Hurt by gambling, Forte yearns to work again

October 14, 1990|By Stan Isaacs | Stan Isaacs,Newsday

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."

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