Video: Tiff Oshinsky (producer), John DePetro (editor)
Sunday, Nov. 26
As is their custom, Zach Ertz FaceTimes his wife, Julie, first thing in the morning, before he’s showered and eaten breakfast. It’s Week 12 of the 2017 NFL season. Zach, the Eagles’ fifth-year tight end, is sitting in his room at the team hotel in Philadelphia, five hours before kickoff against the Bears; Julie, a stalwart of the U.S. Women’s National Team and a breakout star of the 2015 World Cup, is at the dining room table in their high-rise apartment overlooking the Delaware River. He asks if she’s excited for the game; she asks if he still wants breakfast for dinner. She’ll soon be headed to church with Zach’s mom, Lisa. They say their I love you’s, and game day can begin for arguably the NFL’s most athletically accomplished power couple.
The Ertzes moved into this apartment just a few months earlier, but already it’s filled with reminders of their faith. There’s the wooden sign over the coffee maker with the message, “All I need today is a little bit of COFFEE and JESUS.” On wooden plank above the kitchen cabinet, a passage from the Gospel of Luke is painted in white cursive script: “I will show you what he is like: He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid his foundation on the rock. And when a flood arose, the stream broke against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built.” There’s a Christmas tree, and a message written in chalk on a black chalkboard nearby: “30 days til Christmas.”
Far less organized is the room holding the tokens of Zach and Julie’s athletic achievements. Since Ertz entered the NFL in 2013 as a second-round pick out of Stanford, he ranks fifth in receptions among tight ends. Ertz has traded jerseys with some of the best tight ends in the league this season including Kansas City’s Travis Kelce, whose shirt is among a half dozen draped over a rolling chair in the office.
Julie’s magazine covers line the walls; she made her first U.S. Women’s National Team appearance in 2013 at age 20, and before that captained the Under-20 and Under-23 national teams. In 2014 she was drafted by the Chicago Red Stars of the NWSL and won the rookie of the league award that season, then spent the next two years splitting time between her pro team and USWNT duties, including the 2015 World Cup in Canada (where Zach was in the stands) and the Rio Olympics.
“I’m just so proud of Zach,” she says. “Being an athlete myself, I see all the hard work I do in my sports, so it’s really cool to see your spouse doing it too. It’s really cool to be a part of his career. It’s a really unique experience. I don’t take any of it for granted.”
Julie says she doesn’t get nervous on game days; Zach’s mom is nervous enough for the both of them. Lisa flies in from California for most Eagles home games and can be seen in the stands watching the action through her clasped hands— “finger goggles,” she says. This morning she arrives at 8:20, in time to join Julie for church services.
“All of us mothers pray for them to be safe and healthy,” Lisa says. “That’s the mom prayer on game day. Just walk off the field on your own.”
“It’s a violent game. It changes their lives, and not necessarily for the better. It’s really scary to me as a mom. In Dallas he hurdled over a guy, and I’m like, What are you doing?! Stay on your feet!”
The Connect Church
Cherry Hill, N.J.
Religion has been a part of the couple’s relationship ever since the former Julie Johnston met Zach at a Stanford baseball game—Julie was a star midfielder at Santa Clara University and Zach a future NFL draft pick. “But neither of us had any idea how good the other one was at their sport,” Julie says. The two discovered a heightened sense of devotion wen they met Eagles teammates and spouses who seemed at peace regardless of the fortunes of the team.
“There were so many ups and downs last year,” Zach says later on Sunday, “and I would see these guys on the team who never got too high, never got too low, and I was kind of envious of them. I was going with the flow of these seasons, and these guys were focusing on Christ.”
The Connect Church is described as a “multi-cultural, multi-generational, multi-ethnic church dedicated to connecting people to God, His People, and His purpose for their lives.” There are three video cameras positioned along the back wall of the single-story worship space. Fog machines fill the air with a rolling haze tinted with blue and yellow light. A live band plays swaying, uptempo music. A digital clock on the back wall tells speakers how much time they have left to deliver the gospel. The pastor, Kyle Horner, asks the 50 or so worshippers to give their neighbor a high five, and to check into the church on Facebook.
“We don’t worship a theory,” Horner says. “We don’t worship a philosophy. He’s real and He’s here. We love you.”
He directs his attention skyward.
“Father, we’re not asking for a religious experience today,” he says. “We’re asking for a life-changing encounter with a real God in a real way.”
“I’m so anxious right now I feel like I could throw up,” Lisa says, “so I need a little bit of alcohol.”
Coincidentally, a school friend of Lisa’s from Cedar Crest College in Allentown, Pa., lives in the same building as Zach and Julie, so they head to her place for Bloody Marys. Two yapping dogs await.
“Church, now Bloody Marys,” says the friend, Cindy.
Lisa Ertz works on the board of a company called VICIS, which has developed a $1,500 helmet designed to help prevent concussions. Of her four sons, the eldest, Shane, had his football playing career cut short when he was knocked unconscious in a high school game for five minutes. Last month Russell Wilson invested in the company’s mission to provide the helmets to youth teams that could normally not afford them. Wilson, Alex Smith and Doug Baldwin all wear the helmet.
“We want to see this game stay vibrant,” Lisa says. “It’s a cornerstone of our culture, and what happens when football goes away? It’s important for kids to play a sport where you’re fighting for your teammate, and you don’t get that with other sports.”
Lisa, who is wont to spontaneously burst into cheer (“Game Day! Game Day! Game Day! Game Day!”) had a hand in most of the big decisions in Zach’s career. He calls his choice of Stanford over UCLA “the best decision my mom ever made.” They picked boutique NFL agent Steve Caric of Caric Sports Management in part because “I wanted an agent like Jerry Maguire,” Lisa says. She’s a voracious reader of NFL content, and a big supporter of Julie’s soccer career.
“She has four boys, and really I’m the only female in the family,” Julie says. “She’ll joke and say I’m the most athletic one in our family.”
Lincoln Financial Field
Julie and Lisa leave the apartment and take an Uber to Lincoln Financial Field. Weaving through game-day foot traffic in a madhouse of a parking lot, the family goes undetected. Except for their matching Ertz jerseys, there’s little to indicate they’re the wife and mom of one of the game’s brightest young stars. Occasionally, Julie says, soccer fans will recognize her. But not today.
The two reach their seats in time for the national anthem, and at 1:10 the Eagles offense takes the field for the first time since a 37-9 shellacking of the Cowboys the previous week. They haven’t lost since mid-September, in the second week of the season, and they’re heavy favorites over a Bears team destined for a top-five pick in the 2018 draft. Zach catches his first pass on the second play of the game—a short comeback route for a first down on second and 5.
After an Eagles punt and a Bears three-and-out, Eagles second-year quarterback Carson Wentz gets hot. He finds Zach for nine yards, then Alshon Jeffery for 14. On first and 10 from the 17, Wentz drops back, cycles through his progressions and fires over the middle to Zach, who’s thrown off his defender with a head fake to the sideline and a cut to the post. It’s Ertz’s seventh touchdown catch of the season. Over in the 100 sections, the Ertz ladies along with their guests, Horner and his wife, Danielle, explode.
Zach, who missed one game due to a strained hamstring in the first week of November, will avoid any punishing blows for the next three hours. A pocket of the family section gets a scare when LeGarrette Blount, Ertz’s new teammate, hurdles a defender late in the first half during a 22-yard run for a first down. While the rest of the stadium erupts at the sight, the Blount family, sitting a row in front of the Ertzes, and their immediate neighbors flinch and wince.
“You can always tell you’re around player’s families when that sort of thing happens,” Julie says, “because the reaction is very different. It’s amazing to see what these athletic men can do, but you don’t like to see that when it’s your family.” (The following week at Seattle, Zach would suffer a concussion that caused him to miss a game.)
Against the Bears, Zach will catch 10 passes for 103 yards in a 31-3 win, surprisingly becoming the first Eagles receiver to top 100 yards in a game this season. The milestone is significant enough that most of the sideline is aware late in the fourth quarter that he’s only a few yards away from it. So when Nick Foles comes in to replace Wentz in the waning minutes of a blowout, the priority becomes getting the football to the tight end.
Ertz splits out wide on the left side on third down with six minutes remaining and runs a slant, beating Prince Amukamara to the football for a five-yard catch that puts him over the mark. Ertz jogs off the field grinning at the sideline.
“You know how they tell you I really don’t know my stats during the game?” posits Fox Sports color analyst Charles Davis on the broadcast.
“Oh yeah, right,” says play-by-play man Kevin Burkhardt.
“Wanna bet? They know,” Davis says.
Here’s a bigger milestone: Ertz’s 10 grabs make 300 in his 71 games as a pro. Only five other tight ends in NFL history did it faster.
Lincoln Financial Field
Wentz and Ertz walk off the field together, and as the pair enters the locker room, the quarterback apologizes. “Carson was upset that he didn’t get me 100 yards and Nick had to get me 100 yards,” Ertz says later.
Zach is the last to finish his shower, last to complete interviews and next to last to leave the locker room. He’s walking gingerly. The pulled hamstring and an ankle strained a week ago aren’t doing him any favors as the weather turns cold and the Eagles eye playoff seeding.
Julie is waiting in a back hallway reserved for staff and family. They embrace, and she congratulates him, then they’re off to find mom and the Horners. The group wends towards a team parking lot and piles into a Lincoln sedan. The sound system fires up immediately, and Zach reaches quickly to silence it—it’s Christian rapper Andy Mineo. (Zach cranks Mineo’s hit “You Cant Stop Me” before games).
Discussion turns to the postgame meal, and Zach doubles down on the breakfast-for-dinner plan: “You still gonna make your famous pancakes?” he asks Julie.
“They’re not famous,” she says. “They’re just regular pancakes.”
Mom and son talk college football:
“Did you see the Stanford game, mom?”
“Yes! That Costello is incredible,” she says of Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello.
“He’s finally getting the playbook.”
“Well, that’s because it’s too huge,” Lisa says.
“I’ll let David [Stanford coach David Shaw] know,” Zach deadpans.
Julie wants to know about the celebrations; for one touchdown, Jeffery mock-bowled the football into a group of Eagles who fell down as though they were pins. After a second-half turnover, most of the Philadelphia defensive backs took to the field and posed for pictures.
“Teams have got to be so mad when they see us celebrating,” Zach says. “It’s just a normal turnover, and we have a choreographed celebration.”
“I love it though. It’s so fun,” Julie responds. “You’d think they’d be more upset anyway that they let you guys score. Let them worry about that.”
The pancake batter hisses when it hits the pan. Julie asks Zach how many eggs he wants.
“Five,” he says. And three pancakes, and four slices of bacon, and a bowl of Thai noodles from Honeygrow, a local restaurant that delivers.
Zach scarfs down his breakfast and asks Julie if she’d like to play “Call of Duty: Modern Warfare.” Julie isn’t a fan of most video games; FIFA is too difficult, and she hates Zach’s habit of playing “NBA 2K” with his brothers online in connected franchises where they do more team-building and roster management minutiae than playing actual basketball games. But she loves “Call of Duty Modern Warfare.”
“I saved you a lot yesterday,” she tells Zach as they fire up the controllers. “I was stoked. It doesn’t happen often. We started because after games Zach can’t sleep. So we started playing ‘CoD’ instead of doing nothing.”
They aim virtual rifles at virtual enemies and sink into another placid victory epilogue. They’re not in the habit of celebrating wins at bars or restaurants; their social life consists of card games, board games and video games. Win or lose, they’d probably be doing the same thing.
“Our relationship isn’t really based on our success as athletes,” Zach says. ”We love each other for the company. The sports are just a season of our life that we’re in.”
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