Through an ebullient smile, made extra shiny with gold-capped teeth, Malik Forrester insists he’s not trying to be funny.
Doesn’t go about his business with the intent of cracking up his Fresno State teammates and coaches.
Simply Forrester being himself.
“I do the same thing every day, and I guess people just think I’m funny,” the Bulldogs’ senior defensive tackle and team captain shrugs. “I don’t try to be funny. It just happens.”
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Part of it is Forrester’s appearance: 6-foot-1, 295 pounds with baby dreadlocks atop a cherubic face. (“He’s got close big ol’ fat cheeks!” his position coach says.) Part of it is his bubbly personality and animated manner of expressing himself. And part he simply enjoys talking – as well as being heard.
“He’s a loudmouth jokester,” says senior center Aaron Mitchell, Fresno State’s other co-captain. “That’s just who Malik is.”
Mitchell, who often lines up opposite Forrester during practice and also doesn’t mind exercising his vocal cords, is often the target. “We might not even be in the drill, and we’re still talking crap to each other,” he says.
Another is defensive line coach Jamar Cain, who admits he and Forrester butted heads initially (“He’s a dominant personality, and I’m a dominant personality,” Cain explains) but have since formed a tight bond.
“Even when he has a little mood, five minutes later he’ll be telling a joke,” Cain says. “He’s mad and he’s telling a joke – that’s when everybody starts laughing. He keeps the room calm.”
Malik is one of the funniest dudes on the team and one of the loudest.
Bulldogs senior Aaron Mitchell
In Forrester’s case, “calm” quite often means “loose.”
“Even with me,” Cain adds, “when I’m in one of my moods, he’ll say something funny like, ‘You’re in one of your moods. Calm down. (Wife) Carla must’ve yelled at you last night! Don’t take it out on us.’ And then everyone in the room will go, ‘Yeah, Coach. Don’t take it out on us.’
“He’s just got this personality that even when you’re (angry) he’s going to make you laugh. It’s like, ‘No, she didn’t yell at me. But I’m yelling at you now!’ He’s been awesome.”
Most college football teams have someone who lightens the mood, someone who provides comic relief on a tough, grueling day.
But not often do you see the resident funny guy also rank among the team’s most intense competitors and hardest workers.
That’s Malik Forrester.
Which is more than can be gleaned from Forrester’s eight tackles for losses and five sacks – pretty good for an interior lineman. Or even Forrester’s game-clinching sack safety against Boise State, which came during a rare snap at defensive end and earned him kudos from ESPN analyst Marcellus Wiley.
While several factors can be credited for Fresno State improving from the 123rd-ranked rushing defense in FBS to 15th in the span of 12 months, none are larger than Forrester.
“He’s the heart of the defense and the D-line,” backup tackle Jasad Haynes says. “Without him I don’t think we’d be in the same position that we’re in right now.
“He is the anchor on our defense. He brings that energy. He brings that personality. He brings that swagger. He brings that dog that we’ve been lacking for the last couple years.”
Considering the circuitous route Forrester took to get here, not to mention how much losing he’s experienced, it’s safe bet no one on Bulldog Lane has enjoyed this season’s surprising 9-4 record and Hawaii Bowl berth more.
Born and raised in Annapolis, Md., Forrester attended high school in nearby Glen Burnie. During his four years, the Gophers went 4-36. Forrester then spent a season at Fairmont State, an NCAA Division II program in West Virginia. The Fighting Falcons went 3-7.
Hoping to land a Division I scholarship, Forrester flew to California intending to enroll at Antelope Valley College. He wound up at Pierce College instead and after one 5-5, all-league season chose Fresno State as his landing spot, only to suffer through last year’s 1-11.
I haven’t had a winning season since I started playing football in high school. So this means a lot to me.
The change of coaching staffs impacted Forrester more than most Bulldogs. No longer a nose in a 3-4 defense, he was now a tackle in a 4-3. Which meant instead of simply occupying space and blockers, his job was to penetrate the backfield and create havoc.
Needing to get lighter and develop a quicker first step, Forrester shed 25 pounds during summer workouts after a shoulder injury limited him in the spring.
“He trained harder than any D-lineman I’ve seen train in a long time here, since like Tyeler Davison,” Mitchell says.
Like most JC transfers, Forrester was initially reserved around his teammates. Trying to figure out how to fit in. It took a year in the program before he felt comfortable enough to be himself.
“Before I could even speak to people I felt like I needed to earn their respect on the field,” Forrester says. “I felt like I did earn that, and I had Aaron Mitchell behind me when I really started to speak up.”
The dynamic between Mitchell and Forrester – senior co-captains who take turns battling against and busting on each other – is an underrated element to the Bulldogs’ one-year reversal.
“We’ve gotten into our fair share of altercations, but it’s iron sharpening iron,” Mitchell says. “That’s what makes you a good leader.”
Because of the responsibility it carries, the brand of vocal leadership Forrester brings has become increasingly rare.
Because of the responsibility it carries, the brand of vocal leadership Forrester brings has become increasingly rare. So says Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford.
“You have to be the bad guy, you have to make the team speeches, hold people accountable, all that stuff,” Tedford explains. “Everyone these days wants to lead by example. Ninety-nine percent of the people, if you asked their leadership style, it would be lead by example. Malik just happens to be one that is a vocal leader, and that brings a certain energy to the team.”
It’s an energy that oozes naturally, often in the form of humor.
Just don’t ask Forrester if he’s going to take his position coach’s suggestion and become a comedian, if the pro football thing doesn’t work out.
“Naw, naw, I don’t think so,” he says, grinning widely. “I get stage fright.”