Sept. 2, 2007
By Ted Lewis
New Orleans Times Picayune
People can't seem to say enough good things about Matt Forté.
Take first-year Tulane Coach Bob Toledo. He has never seen Forté, a senior tailback, in a live game or a even a scrimmage. Toledo chose to hold Forté out of full contact in preseason drills after he spent the spring recovering from a 2006 knee injury.
But that doesn't keep Toledo from calling Forté his best player.
"He's got size, he's got strength, he's got quickness, he's got great vision, he's got great power, he can catch the football, he can do it all," Toledo said.
And on top of that, he's a great kid.
"If I had bunch of Matt Fortés, we'd win a bunch of football games."
Tulane President Scott Cowen offers this endorsement: "Matt Forté is the model Tulane student-athlete. First, he wants to get a Tulane degree, and Matt qualifies for that (Forté is on track to graduate in the spring with a degree in finance).
"And then he has the kind of values that make you proud to have him represent (Tulane) in the community. And third, he is a tremendous talent."
Finally, Brian King, a teammate at Slidell High and Tulane: "Tulane found a special person in Matt."
Don't think the school doesn't know it.
The athletic department has been quick to make Forté the first and foremost player representative of the program, down to modeling the team's new uniforms.
That he's the team's top offensive player, one who was on track to become the school's third 1,000-yard rusher before being sidelined nine games into last season, is obviously a part of it. Even that abbreviated season was enough to merit Forté's being selected Tulane's male athlete of the year for 2006-07.
"Matt is a role model for all the players," said Artie Liuzza, Forté's coach at Slidell. "He's the kind of person you want your son to be."
All of those accolades are a big responsibility to shoulder, but Forté accepts them, especially the leadership role on a team still struggling to overcome its 2005 season of exile because of Hurricane Katrina and now a coaching change.
The Green Wave goes into its season opener Saturday against Mississippi State as a consensus last-place pick in Conference USA and ranked among the bottom teams in the country.
"When you have a lot of people talking about you and all that, you have to be aware of your surroundings, because everybody is watching you all of the time," Forté said. "On campus, I'll be hanging out with my buddies talking about doing something to have fun, and I'll remind them to think before you act and don't do anything stupid.
"I don't want people thinking I'm not the guy I'm supposed to be. It's a reflection of the way I was brought up."
Neither is Forté one to make excuses for Tulane's bad fortune, or his own.
Of the team's nomadic odyssey of 2005 that turned a season of promise into one of survival, he said, "It was tough, but my family was OK and we were playing football. I prayed a lot and knew everything would be all right. The world wasn't over."
Or on the firing of Chris Scelfo after last season: "Everything happens for a reason. Coach Toledo is highly respected. The best thing that could happen for this university and the football team was to get a coach like that, and we did."
Or on the lack of fans at Tulane games: "If you win games, you put people in the stands. It doesn't bother me when people don't turn out. If we start out 6-0, everybody will jump on the bandwagon. If we're 0-6, they're not going to be there."
Or on his injury: "I hated it because I'd had about 100 yards for four or five games in a row (Forté was No. 19 nationally in rushing and No. 16 in all-purpose yards at the time), and it happened when was I making the tackle after an interception. But when you play football, injuries are going to happen. It's not like my career's over. You just work to get better and get back out there."
Working to get better is not something Forté just discovered. In fact, in his summer between high school and Tulane, Forté's father, Gene, awoke in the wee hours one morning to discover that Matt wasn't in the house.
"Matt's not a kid that goes out to bars and stuff at night," said Gene Forté, who played defensive tackle for the Green Wave in the mid-1970s. "So we were pretty worried. Then we looked outside, and he was running sprints, just getting himself ready for college."
It's Forté's continuing desire to improve himself, much more than his words, that inspires his teammates.
"He's a gym rat," said quarterback and roommate Scott Elliott. "He's a fun guy to be around, but he also sets the tempo for everybody."
This summer, Forté regularly went through two workouts each day, running in one and lifting in the other, while most of his teammates limited themselves to a single activity.
"Your body tells you that you're tired and can't go on," Forté said. "But then your mind tells you that you can't quit."
Forté's regimen isn't for everybody.
"He got me to do it a couple of times," King said. "But I couldn't hang with him. I wanted to, though. Matt's just that type of person."
It's not that Forté doesn't say anything to his teammates. At practice and in games, he can be alternatingly encouraging and demanding.
He's also known as a jokester, one who loves to quote dialogue from his favorite movie, "Friday."
But there are few big speeches.
"That would be asking Matt to step outside of his personality," senior center Aryan Barto said. "We follow Matt because of his work ethic. He's the spirit of the team."
The work ethic comes from Gene Forté, who told Matt in junior high that if he wanted to be better than average, he would have to do a little more than everyone else -- even though from his earliest days in rec league football, "I saw him do some things that just came from God-given talent."
And in a roundabout way, it came from Matt's older brother, Bryan, who was a two-year starter at linebacker at McNeese State.
"I've actually learned from his mistakes," Matt said. "Bryan relied on his talent more than his work ethic. It's like in high school when I started running track to get faster, and I did. You reap what you sow."
Forté was an All-Metro running back at Slidell, rushing for 1,375 yards with 23 touchdowns as senior. But Tulane was the only Division I-A school to offer him a scholarship.
"Lots of people were interested in him, but nobody else was pulling the trigger," said Green Wave running backs coach Greg Davis, the only holdover from the Scelfo staff. "Here was a big (6 feet 2, 215 pounds in high school, now 229), productive back with an excellent background.
"We felt like we were getting a steal."
Davis said Forté had a lot to learn, like knowing when to use his speed, how to use his power and especially how to block.
But he made quick strides in all three areas, starting three games as a freshman in 2004 and sharing the team rushing lead with 624 yards. Forté improved that to a team-best 655 yards in 2005 and had 859 yards at a 5.3 yards-per-carry clip with eight touchdowns before his injury.
That puts Forté No. 7 on the school career rushing list, and he needs only 957 more to move into second place behind Mewelde Moore.
With Toledo switching from the spread to the West Coast offense, with more reliance on the running game, that's very likely to happen. Since Forté is also a capable receiver (71 career receptions), Toledo is looking to get the ball in his hands at least 25 times per game. That is fine with Forté.
"In the spread, I just had the five offensive linemen in front of me," he said. "Now I've got a fullback and tight end. When I see NFL games and they're running the sets we run, and I see some of the plays I'll be running, I get excited thinking what we can do."
Forté also sees a new attitude brought about by the coaching change.
"There's a lot different expectation level for everybody," he said. "They've worked us really hard in camp, and it's been the most productive since I've been here.
"Practices are so much more smoother, and it seems like we're getting a lot more done in a short amount of time than we had before."
Whether that translates into more success remains to be seen. Just getting to a bowl game, something Tulane hasn't done since 2002, would be considered a major achievement.
"We've talked about getting to that level since I've been here," Forté said. "It's something every player should experience. And it would mean that we've gotten Tulane football back on track."
That goal might seem a little more attainable, given Mississippi State's performance against LSU.
But Forté, who rushed for 170 yards and a touchdown in the Green Wave's 32-29 victory against the Bulldogs last season, isn't taking anything for granted.
"They were pretty tough on defense to me," he said. "They went out there and played hard. It's our first game, in the Superdome and all that, so we're going to be excited. But we've got to get our minds right if we're going to beat them."
Spoken like a leader, on and off the field.