"Guys, especially rookies, usually wear jeans or sweat suits, which is fine because they are comfortable," Bears coach Lovie Smith said. "I asked myself, 'What does this mean? What is he trying to say?'"
"It was my first day," he said. "I figured business attire. I believe the first impression is the most lasting impression."
The Bears had drafted this running back from Tulane last April in the second round, the 44th pick. Since five other backs were selected by other teams prior in that draft, how could this one manage to crawl in the footprints of BearsHall of Fame backs Driscoll, Grange, McAfee, Nagurski, Sayers and Payton? Maybe he could aptly spell Cedric Benson. Maybe there was a third-down role suiting him.
"We get him on the field right away," Smith recalled. "I already knew he could run. Some quickness? Yes, I see it. Hands. Yes. What kind of speed does he have? Yes, I see it. Tough guy? Yes. He didn't act like, 'I'm a high draft pick, so, everybody bow down to me.' He did what it took to be accepted on the field. And the answers were yes, yes and another yes. You can say yes now to every situation we have put him in on the field."
Benson was booted before the season opener, Forte grabbed the ball and the Bears hope they have found the axis of their offense for many seasons. That is how impacting Forte's first impression has been through 13 NFL games.
He leapt from hello to 269 carries -- third-most in the league.
He leads the Bears in rushing yards (1,081) and receptions (53), and is the first rookie back since LaDainian Tomlinson in 2001 to top 1,000 rushing yards and 50 catches. Only six NFL running backs have ever accomplished it.
Neither Sayers nor Payton as rookies gained more yards from scrimmage than Forte's current sum of 1,476. And Forte has three games left to increase that.
On Thursday night against the Saints in Chicago, Forte meets his boyhood team and a national audience. He grew up in Slidell, La., near New Orleans and this is what he wants all to see:
"A guy who has been working hard," Forte said. "On the field. Off the field. A guy who appreciates everything he gets and works hard for it. A guy who shows up to play. And has respect for the game."
Bears find their 'bell cow'
Nice fit, Forte.
A big back -- 6-foot-2, 216 pounds -- just the way the Bears like them. Elusive. Comes with a burst. Smooth. Premium hands. Marcus Allen-like. He has six rushing touchdowns and five receiving ones.
He knows who to block and is able to get that guy blocked.
His coaches say he has not whiffed on a block all season.
"He is definitely a skilled running back," his Bears position coach, Tim Spencer, said. "But pass protection takes a special type of running back. Only a few backs in this league take pride in delivering blows and being the enforcer, so to speak. And in those unfortunate times this season where our offense has had turnovers, he is the guy making the tackle and making the difference in that way. Yet, he does a good job of protecting his body. Only one hit stands out on him all season, (Colts safety) Bob Sanders, and that was our first game. He's smart. Give him anything and you can count on him."
A versatile back, a big back, a tough back, a fast, elusive and productive back. This is the way Smith always wants to build the Bears.
"Every offense seeks an identity," Smith said. "Who have the Chicago Bears been? We are a running team. Especially this time of year. Good defense and a running game you can count on. Good, tough offensive line. And you've got to have bell cow. It all adds up.
"He was a rookie coming in and he saw the opportunity right away. Cedric was a good back but had too much going on outside of football. Matt knew he was with a team that likes to run the ball. What running back would not love that? In a town like Chicago where blue-collar lives, they want to see you do your job. They appreciate it. We haven't given him anything. He expected to do well all along."
From the first day, suit and tie and all.
Spencer told Smith and the Bears that he liked Forte most among all backs before the draft. When Smith talked to the people at Tulane, it took a while for the conversation to turn to football. They wanted to talk about the person, the man off the field. About how Forte was "raised right" by his parents. They wanted to talk about the suit-and-tie guy.
"When I first came in, I thought I was probably working my way into a rotation with the other running backs," Forte said. "Be a role guy. But then when the starting opportunity came, I accepted it. It fits. I came into a good situation. I got an opportunity earlier than some people do. I wanted to take full advantage."
The total package
Benson is with the Bengals now. He notices from afar the name Forte is making for himself. He remembers a quiet Forte in training camp.
"My time there was short," Benson said. "I sat for two years. The third year I was hurt. The fourth year, this year, I got cut before the season. The fourth season was going to be my time. It looked like we would have had a 1-2 punch with me and Forte in there. He would have gotten the ball and that would have worked for me.
"He is having a great year, but when I see the highlights, I see holes. I see them using him in the slot, something they didn't do with me. If I was there right now with the holes I see, I'd probably have 1,800 yards right now. I definitely would have 1,500 by now. I congratulate him on all of his success. He is taking advantage."
Forte is doing it by being studious off the field. He knows the playbook so well that he often helps others with alignments and nuances in games. When he reaches the end zone, he looks to celebrate with teammates.
"Players do dances and all that stuff for attention," he said. "It's a team effort. I don't want it about me but the team."
His teammates and coaches say that Forte takes things seriously. Does things seriously. Among the Bears, he fits.
Minnesota's Adrian Peterson rushed for 1,341 yards as a rookie last season. With three games to go, Forte could surpass that total.
"We had an idea we had a good player," Smith said. "But no idea of the total package we gained. You never know when you draft a player what kind of player and person you really have. All the feedback I get from the community, the letters from those in our community who have been involved with him, are great. All of those things -- his play, his attitude, his respect -- are adding up."
Forte turned 23 on Wednesday. He said he would celebrate at home near Chicago, since his mother joined him from Louisiana to cook gumbo. He wants to be a spark that helps push the Bears into the playoffs.
To make an ever-lasting impression.
"I don't feel like a rookie out there," Forte said. "People tell me I don't' look like a rookie out there. This is a difficult, competitive game and I have respect for everyone out there on that field. It's the highest level of competition. I fit right into that."