It's not common to see Matt Forte run slowly, but following the Bears' 24-20 loss to Detroit on Sunday afternoon, the veteran running back refused to go full speed. Instead of sprinting through the tunnel in the northwest corner of Soldier Field en route to the team's locker room, Forte paced himself. He slowly walked behind the Chicago bench, taking his time to slap hands with fans in the seats and wave to the crowd. Forte then did the same on the other side of the tunnel, greeting fans behind the end zone as he was showered with cheers and applause.
On fan appreciation day, it was actually the player wearing number 22 that received most of the love. With the 2015 season now in the books, so too is Forte's contract with the Bears. Forte's name is littered all across the franchise record book, but he enters the offseason as an unrestricted free agent. Chicago's rookie running back Jeremy Langford and second-year pro Ka'Deem Carey showed promise this season, so it is unknown if the 30-year old Forte will return to Chicago in 2016.
Matt Forte greets fans after the game
Given that Sunday may have been his final appearance at Soldier Field as a member of the Bears, Forte wanted to soak in the support for as long as possible.
"I was happy," Forte said of his emotions as he walked off the field. "I was kind of just thanking the fans and stuff. I wasn't able to get everybody but I was able to slap a few hands and tell everybody thank you. Because if this was the last game that I played at Soldier Field, I didn't want to leave without telling the fans I appreciated them in person. And so I was able to do some of that at the end on the way into the tunnel."
The cheers came for Forte well before that final walk to the locker room. He brought the crowd of 50,607 to its feet with some impressive runs early in the game, showing the electrifying style that has made him a game-changer since his debut back in 2008. Forte finished with 76 rushing yards on 17 carries.
And just as he's been over the course of his career, Forte was also a huge factor in the passing game. He had three receptions for 34 yards, but one of them was among the biggest plays of the game for the Chicago offense. Less than two minutes into the fourth quarter, Forte lined up to the left of quarterback Jay Cutler, who was in the shotgun. After the snap, Forte swung out to his left, where he was hit with a pass in stride. The running back's shiftiness allowed him to maneuver around Detroit linebacker Stephen Tulloch, and then his speed allowed him to sprint down the left sideline into the end zone for a 23-yard touchdown, which tied the game at 17.
For Cutler, who has shared a backfield for Forte over the past seven years since being acquired by the Bears via trade in April 2009, the potential departure of the running back really hit home. In the locker room following the loss, Cutler and Forte spoke in private about the possibility of Forte leaving the Bears. Minutes later, in his postgame press conference, Cutler reflected on what his teammate has meant – not only to him personally - but also to the Bears organization and the City of Chicago.
"(Matt's) been here my entire career, an unbelievable teammate, unbelievable friend, a true professional in every sense of the word, on and off the field," Cutler remarked. "It would be weird not having him, that's for sure. He's gave a lot to this team and this city and he's still got some stuff left in the tank."
Right tackle Kyle Long echoed those thoughts, calling Forte the best player he's ever suited up with and played alongside.
"I was thinking about it as (Forte) was walking off the field as he was surrounded by people," Long said. "I'm going to tell my kids about this guy. I'm going to tell my grandkids about this guy if they don't already know, because he's going to be everywhere. He's a legend. He's somebody who should be in the same conversation with the greats."
The numbers back up Long's claims. Forte's 8,602 rushing yards and 487 receptions both rank second in Chicago history, trailing only Walter Payton in both categories. And in 2014, Forte had 102 catches – the most-ever for a running back in NFL history.
Forte said Sunday that his wish is to re-sign with the Bears in the coming months, extending his career in Chicago and delaying his Soldier Field goodbye. However, the running back is also aware of the business aspect of football. With young players on the roster at his position, the Bears may opt to allocate the financial resources it would take to bring Forte back elsewhere, forcing the veteran back to play in a different NFL uniform for the first time in his career.
Behind the Chicago bench on Sunday, some fans draped a sign on the wall that read, "Thanks for the smiles Forte #22." If 2015 finale was the last hurrah for Forte in a Bears uniform, the running back said the feeling was mutual.
"You see signs like that and stuff and it puts a smile on my face," Forte said. "The I can actually make people smile by running the football, and so I just pray that my time here was appreciated here by the fans. And I just wanted to let them know I appreciated them as well."