Forte, Fulvio Chester, Jr. (“Chet”)

views updated

Forte, Fulvio Chester, Jr. (“Chet”)

(b. 7 August 1935 in Hackensack, New Jersey; d. 18 May 1996 in San Diego, California), college basketball star who became director of Monday Night Football before his career was virtually destroyed by his addiction to gambling.

Forte, the son of Rosanna and Fulvio Chester Forte, Sr., initially sought to follow his father into medicine before sports altered the direction of his life. Forte first drew attention as a basketball player while at the Fifth Avenue Junior High School in suburban Hackensack, New Jersey, where he stood out in spite of, or perhaps because of, his lack of size. His career blossomed at Hackensack High School on a team whose senior class produced collegiate players for three colleges. One of his teammates, Charles Brown, accompanied him to Columbia University in New York City, although Brown proved to be a better baseball player than basketball player at the collegiate level.

At Columbia, Forte was an immediate sensation, starring for his freshman team. At that time freshmen were not eligible for varsity competition. As a sophomore he was the leading scorer, 22.4 points per game, on a team that finished in a three-way tie for first place in the Eastern Intercollegiate League, forerunner of the Ivy League, but lost the first playoff game and was eliminated. Forte’s play was seemingly effortless. With close-cut dark hair and thin limbs, he possessed a wide variety of shots, creating ways to elude defenders and launch the ball toward the basket in what appeared to be an endless improvisation.

Forte’s junior season was curtailed when he did not achieve acceptable grades in chemistry. He sat out the season’s final eight games, probably costing his team a chance for the league championship. In the 1956–1957 season Columbia lacked the defensive and rebounding prowess to be a serious contender for league honors. But Forte, the team’s captain and a senior, had his finest year, averaging 28.9 points per game and winning the Haggerty Award as the best college player in the New York City area.

Although only five feet, nine inches tall and about 145 pounds, Forte was a dynamo on the court with athletic quickness and ball-handling skills that confounded larger opponents. His performance earned him all-American honors. He was selected College Player of the Year by United Press International in 1957 over such stars as the seven-foot-tall Wilt Chamberlain of Kansas. On 12 February 1951 Forte set a Columbia record against Pennsylvania with 45 points in a single game, a record that stood until 1991. He held more than a dozen school records for game, season, and career performances.

Forte finished his collegiate career with 1,611 points in 65 games (a 24.8 point average) and his three varsity teams won 50 of 73 games. But Forte’s size limited his professional potential. Although he was chosen in the National Basketball Association player draft by the Cincinnati Royals (now the Sacramento Kings), he failed to make the team. Forte played in a tour against the Harlem Globetrotters, but the basketball portion of his life was then largely behind him.

In 1962 the Columbia athletic director Ralph Furey contacted Roone Arledge, a young Columbia alumnus whose television career at the American Broadcasting Company was rising fast, about employing Forte, who shortly thereafter joined ABC Sports. At the time Arledge was trying to make ABC-TV competitive with the other networks, and Forte became one of his prime instruments. Forte began working on Wide World of Sports, an anthology show that covered a wide range of events, and he shortly proved as creative in the director’s seat as he had been on the basketball court, ultimately directing over 300 episodes for Wide World of Sports. He branched out into horse racing, auto racing, and basketball, as ABC gradually began competing for live events with CBS and NBC, then the two dominant networks in sports television.

A sea change for both ABC Sports and Forte occurred in 1970, when the National Football League commissioner Pete Rozelle persuaded the network to launch Monday Night Football, a part-sports, part-entertainment program wrapped around a football game. Arledge immediately saw it for what it was and assigned Forte as its director. Under Forte’s control the event became an American national phenomenon. Forte met Arledge’s demands for “up close and personal” coverage with hand-held, sideline cameras and a variety of angles from a dozen other locations. He was also the ringmaster for the three-ring circus in the announcers’ booth, where Howard Cosell and Dan Meredith squabbled their way through Frank Gifford’s play-by-play call.

Forte directed Monday Night Football from its inception until 1986 along with innumerable other major events, including Super Bowl XIX, the World Series, the baseball All-Star Game, and the Olympics. In the 1980s he earned over $900,000 annually. However, underneath this facade of success a gambling addiction was slowly destroying his lifestyle. Following the sale of the ABC network to Capital Cities in 1986, cost-cutting measures reduced what the new owners saw as the production excesses of programs such as Monday Night Football. Forte’s protests over the new approach cost him his job, despite his eleven Emmy Awards for his sports directing excellence. Some thought his gambling habit, which was well known among ABC executives, contributed to the end of his ABC career.

Forte later admitted to losing more than $4 million in wagers. Once his income declined, Forte, desperate to sustain his habit, lost his million-dollar home in suburban Saddle River, New Jersey, and defrauded a New Jersey businessperson of $100,000. In 1990 Forte pleaded guilty to income tax evasion and wire fraud. He was sentenced in 1992 to 500 hours of community service because the judge determined that he had reformed. In 1990 Forte moved to San Diego and began working as a sports talk-show host on XTRA-AM, an all-sports radio station. His salary was slightly over $1,000 per week, compared to his salad days at ABC Sports, when he earned more than seventeen times that figure. Forte also became a regular at Gamblers Anonymous and frequently appeared on the organization’s behalf. He directed some National Football League games for NBC-TV in 1994 and worked as a radio commentator on XTRA’s broadcasts of the San Diego Chargers football games in the year before his death.

Forte died in his home at Rancho Santa Fe of a heart attack, survived by his wife, Patricia (whom he married in 1977) and their daughter, Jacqueline. A cardiologist, Steve Gross, failed to respond to phone calls from Forte’s wife as her husband experienced classic heart failure symptoms the day he died. Two years later a jury ruled that Gross had been negligent and awarded Forte’s wife and daughter $1.7 million in damages.

Forte recounted his years with Monday Night Football in an article in Sport magazine (Feb. 1995). An obituary is in the New York Times (19 May 1996).

Bill Shannon