There has been much commentary during the past several decades concerning professional athletes being role models.

Some say they are. Some say they aren’t. But no one can deny that today’s children see quite a bit of sports stars on televisions, computers, video games and much more.

Matt Forte is a running back for the National Football League’s Chicago Bears. And make no mistake about it, he relishes the chance to reach out to the Slidell community in which he became not only the player but the man he is today. That makes him a role model.

It’s the primary reason Forte returned to Slidell on June 20 to host his fourth consecutive summer football camp in conjunction with the Slidell Youth Football Association. The event is geared for young players ages 7 to 13, and it wasn’t that long ago that Forte was one of those young guys who was dreaming of one day playing in the NFL.

Now he’s doing just that. But it wasn’t easy. He sacrificed thousands of hours to become a standout at Slidell High School and eventually Tulane University (where he was named an All-American on the field but, more importantly, the 2006 Tulane Male Student-Athlete of the Year.) Given his background of hard work in the classroom, it’s not surprising that a good portion of the daylong youth camp at SYFA was dedicated to “Chalk Talks,” during which Forte stressed education and giving back to the community.

“It’s not a lot of pressure on me (to be a role model),” Forte said. “That’s what I’m here to do. That’s what I want to be. I wasn’t put on the Earth just to play football. So today is exciting. We need strong male figures to be role models. I know I looked up to those guys when I was growing up. I never really met a professional athlete growing up in Slidell. So me being one now, I have to show these kids the way, and how I got to be where I am right now.”

The energy at the SYFA complex was palpable as 250 campers, many of their parents, current high school players, former coaches and teammates, and even some public officials awaited Forte’s midmorning arrival. When Forte got to the fields (one of which was named after him last year), the 29-year-old was visibly at ease with the crowd — shaking hands, smiling for a few pictures, signing a few autographs. The way in which he carried himself turned heads.

“I’m expecting a lot of football and a lot of fun,” said 10-year-old Chris Alongi, who was attending the camp for the first time.

Jordan Smith, 11, took it one step further. As a camper in 2014, he knew what to expect.

“You have to work hard, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said.

His father, SYFA board member Michael Smith, put into perspective Forte’s dedication to his proving grounds.

“What’s going on with a lot of kids right now is that they don’t have many role models,” Smith said. “There is no goal to shoot for. Matt, to kids in all sports, gives them that goal. … For someone like him to give up his time right before the NFL season begins is huge for these kids. This isn’t just physical education. It’s a life experience.”

Forte said he wouldn’t have it any other way, and that he plans to continue his dedication to the local youth organization that helped him make his way to the NFL.

“This is a great park. We have three great football fields out there,” Forte said. “You have to be disciplined, work hard, then come out and get to perform in a game. It’s a great atmosphere for kids to be involved in, especially on weekends when they could be at home or not doing anything.”

Registration for the upcoming SYFA season will begin Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the league field house, 3158 Terrace Ave., and continue on July 18 and 25. Additional sign-ups will be held July 12, 19 and 26 from noon to 5 p.m.

Andrew Canulette covers recreation and leisure activities for the St. Tammany Advocate. To reach him, email acanulette@charter.net.