When you think of Lovie Smith’s Bears, forcing turnovers comes to mind. Brian Urlacher making leap interceptions and blazing from sideline to sideline is not soon forgotten. Charles Tillman punching footballs out of receiver’s hands. The defensive works, and almost nothing else, are prominent.
You rarely, if ever consider the “supporting” actors in this Bears drama. Because not many foolishly considered them the leads, so they don’t nearly factor in as much.
That of course refers to Matt Forte or Devin Hester, who retired together Monday at Halas Hall.
To call Forte and Hester “supporting” characters is both a disservice to everything they accomplished in their lengthy, unique careers, and a testament to how they did it. While the defensive stars and prototypical faces of the franchise took the spotlight, something that so rarely happens across the NFL: the underrated Hester and Forte plugged away.
You wouldn’t think the greatest returner of all time in Hester, and the most productive modern tailback in Forte, to play second fiddle to anyone. But that’s exactly what happened.
The normally flashiest positions on the team, who still made explosive breathtaking plays, did their work under the radar. The electric game breaker in Hester radically changing defensive game plans week by week, somehow lying in the shadows. The archetype for a versatile feature running back in Forte, preferring his game do the talking.
It’s only fitting that the two modern offensive emblems of the Bears walk away from football together.
Brimming with emotion, Hester stepped up to the podium on Monday the same way he always did when fielding kicks at Soldier Field: raw, unfiltered, and prepared for blurred obstacles. Hester, the player, was characterized as a magnet on the field, a fan favorite, and a man with the humblest demeanor off of it. He came to play football and have fun with his teammates: the only thing he truly understood. A simple man at heart.
“It’s tough, man,” said Hester, choking up. “At 35-years-old, this is my first time saying no to football. It’s all I know. To be here, saying this is the last time I’ll pick up a ball, it’s tough.”
On a day of remembrance and high honor, another big stage, Hester came in vulnerable. An unscripted player knew what he wanted to say. He knew what message he wanted to convey about the game of football: the game that gave him everything. He just didn’t know how he would do it once the moment came.
So, when in doubt, thank your teammates. Thank your coaches. Thank everyone but your transcendent self. Reminiscing on the bonds created from the game comes first.
“Everyone in this organization was more … more friendly off the field,” said Hester of the Bears, who played with four organizations in his career. “Whether it be through OTA’s, whenever we had a little more time we would just pick a house and go hang out. It was like an everyday brother bond we had. Every day.”
Hester can thank more than his individual ability driving his career, because it wasn’t the primary force that led him to be one of the most dangerous players football has ever seen. It was friendships and the willingness to be open with his Bears “brothers” that laid the foundation for magic (in blocking for him and in bonds) any time the ball was in his hands.
Above every other descriptor of Forte; versatility, athleticism, grace, and determination: humility was his primary quality as an NFL player and as a human being. That’s how he became an afterthought in wide national circles, while tearing apart defenses who had the misfortune of playing him.
Forte was forever about giving credit to others first. About honoring others first. What a coincidence when the Bears’ second all-time leading rusher’s spotlight to be fully appreciated comes. Fittingly, the special player didn’t see himself as special, especially in comparison to eternal faces of Chicago’s franchise like Walter Payton.
“Seeing my name next to his, it didn’t seem right. Seeing my name beside his is still surreal,” said Forte of his place in Bears’ running back history beside Payton. “It let me knows that hard work pays off.”
He’ll never say it himself, because he can’t, but Forte excelling in the league as a jack-of-all trades wasn’t supposed to happen because he wasn’t the best at any given trait.
He wasn’t the fastest. He wasn’t the quickest or the most agile. And he most certainly wasn’t the strongest, to the chagrin of many fans who misguidedly felt he wasn’t a true Bear because he wasn’t a throwback bruising runner. But Forte kept coming, and he could beat you in a variety of ways most players couldn’t. The epitome of an offensive weapon that coaches dream about having in their possession. He kept coming, and he did it quietly at that.
Forte belongs beside Payton, and that’s because his hard work earned it. His name can be uttered in the same breath because he ultimately made sure it belonged.
No one will think of them this way, but Hester and Forte were giants of football. That’s in regards to not only the Bears, but the NFL.
Hester, for changing the way we believed returners should be valued. For making us see special teams as a viable method to victory, and not as necessary filler in between the flash of offense and defense. For stealing our collective hearts any time he found the tiniest of gaps in a coverage unit. Hester was in a league of his own. He defined a league.
The underrated sentiment that should always comes to mind with Hester is how he managed to stay relevant for such a niche position for so long.
Most kick returners terrorize the NFL for a short period, and eventually are phased out either because of better scheming to prevent their success, or rule changes. From his record-breaking 2006 season, to his final 10th year with the Ravens, Hester managed to stay a perennial threat.
He managed to be a weapon on the smallest amount of opportunities and despite all odds saying he should’ve faded into irrelevancy. The mark of one of the most exciting players to ever step foot on a football field and who transcends eras. This can be said confidently based on how the league is evolving and viewing banning kickoffs: there will never be another player like Hester.
Forte, for redefining the term “workhorse.” For being a player the Bears could count on offensively, despite every other well-documented shortcoming of a flawed offense. For putting his metaphorical hard hat and lunch pail on, day-by-day, week-by-week, and year-by-year.
During Forte’s eight-year tenure, Chicago never completely fixed it’s offensive issues: meaning literally every other position except running back. In eight years, Forte never threw a fit about it. They never let him down. He believed he let them down if he couldn’t produce.
Even when “holding out” in 2012 while waiting for money he rightfully deserved, Forte never seriously considered walking away from the team. He didn’t let himself waste away amidst a potentially tumultuous future. Running hills, much like the man he doesn’t think he could be compared to, and lifting weights was still the focus.
Forte exemplified a professional because he always made due with what he could. He understood “the business” when the Bears officially cut ties back in 2015. He made due with what was given to him in his time in Chicago. and shined anyway. His work came first, and if he failed, he failed. There wasn’t anymore he had to offer to the organization after already grinding away. More often than not, it was enough.
With a more cohesive offense, Forte is undoubtedly regarded higher. He makes more Pro Bowls. He produces more yards, touchdowns, and explosive plays. In a way, maybe that detracts from what his career personified, though. That he thrived despite every circumstance to the contrary. The under-appreciated Forte deserves to be appreciated the way he is now: catching a pass out of the spotlight.
Perseverance and modesty.
That’s what pieced together the careers of Hester and Forte. That what makes them football legends: because they knew they were great, fought through every impediment, and didn’t have to gloat about it. To the untrained eye, they might have more to prove based on their demeanor. To those who dare take a second glance, their emotions and hard work are appropriately molded into Bears lore at the same time.
“I have no regrets, despite not winning a Super Bowl for this great franchise.”
That’s what Forte said about what he leaves behind in the game on Monday. He, nor Hester, need not have any regrets, however. There’s more to football than winning, as they put on display with regularity during their playing days.
For so many reasons not limited to football: if Forte and Hester are supporting characters in the Bears’ 97-year drama, then it’s time to re-evaluate that history.
Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for The Rock River Times, an editor for Windy City Gridiron and Inside The Pylon, and is a contributor to Pro Football Weekly and The Athletic Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.