Driving Force



Oct. 27, 2007

By Nakia Hogan
New Orleans Times Picayune

Matt Forté has done some remarkable things in '07.The letters were coming in the mail, but no phone calls followed.

The yardage and the touchdowns were racking up, yet few recruiters were watching.

Matt Forté was doing all he could as a high school prospect, and it didn't seem to matter.

Not to the big schools, anyway, the ones he dreamed about playing for, the ones from the Southeastern Conference and the Big 12.

"It was kind of difficult, I would say," Forté said of his recruiting process coming out of Slidell in 2004. "I really didn't know what was going to happen. I knew I was playing well and everything. At least somebody knew about me. But as far as the whole recruiting process, I really didn't know how I was supposed to get my name out there."

Forté figured he was doing enough.

Sharing the rushing load as a junior in a pass-happy spread offense, Forté rushed for 1,057 yards and eight touchdowns. He also showed he could catch the football, grabbing 30 passes for 365 yards and three scores. He was selected to the all-district team. All seemed well.

The town of Slidell was abuzz about its running back. Forté had good size (6 feet 1, 200 pounds at the time) and speed (10.8 in the 100 meters). He had the potential to be the best player Slidell had produced since Reggie Cooper signed with Nebraska in 1987.

The Slidell football office certainly would be filled with college coaches beating down the door to get Forte to sign. The only one to come, though, was McNesse State, where Forté's older brother Bryan was a freshman. The Cowboys offered Forte a scholarship.

Good, Forté thought. Not quite what he was expecting, but it was a building block for his senior season, in which he became be the featured back.

"I started thinking," Forté said, "it's not too bad. At least you have a scholarship. Some people don't have any."



Running for more

Forté had more than just "a scholarship." He also had time -- his senior season -- to gain more yardage, to build his reputation. So off he went, working extra hard during his final prep season.

He ran sprints at night on the street in front of this parents' home. He changed his diet, eating pastas and roasted chicken breast and fresh vegetables. And he spent more time in the weight room.

Whenever Bryan was in town, he and Matt worked out together.

"He's always had that drive," Bryan said. "But I didn't notice it until his senior year in high school. We really started working hard and started trying to earn a scholarship, trying to make a name for himself.

"I used to come home from McNeese and he'd be out at midnight or one in the morning running sprints in the street."

The extra work paid off. Forté rushed for 1,375 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior. He caught 18 passes for 253 yards and two touchdowns.

After the season, the accolades came. He was awarded the District 5-5A offensive MVP. He was picked the St. Tammany Player of the Year, and he earned a spot on the All-Metro team and second team all-state.

By now, the mailbox was filled. Letters came from LSU, Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and as far away as UCLA and Washington.

Forté had reached the big time, or so he thought. The Slidell prospect was far from a blue-chip prospect.

He didn't know that, though.

"I wasn't too educated on the whole recruiting process," Forté said. "I knew a little bit about it because of my brother. I would get letters. But you get letters from everywhere. I thought since I was getting letters from everywhere that meant they were recruiting me."

But the letters were only inquiries.

Forté, ecstatic about the postcards from Nick Saban and Bobby Bowden, quickly filled out all the paperwork and mailed them back to the universities. He had few responses.

"At first, I would get excited that I was getting letters," he said. "I just didn't realize that getting a letter is just saying that they know about you. It's not really anything special. A lot of people get letters."

Tulane interested

Garret Chachere knew all about Forté. He was an assistant coach for the Green Wave, responsible for recruiting the St. Tammany area.

He watched as Forté blossomed as a high school senior. He knew Forté's father was a former Tulane football captain, and figured Forté was just the type of player the Green Wave needed.

Other coaches were not convinced. Sure Forté had the numbers, rushing for more than 2,400 yards and scoring 31 touchdowns in two seasons.

But some college coaches were concerned by his size and his future position. Now at 6-1, 218, Forté had an ideal physique. But his dad was a defensive lineman in college, and some coaches worried that Forté could balloon too big for the position.

Recruiters also worried that Forté wasn't a good fit for their offense. Some thought he'd be a good fullback. Others didn't know if he had enough carries out of an I-formation to be a major contributor at the collegiate level.

"Recruiting is an inexact science," said Chachere, in his first season as an assistant at Memphis, the team Tulane meets today in the Superdome for homecoming. "Sometimes people outthink themselves. Sometimes people think that somebody they have is better.

"I knew I had a jewel. The people at Slidell obviously knew we were getting a special back. At a certain point, you don't worry about what everybody else is thinking."

While other assistant coaches argued for other running backs, Chachere persuaded then-Tulane coach Chris Scelfo to offer Forté a scholarship.

"That's just how it works," Chachere said. "As a staff you have to decide if he's the guy we want to go after or not."

Meanwhile, Forté was fretting. His dream of playing big-time football was dying. Trying to comfort his son, Gene said not to give up hope.

"Maybe some team will come on late," he said.

Forté's father also said that the lack of interest could be a blessing. It could make for a lot less stress. As it turned out, Forté had a fairly stress-free decision to make -- Division I-A Tulane or Division I-AA McNeese State.

"It was easy for me," Forté said. "I was going to Tulane."

Making his mark at Tulane

On signing day, Forté was extremely happy. He was going to be a Division I-A running back with a chance to get early playing time.

He also was motivated. It was time to make all the schools that passed on him pay.

As a freshman, he started three games, rushed for 624 yards and was picked to the C-USA All-Freshman team.

In 2005, again sharing the load with Jovon Jackson and starting six games, Forté led the Green Wave with 655 yards.

Last season was his time to take over the spotlight. He started the first nine games, and rushed for 859 yards and eight touchdowns before suffering a season-ending knee injury.

But Forté wouldn't be slowed. He worked out twice a day to prepare for his senior season. He again had something to prove.

Despite missing most offseason drills, Forté is the nation's rushing leader, with 1,261 yards and 13 touchdowns in seven games. He has three consecutive games with at least 200 yards rushing -- unparalleled by Tulane back.

His coaches are in awe.

First-year offensive coordinator Dan Dodd coached former TCU star and San Diego Chargers All-Pro LaDainian Tomlinson and former New Mexico and Chicago Bears All-Pro linebacker Brian Urlacher, and he places Forté in that same category.

"The one thing that you look for at this level of football is do they dominate, not just hold their own, but dominate," Dodd said. "I've only been around three kids like that in my coaching career, one was Tomlinson, one was Urlacher, and then this kid (Forté). The thing that they have in common is they could take games over."

The next level

Forté always has had a dream to play in the NFL. That's why last spring at Tulane's junior day for professional scouts, Forté wanted to show the pro gurus that he had enough speed to go along with the power he packed inside his 6-2, 225-pound frame.

Forté ran the 40-yard dash in a less-than-impressive 4.6 seconds. A few NFL types told Forté he projected as a sixth-round pick.

That wasn't nearly good enough. So off he went, continuing to rehabilitate his knee, running the streets in the wee hours of the night, hoping to improve his stock.

And perhaps he has. Forté said he ran the 40 in 4.45 seconds this summer.

"In my opinion, he's a No. 1 draft choice," Tulane Coach Bob Toledo said. "But I don't draft. If somebody drafts him No. 1, they're going to be very, very pleased."

In recent weeks, the Tulane athletic facility has had more and more professional scouts drop by (Toledo estimates nearly 50) to take a look at Forte. He's obviously moving up draft boards.

ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. had Forte as the country's No. 5 senior running back. Todd McShay of Scout Inc. has tabbed Forté as one of the five seniors making the biggest move up draft charts.

However, there still are questions as to how high he can go, and scouts say Forté's speed might ultimately decide his draft fate.

"He is a real productive player obviously," NFL scout Chris Landry said. "He runs hard. He's quick to the hole. He's got good vision. He's very competitive as a blocker. But the thing is he's not very fast. Just looking at his production numbers, which are off-the-charts good, doesn't translate into that good of a pro prospect.

"I think he can go on the first day. . . . He's going to make a team as a guy who can a really good all-purpose type back."

Forté isn't buying that. Just as he didn't buy it that he wasn't good enough to get a scholarship offer out of high school.

"That made me frustrated (to hear his draft prospects), made me determined," Forté said. "I expect so much out of myself. I expect to be a first round pick.

"Tulane is not widely publicized, and I didn't go over 1,000 yards last year, so I expected they would (project) me there. So that gave me the determination this summer to do whatever I can to get a whole lot better and be the best running back in the nation year."