LAKE FOREST, Ill. (AP) -Matt Forte kept his eyes on the news and his fingers on the phone as Hurricane Gustav made its way toward Louisiana.
His family evacuated. His friends got out, too.
Everyone was fine, so the Chicago Bears' rookie running back from Tulane let out a sigh of relief as another violent storm slammed his home state and brought back memories of Katrina.
``I just felt nervous that something like Katrina would happen again,'' said Forte, who's from Slidell, a New Orleans suburb. ``I've just been praying that the storm gets weaker and there's not as much damage as last time. I think about it a lot. I've been calling my old teammates, making sure they evacuated.''
While worrying about friends and family, he's also preparing for his debut at Indianapolis on Sunday.
Not since Walter Payton in 1975 has a rookie running back started an opener for the Bears, who went from Super Bowl runners-up to 7-9 last season.
They're counting on a once-elite defense to return to form after being torn apart by injuries last year. That didn't happen during the preseason, when Chicago allowed a league-high 376 yards per game. After struggling against quarterbacks like Brodie Croyle, Charlie Frye, J.T. O'Sullivan, Alex Smith and Brady Quinn, the Bears are staring at Payton Manning for the first time since their Super Bowl encounter.
That one didn't go well for Chicago, and the defense hasn't been the same since.
The Bears will be in trouble if the trend continues, since they can't count on the offense to lead the way. Not with the unproven Kyle Orton lining up behind a revised offensive line while working with a new set of receivers and running backs.
They put the ball in Forte's hands after Cedric Benson got waived following two alcohol-related arrests in the spring and then signed Kevin Jones, who got derailed by season-ending injuries to his foot and knee the past two years with Detroit.
``It means a lot and it's an honor for me to put that uniform on and go out there as a rookie and start a game,'' said Forte, who carried 27 times for 94 yards in the preseason. ``I didn't know that (about) Walter Payton. So that's even more of an achievement.''
With eight carries for zero yards against the Baltimore Colts, Payton's debut was a bitter one. Sweetness made up for it, retiring as the NFL's career rushing leader.
Now, it's Forte's turn.
``I'm confident he's going to handle it well,'' offensive coordinator Ron Turner said. ``He has everything we've done so far. I know it hasn't counted, but he seems to have the right temperament.''
While eyeing Indianapolis, Forte is keeping his eyes on the situation back home.
His parents and brother left to stay with family in Atlanta before the storm hit and other relatives evacuated to Memphis. The Tulane football team got uprooted again, but the situation doesn't appear to be as bad as it was when Katrina hit three years ago.
That storm flooded the Fortes' house and left it uninhabitable for about a month. It also left Forte and his teammates sleeping on the floor in a gym with no air conditioning in Jackson, Miss. They wound up spending the fall semester at Louisiana Tech and playing every game outside of New Orleans while going 2-9.
This time, the Green Wave are in Birmingham, Ala., as they prepare for Saturday's game against No. 24 Alabama. Although the hotel is filled with evacuees, players have electricity, beds, running water and a decent place to practice. They've even gone to the mall, bowled and taken in a movie.
``My best friend (Michael Parenton) is my roommate,'' Forte said. ``He plays center and I talk to him all the time. They evacuated last Friday and I told him I hope it doesn't happen like it happened last time. I told them I was praying for them and I hope they get to go through their season back at Tulane.''

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