By Chris Emma—
CHICAGO (CBS) – For eight years, running back Matt Forte has sprinted, juked, danced, celebrated and scored around Soldier Field. He’s made a living being elusive for Chicago. But what perhaps was his final moment in a Bears uniform was marked by a slow, satisfying walk.
After the Bears’ 24-20 loss to the Lions in their season finale, fans waited near the northwest tunnel of Soldier Field, hoping to salute their hero. A sign at the 20-yard line honored one of the franchise’s all-time greats: “Thanks for the smiles, Matt.” The support of Bears fans overwhelmed Forte as he walked off the field. He wanted to repay the loyal fans, despite the loss.
“It puts a smile on my face,” Forte said. “I can actually make people smile by running the football.”
Forte has plenty to smile about. While no Bears player may ever reach the level of excellence set by Walter Payton, what Forte brought to the city over eight seasons is something that deserves its own recognition.
Through so many good times and bad, Forte exuded exceptional class. His example is something for Chicago to long remember, because he worked. Forte has never been the biggest or fastest running back, but he was willing to work harder than anyone.
Contract uncertainty looms for Forte, who has proved at the age of 30 that he’s still an impact player. The questions aren’t about productivity; rather, they’re about what general manager Ryan Pace wants for his team’s future. The Bears have backup plans in rookie Jeremy Langford and second-year back Ka’Deem Carey, meaning they can move on from Forte if so desired.
What’s next for Forte’s future was far from his focus Sunday, but he went about his business as though this would be his finale in Chicago. During huddles on offense, Forte looked around Soldier Field and appreciated what he had for eight years.
“As a young player, it goes by so fast,” Forte said. “You kind of take it for granted.”
Forte wanted to take it all in for what could be one last time. And, fittingly, he had one last moment for Bears fans, too.
In the fourth quarter, Forte caught a quick strike from Jay Cutler, moved toward the sideline, then quickly shifted back. He made a man miss and found the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown. Soldier Field erupted, knowing his 64th touchdown – third all-time in Bears history – could go down as the last.
“I played with a lot of awesome players and future Hall of Famers,” Bears guard Matt Slauson said. “But, Matt, to me, is the absolute best.”
Every fan of the Bears has a favorite Forte memory. It could be a meeting with their hero or simply a terrific touchdown. His legacy will live in Chicago for a long time. Above all, what should resonate about Forte is his excellent example. He’s a humble star, still vastly underrated in and out of Chicago, who has quietly and graciously gone about his business.
Forte put in the work and reaped the rewards, carrying himself elegantly along the way. In what may be his final season in Chicago, Forte went out of his way to mentor Langford and Carey as his potential replacements.
“It’s hard to explain how much I learned from him,” Langford said. “I’ve learned a lot on how to be a professional, how to compete every game – in it or not – and how to finish, just like he did today.”
Added Carey: “Just to have my first two years under him, it’s been a blessing. He taught me a lot of things, on and off the field.”
Speaking about his contract uncertainty once more, Forte reiterated that he hopes to finish his career with the Bears. The franchise is “special” to him, and the added positive would be not uprooting his family from their home. If the price is right, the Bears would be wise to bring Forte back for 2016, but that’s a big if that lies ahead.
In recent years, the Bears closed the book on the stellar careers of Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs and Charles Tillman, with some of those exits unceremonious. Forte may not leave Chicago on his own terms when free agency comes, so he did so Sunday.
Whether Sunday’s walk off Soldier Field marks the end of Forte’s Bears career remains to be seen, but if it was, he handled it like everything else from his eight seasons in Chicago – with pure class.
“I just pray that my time here was appreciated by the fans,” Forte said. “I just want them to know I appreciate them, too.”