The Ridiculously Cute, Impossibly Adorable Love Story of Zach and Julie Ertz
How the Super Bowl-winning tight end and the World Cup-winning soccer star became the It Couple of Philly sports.
Warning: If you’re allergic to stories about married couples who are ridiculously in love and blush or giggle when asked about each other, please contact your physician before reading further. Even if you’re not, I can’t guarantee your gag reflex won’t be tested. But Zach and Julie Ertz are no ordinary couple, and after spending time with them, I’m not sure we deserve them, but I’m glad they’re ours.
The Eagles tight end who caught the Super Bowl LII-winning touchdown is jogging around the Ridley High School football field on a hot, muggy Saturday morning in June with a bunch of grade-schoolers. It’s the inaugural Zach Ertz youth camp, and its 27-year-old namesake is wearing a backward Birds cap, a very un-blingy silver cross on a simple chain around his sturdy neck, and a white silicone wedding ring on his left hand. His green camp tee is also ringed, with sweat — instead of chilling in the shade or giving the kids a quick pep talk before peace-ing out, Zach circulates through every drill. “There it is! Nice swat-and-swim!” he calls out to a tyke who’s working on his pass-rush technique. One young boy wearing jeans gets a little extra help from the pro, who cheers when the kid awkwardly catches a pass. Zach will return for more hands-on interaction the next day, too. No children will leave without a high five or fist bump from their hero. “Hopefully, this camp is the first of many more to come,” Zach tells me during a break. “The city has given the Ertz household so much. To be able to give back a little bit is a lot of fun.”
The other half of the household is in Utah on this day, practicing with the U.S. women’s soccer team ahead of the first of two friendlies with China. Julie Ertz, née Johnston, plays for the Chicago Red Stars of the National Women’s Soccer League, but as a member of the World Cup-winning national squad, the 26-year-old defender/midfielder is often shipping off across the country or around the globe. In their relatively short careers, both Julie and Zach have reached the pinnacle of their professions, and that makes the Ertzes unlike any other power couple that has graced Philadelphia and intersected with sports. Sure, Chase and Jen Utley and Cole and Heidi Hamels were like our William and Kate and Harry and Meghan, but only the husbands were athletes. A.J. Feeley and Heather Mitts were high-wattage and a dual sports threat, but with all due respect for the former Birds backup QB, Mitts (with her three Olympic gold medals, one of a trio of American women to accomplish that feat) was the star athlete in that pairing. (If only Nnamdi Asomugha had told us he was dating actress Kerry Washington when he was an Eagle.)
The Ertzes are a product of this golden moment in our sports history — both of them inexorably linked to the city’s first Super Bowl championship, an impossibly perfect pair for an unimaginable moment in time as the Eagles go about the work of dynasty-building. Titles aside, Zach and Julie are also college sweethearts, cheerleaders for each other, workout partners who are in such great shape that they earned a feature in ESPN Magazine’s Body Issue — and posed together, of course. But life at the top isn’t all trophies and parades. “Once we got married, it definitely got tougher at times,” Zach says of the distance between them; they’re lucky to have three months together in the same city over the course of a given year. “But we’ve laid a great foundation.”
“I enjoy being clothed,” Julie says before breaking out in a minor fit of laughter. That came out wrong, she tells me over the phone from Cleveland. A few hours later, she’ll help lead the U.S. team to a 2-1 win over China; meanwhile, Zach’s in Philly, working out at the first day of Eagles mandatory minicamp. Julie was simply explaining that posing nude for a magazine wasn’t something that came easily to the couple, even if they’re both world-class, remarkably fit athletes. “The female body is kind of portrayed as … maybe not as much muscle as I have,” she says. “You go through insecurities, and I’m sure Zach would say the same thing. That my best friend was next to me made me feel the most positive.” While Zach speaks with a quiet, steady confidence, Julie is quick to punctuate a thought with a laugh or something humorous. “We always joke that I have a relationship with my phone,” she says, with most days a flurry of texts and multiple FaceTimes with her husband. “But I think we knew that going in. I don’t want to say it makes it easier at all … but we understand.”
As meet-cutes go, their story is about as awww-inspiring as they come. Julie, the Arizona blonde and soccer star for Santa Clara University, was at a Stanford baseball game in 2012 and met Zach, not knowing the Northern California kid was even on the football team at Stanford. He offered her some sunflower seeds; she did most of the talking. Their first date that winter: Chipotle. (“To this day, still one of our favorites,” Zach says; fittingly, Julie’s tacos with scratch tortillas are his go-to home-cooked meal when they’re not out trying new restaurants that she’s researched.) It soon became obvious they complemented each other well: Zach was struck by Julie’s ability to relate to people, understand what they’re going through and lend a helping hand; in turn, Julie thought Zach’s shyness was endearing, and when they talked about anything and everything, he not only spoke, but also listened closely.
Whatever your unprintable thoughts on Chip Kelly may be, remember that without him, we wouldn’t have the Ertzes. Just a few months after they became a couple, Zach was selected in the second round of the 2013 draft by then-still-GM Howie Roseman and the Chipster, who had visions of three-tight-end sets like the ones the Patriots used. (Oh, the irony.) With that, a long-distance relationship began. Julie was the third overall pick in the NWSL draft the next January, and off they went, on the same track to sports stardom but more often than not riding separately.
I know what you’re thinking — Boohoo, the hardships of the young, great-looking, and soon-to-be rich and famous. Or perhaps: I wish my husband spent most of the year in a different city. But just as winning championships demands hard work, so does maintaining a relationship between two elite athletes. The Ertzes — who married in March 2017 — have a simple formula for making it work that we’ll quantify and call the F3 Method, just to poke at the TB12 Method and Tom Brady (because by the way, did you hear that the Eagles beat his team to win the Super Bowl?). The F3 Method starts with friendship — again, before you ralph, please bear with me. One might think two All-Star jocks would drive each other crazy. You call that a burpee? Sure you want to eat those cheese curls? How did you miss that empty net? Who taught you how to run routes? Not so, they both say. “First and foremost, we’re each other’s biggest supporter,” Zach explains. “I know enough soccer to get by, but I don’t know strategy. And I think she feels the same way about football. So we’re there to build each other up.”
Zach’s first international trip was to join Julie’s cheering section at the 2015 World Cup, in an exotic land called Canada. (“It counted,” Zach says of technically leaving the United States.) The Americans won the golden trophy, and Julie was named a tournament all-star. Fast-forward to the Eagles’ NFC Championship game against the Vikings this past January; if you don’t follow women’s soccer or Eagles WAGs, this is when you likely met Julie. She had a match against Denmark that ended after Zach’s game, so she waited until the final whistle to find out if he (and she) was headed to the Super Bowl. Julie broke down in joyous tears as her teammates hugged and high-fived, and a video of the spontaneous celebration went viral. Fewer people saw a later clip of Zach in the Eagles locker room, watching his wife’s reaction for the first time. (Yes, he teared up, too.) Julie was a media darling in Minneapolis in the week leading up to the title game; afterward, she posted an Instagram video of the two of them on the field, tossing confetti into the air and kissing, with the caption, “Congrats to my best friend. … #godissogood.”
That hashtag represents the F that’s become the cornerstone of their lives, both together and individually — faith. Julie went to a Jesuit college, where she began to explore religion more closely. She encouraged Zach to do the same. Since Julie had no connections to Philadelphia except Zach and one of her teammates, Delran’s Carli Lloyd, the Eagles and their significant others became the couple’s circle of friends, particularly a group of devout players who met for weekly Bible study, including Carson Wentz, Nick Foles, Chris Maragos, Jordan Hicks, Stefen Wisniewski, and fellow tight end Trey Burton, who’s now with the Chicago Bears and threw the Super Bowl TD pass now and forever known as the “Philly Special.”
Burton — whom Zach saved from a can of beer whizzing toward his head at the championship parade — remembers the roller coaster of emotions his friend would ride after each game. Ertz says he eventually realized that the players who seemed most at peace regardless of the scoreboard were all believers, and that epiphany, along with Julie, led him to reexamine his own spirituality. “He’s a new man, for sure,” says Burton, who was also one of Zach’s groomsmen; so deep was Zach’s newfound devotion that he was baptized during his wedding weekend. “We’d meet in the morning and go over our faith and what we believe. He kind of ran with it. … He used to be so focused on football, man. If he dropped a ball or got locked up one time out of 100, you didn’t want to talk to him. Now, it’s not the most important thing in his life.”
Credit Zach for being able to reference Scripture without sounding preachy or pushy. Along with many of his teammates, he and Julie attend the Christian nondenominational, New-Age-y Connect Church in Cherry Hill. Belief, they both tell me, is essential for a couple that communicates through smartphones for most of the year. “Luke 6:46 talks about if something’s built on a strong foundation, it’s not easily swayed,” Zach says. “So we’ve built our marriage on a strong foundation of the Word and lean on Jesus when we need to.” Like her husband, Julie also sees a tangible benefit to her game: “When I laid my foundation in the right spot, my faith allowed me to perform better. I was able to see the big picture; I had a more positive thought process. My mind just switched — how I viewed the player I wanted to be on and off the field.”
With spirituality comes a mutual support system and a deep trust that’s invaluable for any relationship, but especially one that’s often mic’d up and in the spotlight. Early in Zach’s tenure with the Eagles, he was stuck behind Brent Celek on the depth chart and not getting the snaps he wanted; likewise, Julie played for the national team only occasionally, struggling to solidify a roster spot prior to the World Cup run. Their primary support system as pros — and remember, despite all they’ve achieved, they’re just in their mid-20s — has always been each other. “There were definitely hard times,” Julie says. “But it was also kind of what grew Zach and me together. … We don’t know anything different. We don’t know that non-grind. We love to work out together. We love that support. We love playing our sports.”
Which brings us to focus. (Zach and Julie would insist on adding a fourth F, for family, but this story can’t handle any more schmaltz.) They both know the day will come when their sculpted physiques break down and they can retire to spend every waking second with each other and crank out an army of little Ertzi. “I can annoy him at that time,” Julie says with a laugh. (It’s worth noting these two smile a lot. Guests at their wedding in Santa Barbara were amazed that they seemed to be grinning from sunrise to last call. Says Burton, “They didn’t do anything differently that day.”) They’ve also just launched the Ertz Family Foundation, inspired by Zach’s trip to Haiti with Wentz and other Birds and aimed at helping kids and needy families there as well as in Philadelphia and California. But right now, Zach wants another Lombardi Trophy, and Julie’s focused on completing her personal trifecta — an NWSL title and an Olympic gold to go with her World Cup victory. And lest you worry that romance or Jesus will get in the way of winning, fear not. How competitive are they? As admitted homebodies, one of their favorite ways to pass their rare downtime together is playing card games, particularly gin. They keep a book with a running tally of their scores. And yes, they know who’s in the lead.
As day one of Zach’s football camp winds down, the emcee prepares to raffle off prizes and asks the tight end to pick random numbers. “Eight,” he calls out; it’s Julie’s number. His second pick is 52, as in Super Bowl LII champions. I ask Julie if the demands that come with success — public appearances, interviews like this — are taking a toll on them. “It’s part of the career,” she says. “I don’t have an issue talking about my husband. It’s one of my favorite things to do.” (Okay, I know, enough with these two; we’re almost done.)
A couple weeks later, Julie makes a rare Philly appearance with her husband, two days before she’s back on the field with the Red Stars. It’s the Eagles’ ring party, at a South Philadelphia wrestling arena. Zach’s looking dapper in a checkered navy suit, a fedora and shades, with one arm around Julie, who’s rocking a red-carpet-ready camo green jumper. It’s nothing short of a historic night, spent together in the company of some of their closest friends, the payoff for all that grinding and believing. Good luck finding a photo from that night where they’re not smiling.
Published as “Love Ertz” in the August 2018 issue of Philadelphia magazine.