It is a cry from the depths. "I'm not Charles Manson," Chet Forte said. "I didn't take a knife and stab anybody. I'm capable of working. I want to put my life back together again."
Forte is the former kingpin director, the "Monday Night Football" man who is under federal indictment for income tax and fraud charges. He is a victim of the disease of compulsive gambling.
We talked on the phone recently and, despite his plight, he was as vibrant and straightforward as I remember him. "I lost every single solitary cent," he said. "I lost my house, everything."
In his heyday at ABC, Forte made as much as $900,000 a year. He made $300,000 the last year he worked there in 1986. He
gambled it all away.
"I was a bookie's delight," he said. "If there were 14 [baseball] games on the line that night, I'd bet all of them. I'd bet $30,000 a day. I'd bet $50,000 on the Super Bowl. Bookies loved me. I never had a winning season. I wanted the action. Guys in the crew would laugh at me. They would ask who I liked in a game and they'd bet the other way.
"I am surprised I'm not in the looney bin. Somebody had to hit me over the head. I had to have a major disaster like this happen to wake me up, to realize I had a terrific family and what I was doing to them. It took me awhile to realize it was a sickness, but now I understand that it is definitely a sickness."
He is attending Gamblers Anonymous meetings. He speaks of gambling as recovering alcoholics speak of their addiction. "Gambling could be worse than drug addiction," Forte said. "I haven't gambled in two years. I don't believe I'll ever gamble again, but I'm still a little scared. I have had no feeling to pick up a phone again or go to Atlantic City, but it's been only two years."
Forte, 54, was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges he fraudulently obtained nearly $1.5 million in loans from banks by not disclosing he had gambling debts and outstanding loans. He pleaded guilty to mail fraud and wire fraud charges and to income tax evasion for not filing a 1987 return.
He faces a maximum of 11 years in prison and a $27,000 fine. He is scheduled for sentencing in Camden, N.J., in January, but that is likely to be postponed because Forte is cooperating with authorities in an ongoing investigation. He is hopeful of probation.
His lawyer, Lawrence Lustberg, says, "We think he has a reasonable chance for probation. It is neither absurd to think that nor is it out of the question that he could go to jail."
"I'm praying for probation and I think they will give it to me," Forte said. "But I am scared witless about going to jail. I don't want to go to jail. I want to work."
Forte, though only 5 feet 9, was an outstanding college basketball player at Columbia. A great shooter, he was the national Player of the Year in 1957 and was named to the same All-America team as Wilt Chamberlain. He went on to a 25-year career in television, starting at CBS, then becoming a dominating force at ABC, an innovative director of baseball and pro basketball in addition to being one of the few people who commanded respect from Howard Cosell. Forte lasted longer than any of the original principals associated with "Monday Night Football."
He was hard-driving, cocky, an intimidator. He was colorful, outspoken. He rode high. I recall that when he met me for lunch at a restaurant only 10 blocks from ABC's offices, he came over in a chauffeur-driven limousine. Even in his 40s, he would issue a challenge that he could beat Larry Bird at shooting fouls.
I always liked him for his candor. I asked him now if he had ever bet on games while playing for Columbia. "No," he said. "I didn't start betting until I went to work for CBS. I made only small bets . . . at first."
He said, "I know I have made a lot of enemies. With the kind of
personality I had, I'm sure there are people who say they are
glad to see me this way. And I can feel for the average guy out there who says, 'What a dope.' I can understand why he wouldn't feel sorry for me.
"My daughter Jackie, she's 11, said it best. I sat down and told her what had happened. She said, 'Daddy, you are really stupid.' And she is right."
Forte lost a handsome house in Saddle Brook, N.J., which was sold at sheriff's auction for $908,000. He lives with his wife, Patricia, daughter and mother in a rented home outside Richmond, Va.
"They always have stuck by me," he said. "There was the talk that I had better shape up, but they never left me."
His wife found a home in an area where the cost of living is cheaper and the school system is good. She has found a job. "She doesn't make much," he said, "but it gets her out of the house for a while and that is a help." They have been assisted by family and friends, but his creditors are still lined up and waiting.
"I didn't declare bankruptcy," he said, "because I want to pay off my debts. I will be able to do that if I can get work."
After taking a buyout from ABC to help pay some of his debts, he formed his own entertainment company, which failed. He suffered three heart attacks and took a fall from a moped that banged up his shoulder. He hasn't worked in a year. Now, he says he is healthy and anxious to work again. "I had a stress test and passed it," he said.
His lawyer, Lustberg, said, "It's the saddest case I have ever had. He was a guy who was on top and then came crashing down in a heap and then to compound it all, he had these health problems. I am happy that he seems to be so vibrant and energetic now."
Lustberg, 34, a Harvard Law School graduate, took Forte's case as a public defender and has retained it since moving over to a private practice doing public interest law. "If ever a guy made some bad mistakes, it is Chet," he said, "but he shouldn't go to jail. He could have declared bankruptcy, but it is his instinct to pay people back. All he needs now is to work again."
As part of his rehabilitation, Forte has negotiated to do work for public television stations in New Jersey and New York. He has gotten feelers for some projects, and there could be other offers if it becomes clear he will not go to jail.
Forte said, "It hurts me that some of the people I was close to haven't tried to help me. They say that people in TV have no friends and there are times I think that is true, but I believe in giving a person a second chance.
"A young woman at ABC who I hardly know sent me $500 when she read about me, and that made me cry. But some of the people I was closest to and who could give me work haven't even called. I'm capable of working. I want to work."