Matt Forte has had some memorable moments in his life.
He was an All-American running back at Tulane and the MVP in the 2008 Senior Bowl.
Since joining the NFL, he’s totaled nearly 13,000 yards in eight seasons, made two Pro Bowls, and become the second-leading rusher in Chicago Bears history; trailing only the late NFL Hall of Famer Walter Payton.
Earlier this year, Forte signed a three-year, $12 million contract to play for the New York Jets.
Even with all of those highlights, the 30-year-old Forte ranks his latest accomplishment among the best — his No. 25 jersey being retired at Slidell High School during a surprise ceremony Saturday.
That honor may seem to pale in comparison to his other accolades, but having a number retired at Slidell is not something that has happened often in more than a century of athletics. Forte, who graduated from Slidell in 2004, joins only former Nebraska All-American safety Reggie Cooper and LSU offensive lineman Mike Gambrell as the other former Slidell football greats to have their jerseys retired.
The announcement came during the annual Matt Forte Football Camp, which Forte has hosted for several years for area youths. St. Tammany Parish Schools Superintendent Trey Folse made the announcement and also declared June 18 as Matt Forte Day for St. Tammany Parish schools.
“Completely surprised,” Forte said of the honor. “I was coming here to give back. I had no idea.”
Folse, as well as former Slidell coach Wayne Grubb and current football coach Larry Favre, sang Forte’s praises for not only his ability on the football field, but for his citizenship off it. Grubb, in particular, got emotional when speaking about the gangly kid he watched mature into a Pro Bowler.
“When Matt got to us, he was tall, he was skinny, and he had big feet,” Grubb said. “He didn’t run too fast, but he ate his mama’s cooking and he got strong.”
By the time he left Slidell, Forte was the St. Tammany Parish Player of the Year, had rushed for 2,432 yards and 31 touchdowns and added 618 yards on 48 catches and five more scores. Despite that output, Forte was ranked as a two-star athlete by Rivals.com heading to college. He chose Tulane, and in his senior season he rushed for a school-record 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns. He was a semifinalist for both the Maxwell and Doak Walker awards.
“The thing that always frustrated me was college coaches always wanted to see how tall they are, how much they weigh, how fast they ran the 40, and what they bench press,” Grubb said. “Matt did all those things well, but you can’t measure heart. You had to talk to the people who knew him to what he really was capable of. He has heart and he has determination. That’s why he’s been so successful.”
Forte said he has fond memories of his time at Slidell and at the Slidell Youth Football Association. He keeps in touch with some of his prep teammates, and fondly recalled many successes on the Slidell gridiron.
Forte’s success in the NFL also has allowed him to give back financially to his alma mater. He unveiled a surprise of his own during the camp, presenting Favre with a $50,000 check which the coach said will fund a revamp of the Tigers’ weight room.
“Matt is the perfect role model to our kids,” Favre said. “He’s always carried himself the right way, and done things the right way. When you talk to faculty who were here when he was a student, they tell you he was an incredible young man. He just gives back to this community in ways you can’t imagine. He helps the kids in the community, and he’s helped our team with cleats and shoulder pads in the past, so many things. And this $50,000 check ... just incredible.”
Forte said the gesture is all part of giving back.
“When I come home, it doesn’t feel any different,” he said. “Not much changes. I love to give back to these kids. When I grew up here, I looked up to professional athletes. I know how much of an impact I have on these kids, and we can propel them forward in their lives.
“I was in their shoes at one point. I got great advice from my father, who was a football player, as well. So it’s only right that I give them good advice, and let them know I’ve been through where they are, and I’ve done the things they’re trying to do. I know the route they need to take.”