CHICAGO -- It's a Monday afternoon, the Chicago Bears are 2-0, oversize checks are being delivered to needy kids and all is right in the world.
Matt Forte is standing on a turf field in a high school stadium on Fullerton Avenue, an off-duty athlete, his body recovering from a typical gameday beating just a day earlier.
Forte is wearing a Muscle Milk shirt and a Muscle Milk hat, cocked to the side, because he's hawking Muscle Milk at a Muscle Milk charity function. He is also representing Jordan Brand with baggy shorts and basketball shoes.
Forte is at Hanson Stadium on Monday to talk to the small band of teenagers who make up the Frederick Douglass Academy football team.
The kids, a skinny motley crew numbering just over 20, look at him with awe.
Forte is there to answer questions and take pictures with oversize Muscle Milk checks, there to inspire the Austin-area kids who commuted north to practice and will likely never play in the NFL.
Forte is happy to do the charitable, sponsored work. He likes to work. That was the focus of his typical jock talk speech to the kids: Work hard and, um, good things will happen. Just look at me!
The last time I was at one of these events, Forte was in the middle of contract negotiations, a sour time where concerns are leaked by the team (Just how sturdy is that knee?) and a player's value as a human being is publicly commodified and delineated.
Then, he was franchise tagged and unhappy. Now, he's just chilling. Rich and successful.
There was an existential question surrounding Forte last year during this very public contract negotiation. What is the importance of running backs in an NFL offense? Are they fungible assets or still franchise players?
Forte, naturally, believes he's a franchise player and wanted to be paid as such.
He got his wish. Forte got a mid-market kind of franchise payday last year, four years and $31.5 million in theory, $17 million in guarantees.
Fully paid, he's more important than ever in a Bears offense that actually works.
"I always try to stay positive, don't harp on the negative stuff," he said. "Right now, the focus is trying to win these games, get in the playoffs and try to win a championship. It's been a long time coming and I think we're due for a special season."
While Jay Cutler gets the headlines, Forte could have a very big season as the featured back in Marc Trestman's West Coast-style offense. There is no sharing the job with Michael Bush. It's Forte's role. He's getting carries in the red zone, and he's producing.
While everyone raves about the new weapons that were brought in for Cutler's sake, the new linemen are blocking better for Forte -- "You saw it in the preseason," he said -- as is tight end Martellus Bennett, who also draws defenders downfield, making more room for Forte.
Given the hype coming in, Forte said his expanded role in the offense has been "about what I expected."
"Catch balls out of the backfield, whether it's short dumpoffs, or swing passes or screens, and to run the ball efficiently," he said. "Our offense is a smart offense. Coach Trestman runs a very smart offense where we're not going to force anything. If a defense is giving us something we're going to take it."
In the Bears' 31-30 victory over Minnesota on Sunday, Forte had 19 carries for 90 yards (most coming in the first half) and 11 catches for 71 yards (split fairly evenly between halves). He was Cutler's safety valve and he caught every pass thrown his way.
"If the defense is giving us something we're going to take it," he said again, this time with a hint of a smile.
Even with a costly fourth-quarter fumble -- "I just forgot about it man, just move on to the next play" -- that was a significant improvement over a so-so opening game, where Forte gained 50 yards in 19 carries, albeit with a one-yard touchdown, and caught four passes for 41 yards.
His 15 receptions tie him with Brandon Marshall for the team lead. They are tied for sixth in the NFL.
More importantly, Forte is moving the chains.
In the Bears' first possession against the Vikings, on a short field thanks to a 76-yard Devin Hester return, Forte broke off a 24-yard run to get inside the Vikings' red zone and caught a three-yard pass to get to the one-yard line, setting up a Bennett touchdown.
In the game, Forte converted seven second downs, and one third down, into first downs. He had six touches that went for 10-plus yards, compared to just one for Adrian Peterson. According to Pro Football Focus, Forte's yards per route Sunday was the highest in the NFL.
The Bears offense is still growing, but there are many signs of concrete improvement. Their 50 percent third-down conversion rate is the best in the NFC, and Cutler is the highest-rated third-down passer in the conference.
Last season, Forte rushed for 1,094 yards (4.4 yards per carry) and five touchdowns, and caught a career-low 44 passes for 340 yards. This was an offense that was offensive to everyone who witnessed it, but it's not as if Forte turned any heads.
So it's not hard to reason that Forte isn't one of those anonymous Bears who took time to "buy in" to Trestman's way.
"He's an offensive genius, that's how I put it all the time," he said. "He's making everybody better. We're just on the tip of the iceberg with this offense."
With that in mind, Forte isn't surprised the Bears have put together two fourth-quarter comebacks already.
"This is stuff we've been working on since the spring, since OTAs," he said. "Coach Trestman has really just continued to put us in position where we go through stuff in practice and when those situations come up in the game, we're not surprised by it. We go through 2-minute, hurry-up plays, in practice and it's chaos. But when it comes to game time everyone's focused and calm and we know what to do."
This is a passing team now, an offensive team. As much as this is Cutler's team now, it's also Forte's team.
No, the high-paid running back is not extinct in Chicago. He has just evolved.