Matt Forte never tires of being Bears' go-to guy

David Haugh
Chicago Tribune
Matt Forte never gets tired of being one of Bears' most indispensable parts.

Of all the history Matt Forte has made for the Bears, what happened Sept. 12, 2010, stands out in his mind.

That was the day Forte gained 201 total yards in a home victory over the Lions but, for the only time the running back can recall in seven NFL seasons, he lost his breath.

"I ran like an (89-yard) screen right before halftime (for a touchdown),'' Forte said Thursday at Halas Hall. "I was breathing hard on the sidelines. At halftime, I got to recover. I was lucky.''

As they say, luck is simply what happens when preparation meets opportunity. And since he was drafted in the second round of the 2008 NFL draft, no Bears player has come more consistently prepared than Forte — whom quarterback Jay Cutler claimed he never has seen fatigued on Sundays.

"Even whenever we do take him out, he seems to be sitting on the sideline just waiting to come back in,'' Cutler said. "You never see him go over and look for oxygen or sit down and he's completely gassed.''

The best running back in Bears history not named Walter Payton attributes such endurance to an offseason training regimen similar to one "Sweetness'' made famous. Roughly three times a week in the offseason, Forte runs up a hill near his home, occasionally wearing a 15-pound vest for 80-yard sprints to build his stamina to levels that astonish teammates. During the season, Forte keeps his body conditioned by meeting twice a week with a physical therapist and a masseuse. He also incorporates "a lot of prayer.''

All the sweat equity has turned Forte one of the NFL's smartest investments.

Cutler creates controversy without trying. Brandon Marshall manufactures drama without acting. Martellus Bennett tries every interview to get people laughing. But on the Bears offense, Forte quietly has become the cog as hard as any to replace. When this week's Sports Illustrated called Forte the league's most important running back to his team, heads all over town nodded.

"In terms of understanding courses on the run, reading the proper keys of defensive linemen, he's a patient runner,'' Bears coach Marc Trestman said. "He's of very high football intelligence. We're not just handing him the football and he's blindly running into space.''

Envisioning this kind of success kept Forte focused during his protracted contract talks that finally produced a four-year, $32.1 million deal in July 2012. General manager Phil Emery closed negotiations that predecessor Jerry Angelo couldn't, one of Emery's biggest coups. After the Tribune reported in May 2012 that a potential holdup was the Bears' concern over the long-term health of Forte's knees, Forte posted a video pushing a 100-pound sled uphill.

"I think my knee will be OK,'' the caption read.

A picture was worth 2,691 yards — Forte's rushing total since he re-signed. Most important, Forte has played in 35 of 36 possible games since the Tribune report rankled him. Forte boldly disputed any suggestion he wouldn't last. Then he backed it up.

"It's very important to be durable because there's a perception out there that running backs really don't last that long,'' said Forte, who turns 29 in December. "It's important to me to be on the field just because I want to help my team win and I can't do that not being on the field."

By the time Forte's career ends — does he have three more productive years if he avoids injury? — he likely will go down as the best running back in a 2008 NFL draft that included five first-rounders at the position. By season's end, Forte likely will pass Chris Johnson of the Jets, chosen 20 spots ahead of him, in total yards from scrimmage. He already surpassed '08 first-rounders Darren McFadden of the Raiders and Jonathan Stewart of the Panthers, Sunday's counterpart. The other two first-round running backs, Felix Jones and Rashard Mendenhall, are out of football. So is Ray Rice, taken 11 picks after Forte. That leaves Forte and third-round pick Jamaal Charles of the Chiefs.

"I do look at the guys who came in the same year as me because I think we had a really good draft class and a lot of guys are still being successful," Forte said. "It always is (competitive)."

The fire within Forte drives a competitor who's indispensable. The fluidity defines a runner who's indefatigable.

"I think to be motivated by stats is a little bit selfish, and I'm not a selfish player, (but) what motivates me is a lot of things: My family, working hard to provide for them, and just this opportunity God has given me,'' Forte said. "I don't just want to be a player that played this game and was a good running back. When I leave the game, I want them to be able to say things about me that leaves a mark in the NFL for a long time.''

In Chicago, they will say this: Only one Bears running back ever played the position better.

dhaugh@tribune.com

Twitter @DavidHaugh

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