So much for the idea of impressing the new boss.
Bears running back Matt Forte, looking for a new contract and apparently with better things to do, was a no-show Tuesday at the ceremony honoring him as the winner of the Brian Piccolo Award and the Bears’ first voluntary mini-camp practice under new coach John Fox and new general manager Ryan Pace.
“I prefer he be here, just like any player,” Fox said. “But I understand this is the offseason and when guys have things that they have to take care of or maybe commitments that they’ve made, this is the time to do it. They can’t be doing it in season.”
Facing criticism on social media, Forte, who is in the final year of a four-year, $30 million contract, explained on Instagram that his absence was not related to his contract situation. He also acknowledged that “this year … might be my last in Chicago.”
“If the Bears want to give me a contract [extension] they will; if they don’t, they won’t, Forte Instagrammed “I’m not mad or holding a grudge. I don’t operate like that. I’m not there because I’m finishing my third week of speed training … which we do not do at Halas [Hall].
“As for the [Piccolo] award, this training trip was planned long before our offseason schedule was released to us. I value this award greatly as it is my second time winning this prestigious award. Unfortunately, my decision to work on my body and craft in preparation for the season did not coincide.”
“I’ve come to realize that this year along with each reception or carry might be my last in a Bears uniform. So with that being said its all LOVE Chicago.”
Forte, tight end Martellus Bennett and defensive tackle Jeremiah Ratliff also did not participate in Tuesday’s practice. While participation in the offseason program and mini-camp is voluntary, it is nonetheless preferred — and arguably makes more sense with a new coaching staff. This mini-camp, in fact, is given only to teams with new coaching staffs.
“They miss the installation. The miss the mental time. They missed the on-the-field work,” Fox said. “So we have a next-man-up approach here. So [other] guys will get opportunities. When one door closes, another door opens for somebody else.”
Wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, who is in the final year of his contract, was in attendance Tuesday.
“It’s important to be here with my teammates,” Jeffery said. “Football is fun for me. It’s something I grew up doing as a kid. As far as my [contract], that will take care of itself. I’m just out there trying to learn the system. My main goal is to win the Super Bowl.”
In the big picture, the veterans’ absence is unlikely to make a big difference on the Bears’ season. “It’s voluntary. It’s a new [collective bargaining agreement],” Fox said. “I know where [Forte] is and I know what his thoughts are.”
But Forte’s absence at the Piccolo award ceremony is considered by many — including Bears fans — as a more egregious affront to the organization. The award, chosen by his teammates, honors a rookie and veteran who best exemplify the “courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication, and sense of humor” of Piccolo, a Bears running back who died at 26 of cancer in 1970. Kyle Fuller, the rookie winner, was present at the ceremony.
Bears chairman of the board George McCaskey said he was not offended that Forte was not present at the Piccolo ceremony.
“To me it’s like guys declining to go to the draft,” McCaskey said. “That’s an intensely personal decision and I think that decision should be respected.”
Forte did send a statement of gratitude.
“I’d like to accept the Piccolo award with the utmost respect and humility,” Forte said in the statement, which was read by Pat McCaskey, a member of the Bears’ board of directors. “Thank you to all my teammates that thought I was so deserving of this award that they voted for me. It is an honor to be selected as this year’s winner, but as you may know, success doesn’t come solely on one’s shoulders. So with that being said, I’d like to thank my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, for the help, strength and many blessings that he’s given me. And last but not least, thank you to my teammates for helping in my success on and off the field. God Bless and Bear down.”
Contributing: Adam L. Jahns