Love it or leave it: Khairi Fortt’s work ethic

Jan Flatley-Feldman/Staff

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Sometimes, it seems like Khairi Fortt was put on Earth to play football.

“He’s a freak of an athlete,” says teammate and roommate Nick Forbes.

“You look at him, and you go, ‘Wow,’” says head coach Sonny Dykes. “That’s what a linebacker is supposed to look like.”

“He possesses an athleticism that is uncommon for a guy his size,” says defensive coordinator Andy Buh. “He’s fast,” he continues, in a way that makes a commonplace word sound strangely alluring.

Fortt transferred from Penn State last August, and he has yet to play a minute of Cal football. But he’s a prize for the revamped Bears. Despite his 6-foot-2, 240-pound build, he has surprising speed. It enables him to weave through traffic to chase down the play. After two years in the Big Ten, he’s used to — and enamored of — bone-cracking hits.

Despite missing most of the spring training camp, Fortt’s potential was so obvious that he was listed as the team’s starting weakside linebacker. Even with fewer reps, he had a slight edge as the defense transitioned to a 4-3 formation, and Buh was pleased with how quickly he picked up a new system.

The Nittany Lions, it turns out, also ran a 4-3 scheme, and while playing for Penn State, Fortt gained what he calls his baseline of experience and technique. It’s not called Linebacker U for nothing.

“You need a guy to chase, and he provides that for a lot of guys,” fellow linebacker Forbes says. “He’s ahead of the pack.”

And he doesn’t leave the game on the field, either. Obsessed with football’s nuances, he is a perfectionist, constantly trying to tweak his game. When he and Forbes make a late-night run to Nation’s for burgers and breakfast food, they spend the entire meal evaluating and rehashing plays they ran earlier that day in practice.

They even have a whiteboard at home they pass back and forth, constantly drawing up and reworking strategies.

“He loves to play football,” Dykes says. “I think he’s got a passion for the game.”

That’s the image Fortt projects, and for the most part, it’s true. Through the years, the redshirt junior has, indeed, come to value football for its competition and the future opportunities it will provide. He is absolutely devoted to the game.

But football, in Khairi Fortt’s own words, “is not my true love.”

Guy Fortt took his son to his first Pop Warner football practice when he was in fourth grade. Khairi remembers a big field where he stretched and watched his older brother and cousin play farther away.

It was his very first exposure to football. And it wasn’t love at first sight.

But he was athletic, and it was a good outlet for his competitive spirit every week, so Fortt determinedly stuck with the sport for years.

“My parents were like, every day, ‘Khairi, if this is not what you love to do, don’t do it for us,’” he says.

His parents might not have forced him, but they certainly factored into his continued commitment. Both parents played sports in college and fostered competition in Khairi and his three siblings.

Guy and his wife, Tabitha, also instilled a blue-collar work ethic in their children. The Fortt household is one that believes wholeheartedly in the value of an honest day’s work. In fact, Guy had a favorite saying: If you don’t go get it, it will never come to you. Life is not a lazy man’s game; you have to actively take part.

Khairi loved that lesson and wanted to find something that would fuel him. Football wasn’t it, but there wasn’t anything else, either. He stayed with the sport because he was stuck with it — he’d fallen into its routine too long ago to quit now.

“I happened to be a great athlete,” he says in a way that at once belies coincidence and fate. His destiny, for better or worse, is tied up in this sport.

Though he may not have wanted football badly, he continued to go out and get it. He worked, but with his raw talent, he never had to work too hard to surpass his peers. The competition, then, became an internal one, an outlet for his deep-seated competitive drive.

His attitude shifted during his junior year of high school. In the last few seasons, teammates and opponents alike had grown bigger and better. Fortt was suddenly working a little harder to stay ahead.

That year, before the start of the football season, he looked around and noticed something else, something about his parents’ lives. Though they were far from struggling, they still were working each day.

His parents sat him down and offered him an alternative.

“Khairi, we’ve done some great things, but we are still working,” they told their son. “You have the opportunity to set yourself up for the rest of your life so you don’t have to work.”

That opportunity was football. Fortt was talented and driven enough that he could use it as a means to an end. While he can be easygoing, Fortt is very much a person who likes to work with a solid plan in mind; that’s why he was considering a kinesiology major as a backup career during his time at Penn State. It’s also why he hopes to go into business with some economics-minded teammates after a career in the NFL.

Football is not a lazy man’s game. It’s a game that delivers a plan to those who buy into it. If Fortt honed this particular gift, this particular tool, he could forge his own plan in life. He might not have to keep working so long.

Fortt was already a strong prospect, well on his way to a U.S. Army All-American Bowl appearance and the No. 5-ranked linebacker recruit in the nation. He even had a handful of offers from colleges near his home of Stamford, Conn. When someone asked him why he could possibly want more offers, Fortt bristled. That was all the motivation he needed to go out and rack up 52 colleges chomping at the bit, from USC to Penn State to Cal.

The talk his parents gave him stuck, too: He put up his best numbers in his junior season, tallying 118 tackles, five forced fumbles and four interceptions.

Slowly, he began to love football. For him, the reward — and the emotion — came only after putting in the work.

In many ways, Fortt is still a young man — which he is careful to call himself, rather than a grown-up. He is still allowed, like so many of his peers on campus, to spend college searching for what he really, truly loves.

Sometimes, his passion seeps out in unexpected places. Right now, his love can be found in his Suzuki GSX-R motorcycle. Fortt and a few teammates zoom through the Berkeley Hills on nice days, pausing at Grizzly Peak to soak in the panoramic views. Though he insists they never ride at dangerous speeds, he also “didn’t buy a bike to go 20 miles an hour,” he says.

Now that the season and school are officially under way, those rides are less frequent, and football once again dominates his life.

And a budding love pokes out in how Fortt reacts to the game. Take it away from him, for instance, and he is in utter agony.

Last season, Fortt redshirted while recovering from knee surgery. His right knee has been subluxing — or partly dislocating — since ninth grade. It would sporadically pop out during games throughout high school, so despite the wear and tear, he figured out how to pop it back in on the sidelines.

But during spring camp in 2012, he finally did some damage while hitting a lineman, and the result was major reconstructive surgery to prevent any further deterioration (jaded now, he refers to a tune-up last year that removed scar tissue as a “minor procedure”).

The recovery process was, in a word, depressing. Sitting helplessly on the sidelines as his team skidded to a 3-9 record made it all the more unbearable.

“It was like a mother strapped down in a chair while her baby is drowning in the pool,” he says. “I couldn’t do anything about it. I wanted to get out there and help my team, but I couldn’t do it.”

The image reeks of unconditional love, an emotion that is echoed in how he feels whenever opponents come to town. He finds the motivation to compete when he thinks about how those rivals want to hurt his teammates, his brothers. These are, after all, the guys he trains hard alongside every day.

“I take that personally,” he says. “And that’s what pisses me off. For me to have the aggression, I need to play good defense.

“If it was just that I’m playing football, then I wouldn’t get hyped,” he continues, “just because football has never been my love, my true love.”

The game, then, is a deeply personal affair for Fortt. And love or not, it has to be for someone who has given so much for so long.

Maybe in the future he’ll grow deeper in his love. Maybe he’ll find something else to fuel him instead.

But for now, it’s enough.