How to beat a bear market

Matt Forte had a plan: He'd prove his worth and land a huge contract

Updated: August 24, 2012, 1:55 PM ET
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

Matt ForteFinlay MacKay for ESPN The MagazineThe 26-year-old running back spent the last year playing for pennies.

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MATT FORTE WAS OPEN TO THE MEETING. His agent had advised against it because NFL players typically don't attend their own contract negotiations. Players are inherently emotional, negotiations are inherently confrontational and this negotiation, between the Bears and Forte's agent, Adisa Bakari, had turned emotional and confrontational in the preceding weeks. But in late August, days before the 2011 regular season was to begin, Jerry Angelo, the Bears' GM at the time, asked Forte, the Bears' star running back, to sit down. Forte, by nature a people pleaser, said sure.

And with that decision, the very likable Matt Forte began to do what is often a very unlikable thing: He started campaigning for a massive raise. Both sides agreed that Forte's 2011 salary -- $600,000, the final amount due from his four-year, $3.7 million rookie contract -- was woefully low. The dispute was over how low. After ranking among the league leaders in yards from scrimmage and touchdowns through his first three seasons, Forte considered himself an elite running back worth $8 million a year, with guaranteed money around $20 million. Angelo's best offer was reportedly $6 million a year with $14 million guaranteed, and he wasn't budging.

Forte's options were limited. He had already decided against holding out, the method players believe is their biggest form of leverage. That just wouldn't work for a guy who takes his job so seriously that he showed up for his first rookie camp in 2008 wearing a suit. And he had decided against sulking, standing "at practice, arms folded," as he later put it. That risked losing what he considered to be his biggest advantage: "Me -- the person and player that I am."

He could sign Angelo's offer, understanding that the NFL is moving from a pass-first league to a pass-first, pass-second and pass-third league. But about a month earlier, DeAngelo Williams of the Panthers had signed a five-year, $43 million deal with $21 million guaranteed, and Forte's numbers since he entered the league were roughly on par with Williams'. I'm not going to sign a bad deal just because they force me to, he thought.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Finlay MacKay for ESPN The MagazineWant to make this guy mad? Tell him he's not as good as he thinks he is.

So he was left with only one comfortable, maybe naive, choice: Play for the league minimum for his experience level and bet that his play, his durability and his very being would eventually land him a long-term deal. "I'm going to be loyal to the team," he says now, recalling his thinking. "I'm going to be that guy, and good things are going to happen."

Almost none did, beginning with the first exchange between Forte and Angelo. "Why aren't you trying to pay me as an elite back?" Forte asked. The GM's response: "You haven't even made it to a Pro Bowl." As the discussion dissolved into the minutiae of Forte's popularity -- the Pro Bowl is partially voted on by fans, Bakari pointed out -- the meeting ended, and Forte entered the season with a very clear parting message from management: You are not as good as you think.

How could he argue otherwise? This was about more than Forte. It is the existential dilemma every football player faces: trying to convince teams that both demand and devalue your performance that you're worth more. And to do it without alienating everyone -- fans, teammates, even family -- in the process. Forte had a theory about what might work. Over the next 11 months, it did. Barely.


1. HE MOUTHED OFF, RESPECTIVELY
Forte wears his ego on his sleeve. Literally. His right arm is darkened with six tattoos, including "Truly Blessed" and "DD," short for deuce-deuce, meaning 22, his jersey number. Parts of his suburban Chicago home, where he lives with his wife, Danielle, have a love-me-some-me vibe. Lining the bookshelves of his study are 47 game balls, going back to his college days at Tulane. In the basement is a framed picture of his first touchdown -- a 50-yarder in the first quarter of his first game in 2008 -- after being drafted in the second round. Cleats and gloves -- which covered the feet that averaged 4.9 yards a carry last season and the hands that led or tied for the team lead in receptions in three of his four years -- are scattered. On the wall are framed pictures from his career at Slidell High in Louisiana. In his liquor cabinet is the box from a bottle of Forte Cuervo, labeled just for him. On a couch is the unwashed jersey he wore during his 25-carry, 205-yard game against the Panthers last season. On a scorching June afternoon, he lifts and sniffs it. "Still stinks," he says.

The one place his ego hasn't been reflected is in his paycheck. After his meeting with Angelo, he was angry and said just enough that everyone knew it. He told a local reporter that "someone" didn't think he was "elite," leaving no doubt whom he was referring to. In October, he retweeted a fan's note with the hashtag #pay22now. But he didn't willfully inflame the standoff. He didn't make headlines by uttering the payday-worthy truth: that for most of his career, the supposedly "devalued" running back had carried the Bears while the "invaluable" quarterbacks -- Kyle Orton, Rex Grossman, Jay Cutler -- had been less consistent and more injury-prone; that according to Football Outsiders' "adjusted line yards" (ALY), the stat many NFL execs consider the most accurate measure of running backs, the Bears' O-line is terrible and would end the season ranked 24th with 3.92 ALY; that the Bears win 71.4 percent of the time when Forte logs at least 16 carries. "He's not the type of guy who will throw anyone under the bus," receiver Johnny Knox says. "And he knew that doing those types of things wouldn't get him a new contract."

Calm and proud, Forte didn't crack. In the locker room, guys asked, "What's goin' on?" He replied, "I don't know."

At the bottom of piles, opponents wondered, "They gonna pay you?" He said, "I'm just playin' ball, man!"

And at church, of all places, devotees whispered, "Tell 'em to pay you!" Forte shrugged. "Like I haven't."

The truth was, his was a scared silence. His fear was not that he'd suffer a career-ending injury -- he had an insurance policy to cover that possibility -- but that his workload would leave him as damaged goods, worn by attrition, his potential spent, his leverage lost. Yet he kept playing great football. Through 11 games, he was third in rushing yards and leading the league in yards from scrimmage, and he continued to keep everyone on his side. By early December, he was an MVP candidate and a leading Pro Bowl vote-getter, and his plan to gain leverage seemed sound.

And then, with one carry, it wasn't.


2. HE HIT THE HILL
There is a hill five minutes from Forte's house. It's more of a lump than a hill, a man-made incline for kids to sled down in the winter, but for years Forte has used it as his own personal obstacle course. Many days he grabs one of his two dogs -- Ali, the pit bull -- and a sled with 100 pounds of weights and drives through his neighborhood's looping streets until the hill appears, jutting out of the flat Midwest like a welt. Once there, he straps the sled to his waist and sprints uphill; after that he spots himself a 10-yard lead and races Ali to the top; and after that he runs pass routes up it, always in the noon heat to maximize sweat.

The hill had always served as a way for Forte to burn excess energy after lifting and running at the Bears' facility. But a carry against the Chiefs in Week 13 changed it from an ancillary workout into a symbolic one. In the first quarter, he took a handoff and cut left toward a gaping hole. Chiefs linebacker Derrick Johnson closed fast and drilled his helmet into Forte's right knee, causing the running back to collapse like a broken chair. In an instant, his decision to roll the dice looked not only foolish but tragic. Tragically foolish.

It was only as bad as that hit, though: He had sprained his MCL, which killed his season but not his value. In January, Angelo was fired after a playoff-less season. His replacement, Phil Emery, slapped Forte with the franchise tag, which guaranteed the running back a major raise -- $7.7 million -- but not the long-term deal he coveted. Forte didn't sign the contract. It was not what he'd risked so much for.

Now the negotiation was down to the nub. He sat out the Bears' offseason workouts in a bid to help his negotiating power, running the hill four days a week. In May, a source told the Chicago Tribune that the Bears were wary of offering a blockbuster deal because of his knee. When Forte read that he tilted his head, drew down his eyelids and crumpled his mouth into a mountain range, a look that arrives whenever someone says something offensive. He inherited the Look from his dad, Gene, which is to say that he inherited his father's BS detector, his father's suspicion and his father's quiet resolve forged from a career of enduring danger to feed an American addiction: Gene as a manager for Shell's logistics ports off the Gulf Coast, Matt as a football player.

Forte thought the Tribune's story was a transparent ploy. His knee was long healed; he had played in the Pro Bowl to prove it. "I wasn't going to let them attack it," he says. So one day he and his wife went to the hill, where he strapped on the sled and, dogs yipping, sprinted to the top. Danielle shot video of it. He posted it to his 158,000 followers on Twitter, along with an f-you of sorts: "100Lbs sled up hill i think my knee will be ok."

It was retweeted 934 times.


3. HE GOT BACKING
A month later, a peachy June morning began like most: At 9 a.m., Forte was at Lake Forest High leading a group of assorted current and former NFL players through running drills. But one guy was missing: former Bears defensive tackle Tommie Harris. The night before, Harris, who is looking for another shot in the league, had told Forte that he'd be there at 9 a.m. sharp. Well, he wasn't. At 10:30, Harris finally sauntered onto the field. "You gonna run?" Forte said. "Nah, man," Harris said. "This is easy."

By way of response, Forte ran the field again -- sprinting 20 yards, jogging 10, sprinting again, up and down until he was soaked. Every player followed him, running in his wake.

Telling Forte that success can come easily is an affront to his soul. As a family, the Fortes tend to be singularly focused. Gene's Shell career has lasted 34 years; Matt's grandfather Ulycess was a minister for 50 years. Young Matt grew up around football. Both Gene and Matt's older brother, Bryan, played in college. And at age 6, Matt proclaimed, "I'm going to play in the NFL." Gene feigned encouragement. But then he became amazed by how "really, really dedicated" Matt was. At 7, Matt plowed over every opponent in Slidell, La., youth ball (mostly because he didn't know he was allowed to juke). At 9, he wanted to lift weights. (Gene said no.) At 10, he stopped drinking soda. (He still doesn't. His lone vice: gummy bears.) After games, he buys ice bags and soaks in his bathtub, then sleeps in a hyperbaric chamber so that recovery Mondays become training Mondays. He didn't miss a start until his sprained MCL.

[+] EnlargeMatt Forte
Kyle Terada/US PresswireFotre decided against holding out, the method players believe is their biggest form of leverage.

A few minutes after running Harris ragged, Forte drove to EFT, the gym where he lifts. A trainer whom everyone called Meat led Forte through a set of curls. After 10 reps, Meat removed a pair of 10-pound plates from the bar, then Forte burned out 10 more, and so on. A friend and free agent running back named Chad Spann walked over and yelled to Forte, "You're not sweating!"

Uh-oh: the Look. Meat removed the final 10 pounds, and Forte was curling the naked 45-pound bar. He bit his lip, with short and quick breaths, vibrating with each lift. As he reached his final four reps, he shouted out a letter with each grunt and moan: C! H! A! D! Then he dropped the bar, wiped the sludge of sweat from his brow and grinned. This was the Forte who had so won over the guys in the locker room -- especially Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs -- that they publicly backed his contract demands. He'd also won over head coach Lovie Smith, who was grateful that Forte chose not to become a distraction. "If you've done everything the right way, like he has," Smith says, "people rally around you."

The question remained: Had he won over Emery? "They honored Matt by talking about it," the GM acknowledges. "It told me that we had a team that cared about him."


4. HE DIDN'T ROLL THE DICE TWICE
All offseason, whenever Gene called, Forte knew what was coming. His dad would make small talk. Ask about contract negotiations. Listen to his son's desire to be paid "market value." Then he would say: "Well, what they're offering is a lot of money. Might want to think about that."

His old man had a point. No matter how many hills Forte ran, no matter how many weights he lifted, no matter how many teammates backed him, he was staring at athletic senescence, an elite running back in a league that doesn't seem to want elite running backs. His time was now. "You don't get to rewind the tape," Forte says.

So on July 16 -- the deadline for franchise players to sign a long-term deal and, as it happened, his first wedding anniversary -- Forte found himself back in the GM's office. This time, the negotiations felt very different. Emery had made his determination. A versatile 26-year-old Pro Bowler with the entire team's support was "the right age and in the right spot" to lock up. Forte signed a four-year, $32 million contract, with $18 million guaranteed, at least $4 million more guaranteed than Angelo's best offer.

Moments later, he and Danielle bolted out of the facility and drove to O'Hare to catch a flight to Napa Valley. A long night turned into a long morning. They slept in, then opened the doors to the backyard of their suite overlooking a vineyard. Their life as underpaid newlyweds was over; the open land relaxed them. They spent the morning in the sun, their world suddenly a lot lighter.

For once, Forte wasn't chasing anything.

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Seth Wickersham

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs. Email him and follow him on Twitter at @sethwickersham.

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