A farewell message was hung where running back Matt Forte couldn’t miss it: near the Bears’ bench and on the path players use to enter and exit the field.

“Thanks for the smiles Forte,” it read.

If the Lions’ 24-20 victory Sunday at Soldier Field turns out to be Forte’s last game with the Bears, it was a message that moved one of the greatest players in franchise history.

“It kind of puts a smile on my face that I could actually make people smile by running a football,” Forte said. “I just pray that my time here was appreciated by the fans. I just want to let them know I appreciate them, too.”

Bears fans thank running back Matt Forte on Sunday. (Getty)

Bears fans thanks running back Matt Forte on Sunday. (Getty)

General manager Ryan Pace has a chance to provide clarity on Forte’s situation when he meets the media Monday. But the players’ emotions regarding Forte had some finality to them at Soldier Field.

Forte shared a personal moment with longtime teammate quarterback Jay Cutler after the game – “Unbelievable teammate. Unbelievable friend,” Cutler said – and he admittedly took some extra time in the huddle to soak in Soldier Field’s atmosphere.

“I’m going to tell my kids about this guy; I’m going to tell my grandkids about this guy,” right tackle Kyle Long said. “He’s a legend. He’s somebody that should be in the same conversation with the greats. He’s the best player I’ve ever played with.”

Everyone knows Forte’s current predicament: he’s 30 with an expiring contract, and the Bears see promise in the two young backs – Jeremy Langford and Ka’Deem Carey – who played behind him this season.

“I’d like to stay here, but I don’t have any control over that right now,” Forte said. “I’ve played here the last eight years. I was drafted by them, so that’s special to me. … But it doesn’t always happen in this business. I’ve got to make the best decision for me and [my] family as well, too.”

After splitting carries the last few weeks, the Bears did right the thing by making Forte their featured back against the Lions, and showed why he’s still worth another contract from the Bears — or another team.

Forte had 17 carries for 76 yards and caught three passes for 34 yards, including a 23-yard score on a screen pass, where he deftly maneuvered through blocks by receiver Marc Mariani and Cameron Meredith. Langford and Carey combined for 24 yards on six carries.

“[Forte] still can do it,” Carey said. “He’s a workhorse, and the workhouse has at least three more years in him.”

And any stable of backs would be better off with that workhorse in it.

Contract discussions with Forte should include the three-year, $12 million deal that Frank Gore received from the Colts before this season. Forte is two years younger and a better player.

Despite missing three games with a sprained knee, Forte had 1,287 yards from scrimmage (898 rushing) this season. He’s the fifth player in NFL history to surpass 1,200 total yards in each of his first eight seasons.

Since being drafted in 2008, no player has totaled more yards than Forte’s 12,718. In Bears history, Forte only trails Walter Payton in yards from scrimmage, rushing yards and receptions.

At the very least, Forte’s leadership and production have made moving on from him a tough decision for coach John Fox. That Forte was voted a captain and mentored Langford and Carey will not be overlooked.

“I just know that I appreciate him and have great respect for him and everything he gave us this season,” Fox said.

Forte said he felt happy when he left the field and made it a point to high-five as many fans as he could.

“He gave a lot to this team and this city,” Cutler said. “And he’s still got some stuff left in the tank.”

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Email: ajahns@suntimes.com