Celebration in Natchitoches is July 27-29, with information and tickets available at LaSportsHall.com or by calling 318-238-4255.
Underrated might have also been an accurate way to describe Forte, who was rated only a two-star recruit by Rivals.com.
Current Slidell High School principal Larry Favre had a unique vantage point to Forte’s high school career – the opposite sideline. As head coach at Fontainebleau High School in 2002 and 2003, Favre’s teams faced Forte and Slidell three times – twice in the regular season and once in the playoffs.
“He had over 800 yards in those three games against us,” Favre said. “I always told Matt that when it was time for (recruiting visits), all he had to do was put those Fontainebleau tapes in.”
Grubb changed the offense right about the time Forte arrived on his doorstep.
“We had run the Wing T offense for about 16 years,” he said. “We had receivers coming in and had a quarterback who could throw the football, so we went to the spread and eventually the one-back. Matt was the featured point of the offense but he wasn’t the only one.
“Our offense was built around him. We ran draw plays, power plays, screens. It was built around Matt and his abilities.”
Added Favre, “They had just gone to the spread offense, and here you have Matt Forte. He’s a punishing back, you can line him up in the slot, he was a dual threat … which just made their offense unstoppable at the time.”
Not only would Forte be a leader offensively, he would have a Pied Piper effect on the rest of the Tigers.
“Sometimes people have an effect on other players to get the best out of them,” Grubb said. “Matt was one of those guys. The other kids wanted to follow him.”
That was apparent in Forte’s junior season in 2002, when the Tigers went undefeated and earned the No. 2 seed in the Class 5A playoffs. Slidell won a pair of playoff games before losing to West Monroe in the quarterfinals.
To a degree, Forte was ahead of his time. By the time his high school career was over, not only had he posted a pair of 1,000-yard rushing seasons with 31 touchdowns, but he caught 48 passes and had another five receiving touchdowns. He earned St. Tammany Parish player of the year and District 5-5A offensive MVP honors as a senior.
On the recruiting front, LSU showed some interest, but the Tigers’ head coach at the time, Nick Saban, was only signing one back in the 2004 recruiting class – Jacob Hester of Evangel Christian.
Tulane was on Forte early and he committed to the Green Wave shortly after his high school football career ended in December 2003, following in the footsteps of his father, Gene, who played for the Wave in the 1970s and was captain of the 1977 squad.
As a freshman, Forte was the Green Wave’s second-team running back for much of the year behind Jovon Jackson. When Jackson was injured in the eighth game of the season, Forte got his chance the following week against Army … and delivered.
He would finish with 216 rushing yards and three touchdowns and three catches for 67 yards and another score in the Green Wave’s 45-31 victory.
Hurricane Katrina helped derail Forte’s sophomore season in 2005, and his junior year in 2006 was cut short by injury. Still, he had five 100-yard rushing games in 2006, and a healthy Forte in 2007 was a load that most opposing defenses could not handle.
He started piling up the numbers in a victory over Southeastern Louisiana in the third week of the season – 40 carries for school records of 303 yards and five touchdowns.
The yardage record lasted all of 28 days. Four Saturdays later at SMU, Forte had 38 carries for 342 yards and four touchdowns in a victory over the Mustangs.
Forte would finish his senior season as only the 11th player in Football Bowl Subdivision history to top to top the 2,000-yard mark on the ground.
His 361 carries, 2,127 yards, 23 rushing touchdowns and eight consecutive 100-yard games all remain school records. Forte also set Tulane career records with 4,265 rushing yards, 5,261 all-purpose yards, 39 rushing touchdowns and 44 total touchdowns.
“My youngest son and Matt were real good friends – they were classmates and teammates,” Grubb said. “My son and I would go to the Superdome and watch Matt play. He was so big, so strong and so fast. (His accomplishments) didn’t surprise me.”
The Chicago Bears selected Forte with the 44th overall pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, and it wouldn’t take him long to land in the same spotlight that had previously been occupied by the likes of Gale Sayers and Walter Payton.
“They have a great history of running backs that came through there,” Forte said after being selected by Chicago. “Hopefully I can take over and become one of those guys who makes history as a Chicago Bear just like they did.”
The Bears’ 2008 season opener was in prime time against the Indianapolis Colts, who were opening Lucas Oil Stadium. He got the start and on the Bears’ second possession and his fourth career carry, Forte broke through for a 50-yard touchdown run.
Forte finished with 123 rushing yards in a 29-13 Bears victory.
“A lot of the (college) coaches who came in to recruit Matt, they were worried about his speed,” Grubb said. “Against the Colts … he outran everybody in the secondary. That told me Matt could run with everybody in the NFL.”
Forte would finish his rookie season with 1,236 yards rushing, 63 receptions, more than 1,700 yards from scrimmage and a dozen total touchdowns. That, however, would be good for only fourth in The Associated Press’ NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year voting.
In eight seasons with the Bears, Forte’s worst rushing season was 898 yards. He topped the 1,000-yard mark five times, including a career best 1,339 yards in 2013, when he earned his second Pro Bowl selection.
In 2014, Forte joined an exclusive club. He had 1,038 yards rushing and 102 receptions, joining eventual Pro Football Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson as the only NFL players at that time to top 1,000 yards and 100 catches (Christian McCaffrey has since joined the group).
After eight seasons with Chicago in which he rolled up 8,602 rushing yards and 45 touchdowns, Forte moved on to the New York Jets, where he played his final two seasons.
In his NFL off-seasons, Forte would come home to give back, first hosting camps at the place where his football career began, the Slidell Youth Football Association, and later at his high school alma mater.
In 2016, however, the roles got reversed. When Forte hosted a youth camp at Slidell High, there would be more on the agenda.
“He presented us a check for $50,000,” said Favre, who was then the Tigers’ head coach, “which we used to completely renovate the weight room, which still looks brand new to this day. He has always given back to the Slidell community through his football camps.
“When he came, we surprised him – his family knew. After he presented us with the check, we presented him with his retired jersey.”
Forte became the third player in Slidell history to have his jersey retired, joining former LSU offensive lineman Mike Gambrell and Nebraska All-America safety Reggie Cooper, who also used their time at Slidell as a springboard to college success.
“I love to give back to these kids,” Forte said following the jersey retirement. “When I grew up here, I looked up to professional athletes. I know how much of an impact I have on these kids, and we can propel them forward in their lives.
“I was in their shoes at one point. I got great advice from my father, who was a football player, as well. So it’s only right that I give them good advice, and let them know I’ve been through where they are, and I’ve done the things they’re trying to do. I know the route they need to take.”
For someone as grounded in his faith as Forte, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that when he announced his retirement in February 2018 after a decade in the NFL, it wasn’t a story given to ESPN or a major NFL writer, but to the faith-based website Sports Spectrum.
“After much prayer and reflection, I’ve decided to retire from the NFL,” Forte said in his statement. “Like so many others before me, this game has enhanced my life in numerous ways. My career in the League has been nothing short of a miracle granted by God and put on display for His glory. I will cherish the many memories made on the field and the lifelong friends I’ve made over the years in the locker room.
“The past 25 years playing America’s game have left me with unparalleled joy. But, it’s time for the workhorse to finally rest in his stable.”
His decade in the NFL was indeed that of a workhorse – 2,356 rushes for 9,796 yards and 68 touchdowns, to go along with 554 catches for 4,672 yards and another 21 scores. In 146 career games, Forte touched the ball an average of 20 times per game.
In his post-playing days, Forte continues to assist in community efforts, working with the team at Biblica Ministry, speaking at churches, and assisting youth and families through his What’s Your Forte Foundation.
His impact – on and off the field – isn’t lost on those back at his former high school.
“When you look at his entire career, no one has had that career during my 23 years in St. Tammany,” said Favre. “To do it at Tulane, and the NFL, and now going into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame, he’s the most accomplished player to come from St. Tammany (Parish).”