Summer of 2018, I interned with The Tampa Bay Times. One of my clips did not run entirely. But I wanted to share that article here.
He laid out a course, first came the rope, next was the cones. There Julius Forte stood on Gulfport beach preparing 6 teenage boys for life. For an hour the football prep work consisted of exercises to help quickness and hand agility like sprinting, burpees, karaoke.
And now the real work begins…food prep time.
The young men walked 25 feet off the beach and entered Forte’s beachside kitchen; under a pavilion. They peeled off their football gloves and started scrubbing. Forte, the 6-foot-5-inch former USF defensive end handed them mixing bowls, spoons, and seasonings.
He smiled at the kids as they took their positions to dice, sautee, and turned on the two burners. One started chopping the onion and another started seasoning the ground hamburger. They looked as comfortable in the kitchen as on the field.
All of this preparation was to make spaghetti from scratch. The end product is the kind that doesn’t come in a can. A kind of meal that football campers only dreamed of. Even one of the high schoolers said “let’s get a cooking show and call it Forte’s cooking.”
Forte once was like these young men, who had aspirations to make football his career.
Forte’s, nonprofit organization, Greater University Incorporated, is a chance for young men to learn life lessons that intertwined with their future and fellowship.
“Literally everyone you grew up around, that had any type of influence, told you to go to school, don’t get in trouble, play football, and everything will work out,” said Forte, a former standout at Boca Ciega High School who never quite reached the NFL.
Indeed, he was built for football but he was born to cook. When his career went south after college and landed a janitor job, Forte went back to St. Pete, back to his family but back to cooking.
The USF Days
Forte was a three-star recruit out of Boca Ciega who also excelled academically by having a 3.5 GPA. His sophomore season at USF was his best (21 tackles, three sacks) and he saw action in every game.
But it was a rocky tenure with the Bulls, where Forte played under three different coaches. To build morale with his fellow D-linemen, he’d invite them over to his mom’s house for a stress-free Sunday dinner.
“I thought it was strange at the time; he would invite the players over to his house, he would cook for them,” said former Bulls defensive tackle Todd Chandler, who knew some players built relationships with teammates only in the hopes of having an NFL connection down the road if a teammate made it big.
He quickly learned Forte was genuine, and the two have remained friends.
“We would all sit around play games, laugh, talk trash about the coaches, it was a real celebration atmosphere,” Chandler said “Everything (Forte and his mother) cooked was good, but they made these strawberry and cream muffins … lord have mercy, that’s probably the best thing they cooked.”
But that celebratory atmosphere was limited to Sunday dinners.
Instead, of building on the success of his sophomore season, 2012 became a season to forget for Forte.
He had a run-in with one of the coaches who wanted the team to look a certain way. No piercings, no facial hair, no dreadlocks.
“His whole thing was to have a blue-collar team, and the average south Florida urban kid is not ‘blue collar,’ ” Forte said.
Forte said he fell out of favor with the coaching staff for standing up for himself. And it was a season that ultimately changed the course of his life after football.
“Politics with sports is a harsh reality, I went from starter to scout team in a blink of an eye, literally in one day,” he said.
Forte graduated in 2013 with a degree in communications and entrepreneurship, but finding a job was difficult.
The harshest of realities?
“Attending USF and only getting a janitor job from the same school that gave me a degree,” he said. “… Everything that I learned in football is what taught me how to get past, how to deal with adversity, how to deal with sudden change.”
Time for Plan B. And a huge helping of thanks to his mother.
Cooking Saved Forte’s Life
Forte grew up in a one-story house in the south side of St. Petersburg behind Childs Park. He was under the roof of an athlete, his sister, and good food.
Forte knows his way around the kitchen because of his mother, Sofia, 58. One of their favorite parts of being in the kitchen is baking.
Sofia played basketball for FAMU and was taught how to cook by her mother.
The spark for cooking started in college for Sofia. Her mom, Betty Hayward, 79 would send her food until one day she stopped.
“ I then learned how to cook and I would have my team over, that was our little community,” she said.
She then built her business Sofia Forte’s Catering in 2001. Including, Sofia has taught for 30 years and teaches now at John Hopkins Middle School.
Betty explained that cooking has been in the family for years. “It began with my mother, she always enjoyed cooking for other people, learned through her, we all love it, what can I say”,” Betty said.
Forte’s grandparents Betty and McKinley Hayward been together for 61 years. They met at John Hopkins Middle School and the love they have for food is indescribable.
We still hanging together,” she said. “Fridays are our special days, date nights,”
John Hopkins Middle School means a lot to the family, a love story came out of the school and a garden. Sofia decided in 2012 to start a garden for at risk kids who would cut class. Now, McKinley took over the garden and is there six days out of the week.
“I tease him everyday that he’s going to the garden, you know school is out,” Betty said. “Some of the children just believe that everything comes out of a can or it’s frozen.”
The garden is not only open to the students but to the community. Seven years later, the garden looks like a complete different place with the trees and flowers blooming.
“I’ll sit there and have my coffee and donuts and look over the garden,” he said.
McKinley also didn’t want to charge anyone a fee but to have donations be an option. His favorite part of the garden is to see the kids running out of the school and calling out “Mr. Mack”
“It makes me feel important, I’m not just raising a garden, I’m doing something for the kids,” McKinley said.
In ways, McKinley and Forte are the same by their work ethic, not charging people for their services and changing young people’s lives with Forte’s nonprofit, Greater U.
“He’s doing just what I would do, he’s making me proud,” Mckinley said.
For Sofia, she always loves feeding people and turned it into part of her career. After the end of her 20-year marriage, Sofia was determined to succeed with her business. “In my mind, I had promised that we were not going to be poor,” she said. “We were not rich but we were not going to be scraping for things.
Sofia started bringing Forte at the age of 9 and Dominique at the age of 13 to her catering events.
“Both had to pack up and help get ready,” Sofia said.“He [Forte] always had a personality to talk to people and he was good at numbers, to count the money.”
Forte utilize what Sofia taught him on how to be an entrepreneur. Along with starting Greater U in 2016, Forte went to St. Pete Culinary School for 11 weeks and then started his own catering company Forte Fuels in 2017.
“A piece of my mother’s legacy now it’s part of mine,” Forte said.
The importance of sports and of football remains a part of Forte’s life by teaching young kids how to play. But cooking is what brought Sofia and Forte’s teams together. The connection over food is what inspired Greater U.
The reasoning behind the name Forte’s and Prince’s nonprofit Greater U is “ we want for the kids, a greater you, we want to help them to be the best version of themselves, the university part is to put structure and a plan,” Forte said.
The program was co-founded with Forte’s childhood friend Richard Prince. Prince and Forte met when they were 7-years-old during youth basketball and stayed close friends.
As adults, they realized that there wasn’t a program that incorporated more than just putting on cleats. In order to help these young kids build important life skills is through cooking.
For Forte, cooking is like football to him- he’s comfortable and knows exactly what he’s doing. Food is a creative art form everyone can connect to, he said. The aromas, taste and flavor can draw someone in.
“You can sympathize with people but you can’t always feel what their feeling,” Forte said.
“With music, you can put your heart and soul into it and people can feel it, it can bring people out of a bad day, can make people cry, but food is literally the same way.”
He sees this when he’s cooking with kids on the beach, when he delivers meal plans to locals and takes over a well-known bar in Tampa.
Indeed, Forte works on his cooking craft and continues to come up with different dishes. On Friday nights he rents out AJA Channelside, a bar, in Tampa and prepares not your typical bar menu. His array of roasted wings, fried lobster tail, and cinnamon beignets are crowd pleasers.
When Forte walks out the kitchen swinging doors in the back, customers can smell the sweet barbeque sauce lingering. Forte makes his way around the tables and greets everyone. When he sets one of his dishes in front of a customer-she beams. His goal one day is to own a restaurant and food truck.
“We always thought he was a chef but now he really is a chef,” Chandler said.
Getting Sucked Into the Streets
Forte had his mind on school and football while growing up. Sofia made sure Forte was playing in summer leagues whether that was basketball, tennis, boxing etc.
“In a lot of inner cities in America, summertime can be a very dangerous time a year,” Forte said.
“A lot of kids with free time have no direction,” he said.
Forte remembers his neighborhood being filled with children where they all would play football across the street from his house. He’s thankful to have a loving mother who gave him direction.
Sofia would sit on the porch watching Forte hope to tackle his NFL dreams, as long as he wasn’t getting in trouble, nothing else mattered.
“Unfortunately, literally everyone that I grew up hanging out with as far as my neighborhood goes, is either dead or in jail,” he said. “I could have been easily a statistic like one of the people I grew up with,” Forte said.“Cooking saved my life.”
One of Forte’s friends, Christopher London, also known as CP London Training on social media, indeed got sucked into the streets.
London, 33, and Forte met as kids playing youth football. As they got older, Forte played at USF while London was in and out of jail for drug trafficking.
In 2014, London had a wake-up call when he got into a car accident that he couldn’t live the “street life” anymore. He was put on 16 pills due to having seizures after the accident. He lost 45 pounds and now is down to two pills.
In 2016, he was named Tampa Bay 2016 champion of men’s bodybuilding.
“Instead of running the streets, I much rather run the gym,” he said. “I want to say I beat the odds, if I can do it, so can you.”
And that’s a message Forte stresses to the kids he mentors.
“These kids see the fast money, the fast cars, the fast life but they don’t realize that your life goes fast with that stuff,” London said. “The streets run you dry, eat you up and spit you out.”
Today, London and Forte lives cross paths but not as the young boys they once were. London is a personal trainer out of Debs gym in Lakeland where he directs his clients to Forte for healthy dishes.
Forte’s catering company, Forte Fuels, is where he meal preps for 11 clients. The magic happens inside of his home’s kitchen. Forte is getting away from the perception that healthy food has to taste nasty. He makes sure that his plates are filled with flavor.
These now grown men have taken different routes to change the conversation about African Americans’ health. For London “we’re changing the culture,” “It’s not too often you have African Americans doing what we’re doing,” he said.
Chandler, the former NFL player, is happy that Forte didn’t go down the wrong path. But looking back Chandler wishes that there were more career opportunities presented to them.
He signed to Jacksonville in 2015 and was cut from the team because of an irregular EKG.
“It’s a hard thing, to have somebody in some point of your life say we don’t need you anymore or don’t come back,” he said.
“For us to have black people telling younger generations you have to play football or play some kind of sport or you have to be an entertainer whether that is a rapper, gangster, thug.”
Post- football, Chandler thought he was going to use his degree in communications and criminology field but went in a completely different direction. Now, Chandler works at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Mental Health as a nurse assistant.
“Knowing what I know now, education can take you way further than any pair of cleats.”
He is excited that Forte is teaching young kids in Greater U on how to be an asset to their community.
“It’s definitely a setback thinking that sports or entertainment is the only way to make it out of your neighborhood,” Chandler said.
Building a Legacy
Greater U, is a place that Prince and Forte are working to give kids something that they may never have had: a mentor. And hopefully to have their lessons to be passed down.
Prince works at the Mayor’s office for Rick Kriseman and makes sure that the Greater U kids see another side of him.
“When I come they see me in my business clothes, I allow them to see both worlds,” Prince said.
Prince and Forte are feeding off each other’s energy during practice.
“He’s [Forte] always smiling, he’s always laughing, the same energy he has out here is pretty much him twenty four hours a day,” Prince said.
Forte makes practice a healthy competitive environment. He does every move with the participant so they won’t feel discouraged and to hopefully out beat him.
His coaching methods are different. Forte doesn’t dictate but allows the young men to decide their limits. Unlike Forte’s coaches at USF who made practice heinous.
It’s visible in practice that Forte isn’t the type of coach to bark and say “drop and give me 20.” Instead, when the kids yell out to Forte “how many?” Forte responds with a smirk and said “how many are you going to do?”
And in that moment, they don’t answer but instead wanted to make Forte proud.
Moverover, Greater U is a free program, because Forte and Prince understand that times can be rough and that they didn’t have a program like theirs when they were children.
“We operate this from our hearts not from out pockets,” Prince said. “This our service, this is our charity.”
For Steven Brown, 16, and Kyler Reynolds, 17, who both attend Greater U and Admiral Farragut Academy are grateful for what Prince and Forte are doing for them.
“They (Prince and Forte) are great, they can connect more to me than my coaching staff at Farragut to be honest,” Reynolds said.
“(Forte) is a great dude, he can hang out with us, talk to us.”
Meanwhile, Brown feels like Greater U is his family. “We became closer, more of us get up 9o’clock in the morning and to work out, we push each other, there’s no days off,” he said.
In ways, Brown and Reynolds are a younger reflection of Forte, both hoping for a better life. They might not be in Forte’s neighborhood playing ball but the beach is a place for them and Forte to turn their goals into reality.
Forte thought football was the only way out but instead, cooking became an opportunity for Forte to change the narrative of his life and impact others.
Contact Allana J. Barefield at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @_allanab_