Zach Ertz is so down-to-earth you’d never know he’s one of the top stars in pro sports. When he calls five minutes before his scheduled interview time, he apologizes and offers to phone back later.
"I got off work a little early, so I thought I would call right away," says Ertz. "Is that OK?"
By "work," the 28-year-old athlete means professional football practice. The Alamo-raised Ertz has become one of the National Football League’s elite tight ends since joining the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013. He permanently endeared himself to the notoriously intense Eagles faithful when he caught the game-winning touchdown in the final minutes of the 2018 Super Bowl, leading his team to its only championship in franchise history.
Ertz and his wife, Julie—a professional soccer player for the Chicago Red Stars—became online sensations that same year when videos of their emotional postgame reactions to the Eagles making the Super Bowl went viral. The couple has since used their fame to create the Ertz Family Foundation, an organization focused on giving disadvantaged youth in the East Bay and Philadelphia educational and athletic opportunities. Ertz’s mom, Lisa, runs the nonprofit from her Danville home.
"We are trying to be a foundation that would lend a helping hand and give students and people hope that there are people out there who truly care about them," says Ertz, who was inspired to create the foundation following a post–Super Bowl trip to Haiti, where he saw children living in extreme poverty.
"[Visiting Haiti] was one of the best things I’ve ever done," he says. "What really struck me was how much joy the people there took in the little things—like these kids were having the greatest time of their lives because they had access to a soccer ball. It made me think about all the advantages I had growing up where I did, and opened my eyes to what a foundation can do [to help children who don’t have those advantages]."
So far, the organization has impacted students in the East Bay by partnering with a nonprofit called College Is Real to install a college readiness administrator at Kennedy High School in Richmond. "Zach and Julie gave $50,000 to hire someone to run this program," Lisa says. "It’s a wonderful resource for kids who want to go to college to have while they’re in high school. They sign up for the program and keep in touch with [the administrator], who advises them on everything they need to do to make that dream come true."
East Bay Beginnings
Ertz is the oldest of four brothers. The family moved from Southern California to Alamo when he was in elementary school, and he attended Alamo Elementary, Stone Valley Middle School, and Monte Vista High School. Ertz was introduced to football in the seventh grade, and his first experience wasn’t positive.
"I played T-Birds for a year, and I didn’t like it," he says. "I was one of the biggest kids on the team and they stuck me on the line. I wanted to be running around and catching balls."
"When Zach was in the eighth grade, I showed him the form to sign up for the new season of football and he tore it up," says Lisa. But when Ertz reached high school, she encouraged him to try out for the football team anyway.
"She just wanted me to join the team so I would make friends, and it turned out to be one of the best things that ever happened to me," Ertz says. "College football was great and being a professional player is special, but you’ll never have as much fun as you have playing high school football, when you really don’t care about anything except having fun."
When Ertz was at Monte Vista, he had a great advantage. Former San Francisco 49ers tight end Brent Jones, who lived in the area, agreed to coach him and teach him the position.
"Zach had a lot of natural talent, but needed some direction and someone to believe in him," says Jones. "He was very quiet initially but started developing great confidence once he realized the things he could accomplish on the football field. The experience was very rewarding for me, as I was able to encourage him on and off the field."
Thanks to Jones’s training, Ertz evolved into a premier high school athlete and caught the attention of top schools. When Stanford offered a scholarship, Ertz agreed to play at the elite Bay Area university.
"I remember Zach being excited about a few schools, including UCLA, but when Stanford made an offer, I told him I would help him make the decision," Lisa says. "At that point, we weren’t thinking that he was a sure thing to play pro football, but the idea that football gave him the chance to go to Stanford was just amazing. I know he was happy with the decision, because he loved going to college—and that’s where he met Julie."
During Ertz’s senior year at Stanford, he met Santa Clara University junior Julie Johnston while watching a Stanford baseball game.
"I saw Julie and thought, I have to go sit next to her," says Ertz, describing his love-at-first-sight encounter. "There was an empty seat next to her. So I sat there, and we started talking a little bit. And from there we started hanging out more, started dating, got engaged, and got married."
Julie says Ertz took her back to those seats at Stanford’s baseball stadium to pop the question. The couple tries to spend their off-season time in the East Bay—the problem is, there’s almost no off-season time. Julie plays soccer nearly year-round, as she is a member of both the Red Stars in the National Women’s Soccer League and the U.S. women’s national team. Plus, Ertz’s schedule with the Eagles keeps him busy from April through February.
"Our relationship is tough, there’s no other way to put it," Ertz says. "We do a ton of long-distance. And so the only way we’re able to do what we do is because of the love we share for each other and the power of our faith. I trust her and she trusts me—otherwise I don’t think we’d be able to be successful."
"Our time together is special and sacred," Julie adds. "When we are together, we follow each other around the house, cook dinner together, and watch TV while sitting as close as possible on the couch."
In January 2018, sports fans around the world were moved by the pair’s excitement over each other’s success on the field. The Eagles were playing at home in the NFC Championship Game, hoping to reach the Super Bowl, while the U.S. women’s soccer team was playing in an international tournament in San Diego. Ertz made eight catches for 93 yards in the Eagles’ victory over the Minnesota Vikings. On the other side of the country, Julie scored a goal and helped her team defeat Denmark 5-1. As the women’s team celebrated its victory, Julie was told that the Eagles were going to the Super Bowl and she cried tears of joy for her husband. The video of her heartfelt reaction went viral.
"It was definitely a surreal experience to have the whole world watch me cry," Julie recalls with a laugh.
Ertz also teared up when a reporter in the Eagles’ locker room showed him the video. "It’s emotional for me not to have her here," he said. "But I can’t wait to get home and celebrate with her."
The Biggest Catch
The greatest celebrations happened two weeks later, when the Eagles came from behind to defeat the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. With 2:25 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Patriots leading 33-32, Ertz caught a short pass on the six-yard line and dived for the goal line, scoring the touchdown that would seal the Eagles’ first Super Bowl title. It was the kind of instant-classic performance that permanently endears a player to a team’s fan base.
"People are just so thankful—it’s like we all caught the ball together," says Ertz. "The stories that came from that game, about people bringing the newspaper clippings to [the graves of] their deceased parents, because they were never able to witness [a Super Bowl title]. People crying and shaking when they meet you, because they’re so grateful. Playing in Philly is so special, because the fans are so passionate and they truly embrace you as their own when you’re here."
Ertz’s wife and mother went to the Super Bowl, held in Minnesota that year, and each had different experiences witnessing Ertz make the winning catch.
"You watch from a different lens as a parent. You are cheering for your kid, of course, but you are also thinking, Please don’t get hurt, please don’t drop the ball," Lisa says. "You care so much for your child that you want him to do well. It didn’t sink in until later what that catch meant to the team and to the fans in Philadelphia."
Julie’s take was informed by her own background as an athlete. "What is so special about our relationship is that we can relate to what the other person goes through in a situation like that," she says. "I love watching him play because he puts so much work into it. I got to see all his hard work pay off, so it was amazing to watch. It was a cherry-on-top moment to realize that he had practiced rep after rep to prepare for that moment, and it paid off."
Ertz says the catch was the ultimate team effort—not just between him and his teammates and coaches, but all the coaches, friends, and families who helped him from his East Bay childhood to his All-Pro career. He shifts the conversation from his success on the football field to his and Julie’s ambitions for the Ertz Family Foundation as if the two are interchangeable.
"The people that come into your life are so important," he says. "I’m the first one to tell you that, being a professional athlete, you didn’t get there by yourself. There are so many people that have had to sacrifice to help you get there."
Par-Tee of the Summer
On Tuesday, July 16, Zach and Julie Ertz will host a daylong fundraiser for the Ertz Family Foundation at the Blackhawk Country Club in Danville. Proceeds from the day of golf and the evening’s dinner and auction will benefit the nonprofit organization’s efforts to help East Bay youth from disadvantaged areas gain sports and educational opportunities. ertzfamilyfoundation.org.