Matt Forte cradles his baby daughter like a football in his tattooed muscular arms.
"It just comes naturally," he jokes while posing for a photo with Nahla, who is 6 months old.
Standing outside his five-bedroom, French Normandy-style home, on five acres of property near Lake Forest, the Chicago Bears star running back locks eyes with his baby girl. Sporting a Bears number 22 baby jersey, she smiles back.
"She's a daddy's girl," beams his wife, Danielle.
Matt, a self-professed "country boy" from Slidell, La., has been changing his priorities-and countless diapers-ever since. His closest friends these days are fellow fathers who also happen to be football players, not the other way around.
So much so that when he and Bears quarterback Jay Cutler talked during the off-season, 90 percent of their conversation revolved around their babies, not the team's new head coach, Brian Urlacher's departure or Super Bowl dreams.
"It's like a whole different fraternity," says Forte. "You have to make time for your family and kids. You cherish that time together because your family is always going to be there for you."
Inside the couple's comfy home, Matt sang the praises of his and Danielle's parents, repeatedly saying they are "blessed" for having such strong role models in their lives, from childhood to parenthood.
Danielle's father is a pastor at Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Summit Argo, where the couple worships. Forte's grandfather was a pastor in Texas and his parents, Gene and Gilda Forte, still live in Slidell.
Three years ago, however, their relationship was tackled for a highly publicized loss when Matt revealed to Danielle that he had a fling with a former girlfriend in Louisiana-and she was seven months pregnant with their child.
"My faith played a tremendous role in this situation," Danielle says. "To get past it, it took a lot of prayer and forgiveness. I thought about how God continuously forgives us for our sins, so how could I not forgive him for his?"
In the end, she decided that she simply loved Matt and was willing to rebuild their trust, their love, their relationship. Matt's now 3-year-old son, Jaden, lives in Louisiana with the child's mother and visits his father and Danielle regularly.
Despite all the public attention Forte garners from football, the sport ranks fourth on his personal mantra of priorities: Faith, family, education and sports. It's the same message his parents instilled in him as a youngster.
"Thank you Lord for your grace and mercy," he stated in a recent Twitter post. "We don't deserve it but you give it to us anyway."
Forte is part of a Bible study group with other Bears players
and their wives.
His signature touchdown celebration illustrates his deep faith, he says. After each score, he flexes his bulging muscles and points to heaven, praising God for his strength on the field and off.
"Some fans don't care about anything but what I do on the football field," he says. "But I want to leave a legacy as a father, too, and by impacting young kids' lives. I don't want my tombstone to just say: Matt Forte, football player."
During his down time, Forte enjoys any excuse to be outdoors,
play video games indoors, and simply be a family man since Nahla
came into his hectic world.
"She's a great baby. Being a parent is fun," Forte says.
Danielle has missed only one of Matt's games. She plans on keeping her near-perfect record with Nahla now in tow. "She will be there supporting her daddy as his other number one fan. We cannot wait to see her in her Bears gear every week," Danielle says.
Nahla attended a preseason game at Soldier Field and surprised Danielle by waiting until her father scored a touchdown to fall fast asleep, clutching her "football blankie."
"This little cub is certainly a football baby," Danielle says.
Matt knows full well that he cradles his baby like a daughter like a football. He's hoping to do the same thing with more "football babies."
"I want at least two more," he says with a mischievous smile, looking at Danielle for her reaction.
A full version of the story appears in the October issue of Chicago Parent available beginning Sept. 24.
Jerry Davich is a freelance writer and father of two living in the Chicago area.
See more of Jerry's stories here.