BIOGRAPHY

It has become a familiar path to follow: a budding basketball talent transitioning to NFL tight end. But the journey of Zach Ertz is different from the rest, influenced by an insightful, supportive mother, and an NFL great who saw a football phenom before the phenom ever did.

Zachary Adam Ertz was born on November 10, 1990, to Lisa and Douglas Ertz in Orange, California. The family relocated to Northern California when Zach was just seven years old, a move that would later have a significant impact on Zach’s evolution as an athlete.

Ironically, in his youth, football was far from Zach’s mind. The eldest of the four Ertz boys participated in virtually every other sport, from soccer to baseball to swimming. But Zach’s true love from a young age was basketball. He had the size for it right from the beginning.

“It’s the first sport that I truly excelled at and enjoyed. I never got tired of playing it or watching it,” Zach recalled. “I think those traits of being a good basketball player, going up for a rebound, catching a ball, truly translated to my success on the football field as well.”

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The same traits that made Zach an excellent basketball player from a young age actually made it difficult for him to develop a passion for the game of football.

“Since I was the biggest kid on the team, they made me play offensive line and I hated that,” he explained. “There was also a weight limit for peewee football, so just to play I had to lose like 15 lbs and it was miserable,” he recalled. “I hated it and I never wanted to play again.”

MOTHER KNOWS BEST

Zach entered into his final year before high school focused on playing basketball, with dreams of continuing his career in college. As he remembered:

“Throughout my entire childhood and early adulthood I thought I would become a basketball player. Everything I did in life was geared toward being as good as I possibly could be at basketball and getting a scholarship to play basketball. I probably could have played in the Ivy Leagues or maybe a small D1 school.”

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But his mother, Lisa, encouraged Zach to continue to play other sports, and that included giving football another try. Initially, he resisted, worried that his continued growth would put him right back on the offensive line, just as he’d been a few years earlier. Eventually, though, Zach relented, joining the freshman football team at Monte Vista High School in Danville, California.

This time, rather than putting him in a position he didn’t enjoy, Zach’s height made him the star of the team. He played quarterback, receiver and safety on the MVHS freshman squad, all the while discovering a new found love for football.

“I really liked the game,” he said. “It was just a lot of fun being with my friends. I kind of had the time of my life.”

Around the same time, Zach’s family life began to change. His parents divorced during his sophomore year of high school. Ultimately, it brought Zach even closer to his mom Lisa, who became his primary caretaker and confidant.

“My mom is probably the most important person in my life. Without her, I might not have even played football or be where I am today. I probably wouldn’t be here altogether, so obviously I’m very grateful for everything she’s done. She’s been through a lot of adversity, but she’s never let that slow her down. I’m very proud of the way she’s handled all the things that have been thrown at her. As I’ve gotten older, it’s allowed me to recognize everything that she sacrificed for me and my three brothers growing up. I’m just so grateful to have a mother who was able to put her own life to the side, and really care about the four of us.”

As the oldest of the four Ertz boys, Zach also took on a larger role in the house. He and his three younger brothers — Shane, Nick and Jackson — still spent time with their father, who lived close by. But their home life revolved around their mother and each other.

Zach took it upon himself to set an example for his siblings to follow. Even though Shane and Nick are in college and Jackson is a high school freshman, it’s a responsibility Zach continues to take seriously.

“I take a lot of enjoyment out of being the leader of the brothers per say. Even back then, I had a lead-by-example mentality with them. I wanted to be as successful as I could and set a good example for them, and I hoped that they would look at it in that way. But we also helped each other out just by being there for one another. We all have our unique personalities and it’s a lot of fun. We play a lot of basketball and other sports when we’re all together. I think that’s helped us out along the way as well.”

A LIFE-CHANGING MEETING

Throughout high school, Zach’s interest in football grew, but he continued to balance it out with basketball, something that he believes assisted him in playing both sports. It also taught him about time management, personal responsibility and priorities — life skills that he was able to develop and translate into success on and off the field.

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Zach still saw a future in basketball as his ultimate path. However, others around him saw it differently, particularly Monte Vista High School head football coach Craig Bergman. When Zach made the jump from JV to varsity in between his sophomore and junior years at MVHS, Bergman enlisted the help of Brent Jones to guide Zach on a path to success at the tight end position.

Jones, a Bay Area native, was also one of the top NFL tight ends of his generation. He played 11 years with the San Francisco 49ers, earning four Pro Bowl nods, three All-NFL selections and three Super Bowl titles. When Bergman came calling, Jones had been away from football for nearly a decade. Still, the Monte Vista High football coach knew the former 49er had daughters playing soccer at MVHS.

Bergman reached out to Jones on a whim, telling him about the budding tight end prospect he had on his squad, and inviting him out to a practice. The hope was that Jones — who had no coaching experience —  would nonetheless make Zach his pupil.

All it took was one look, and Jones was on board.

“I instantly saw some phenomenal things in Zach,” Jones told CSN Philadelphia in 2013. “The first thing that stood out was his size and his unbelievable hands. He was a basketball player, and he was very good at using his body and getting the ball up high. Here’s a kid who had never played varsity, was going into his junior year, and I looked at him and told him, ‘Zach, you’re going to play in the NFL.’”

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According to Zach, football still wasn’t something he took very seriously when he met Jones. He didn’t consider himself a football fan, and had just a cursory knowledge of Brent Jones as a player. Although the game had become more fun in high school, he had yet to discover a passion for it.

Jones changed that in short order.

“Brent came out and kind of opened my eyes to how good I could be. He would always say when I was a junior in high school that I’d be playing in the pros one day and I just kind of laughed at him. I was 16 years old, how am I supposed to know how good I’m supposed to be,” Zach recalls. “But at that point I had already grown and was probably about the same size that I am now. I just didn’t have the passion for football. Brent showed me how to really enjoy it and be a dominant football player. And that’s kind of when everything opened up to me. So I think everything that I turned out to be as a football player was because of how he initially showed me the path.”

Zach’s first summer working with Jones began a meteoric rise from basketball standout with football talent to football standout with star potential. In his first game of his junior season against rival James Logan High, Zach caught seven passes for 118 yards and a touchdown. A week later, he scored three more touchdowns in a win over West High. It didn’t take long for scholarship offers to start rolling in.

“After Brent came out and coached me, my game picked up, the level of enjoyment skyrocketed and the recruiting picked up almost immediately,” Zach recalls. “I received the first scholarship offer like 4-6 weeks into my junior year and before my junior year started I wouldn’t even have thought about scholarships. I just felt very fortunate to be in the situation, as a 17-year-old kid to have college coaches calling me. That time in my life was a lot of fun and something that I’ll never really forget.”

Zach credited much of his success to his relationship with Jones. In retrospect, their relationship — which he maintained through college to the present — was a gift.

“The things that he accomplished as a pro are unbelievable. I was naïve to not realize it at the time. Everyone said it, and I was just very happy that he was helping me out,” Zach says. “It’s been unbelievable just to have a mentor like that in my life, somebody that’s been through pretty much every situation I’ll ever go through in the NFL. So it’s easy to bounce ideas off of him or say, ‘Hey, what would you think about this or that?’ even if it’s not football related. He’s someone that has been very successful off the field as well. He’s been unbelievable, and I’m truly grateful to have him in my life.”

MOTHER KNOWS BEST II

A wrist injury brought an early end to Zach’s junior season in high school, but the offers didn’t slow down. As it became clear that football was going to earn him a college scholarship, he had another important decision to make. Once again, he turned to his mother for guidance.

Zach was initially torn between offers from two Pac-10 football factories: UCLA and Stanford. Lisa Ertz stepped in to break the tie, and made Zach see the value of a Stanford education.

“That was the best decision my mom ever made because she was actually the reason that I went to Stanford,” Zach recalled. “I was kind of was torn and she said, ‘No, you’re going to Stanford.’ At the time I don’t think I realized the magnitude of that decision just not even from a football perspective but just the impact that it would have, the pride that I have saying now that I’m a Stanford graduate. It’s very cool to realize that she realized at the time.”

Zach committed to Stanford in November of his junior year, but there was still the important matter of getting into one of the nation’s toughest academic institutions.  It required Zach to work harder at his studies during his senior year than he ever had before to hold down a 3.5 GPA while balancing AP classes, football and basketball. To this day, Zach looks back on his senior year at Monte Vista and the hard work he put in to earn acceptance to Stanford as an important moment in his life.

“I think it was my first true test in time management and to realize what’s important in life,” he said. “As a senior in high school a lot of kids just want to go out and have fun. I had to focus on what really mattered, which was getting good grades and getting to Stanford, as well as being very good in athletics. I think that kind of set me up for success at Stanford as well.”

CARDINAL CALLING

Zach spent his first year at Stanford redshirting on the football team. In truth, he was still relatively new to the game, and the extra time allowed Zach to get to know college football better. It also gave him a chance to get his academic career off on the right note.

On the recommendation of teammate Toby Gerhart, Zach took some classes in management science and engineering — known elsewhere as industrial engineering. He went on to pick management science and engineering as a major. It was another test. He could have opted for an easy major and focused more on football. But that wasn’t what Zach wanted out of his college experience.

“I didn’t want to cheat myself off the field. Obviously, I was giving so much of my time and energy into football, but at the same time I was going to this prestigious university. I didn’t want to just coast by, and get a degree that I wouldn’t be proud of looking back.”

In his sophomore year, Zach finally got a chance to excel on the gridiron. In Stanford’s first game of the 2010 season, No. 86 hauled in two passes, one of them for a red zone touchdown in the Cardinal’s 52-17 win over Sacramento State.

“When the coaches trusted me to go in there and catch a touchdown pass, that’s when I knew I could be a successful player at the college level,” Zach said of his first college score.

Zach was lightly used by Stanford during his sophomore season, playing behind quarterback Andrew Luck’s favorite target, tight end Coby Fleener. But when he did get opportunities, Zach made the most of them. Of his 16 receptions as a sophomore, five of them went for touchdowns, including an early score in Stanford’s 40-12 Orange Bowl win over Virginia Tech.

Zach also built a strong bond with coach Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh transformed the Stanford football into a winning program, and had enticed Zach to join the movement.

“He and I still have a great relationship today,” Zach said. “He was very enthusiastic and he brought an enthusiasm to Stanford that they never had and a toughness to Stanford that they never had. He said to give him some time and we’ll turn this program around together and that’s exactly what we did.”

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The Orange Bowl victory and the return of most of the team set Stanford up to be the Pac-12 favorite in 2011, and a national championship contender. But Harbaugh, who had built the program from perennial disappointment back into a powerhouse in just four short years, would no longer be along for the ride. Harbaugh was hired to coach the San Francisco 49ers, and David Shaw, the man who had the biggest hand in Zach’s recruitment, became Stanford’s head coach.

“After Coach Harbaugh left, we knew there was no better candidate to lead the program than Coach Shaw,” Zach recalls. “We knew there wasn’t going to be a downturn in any way.”

Indeed while many outside expected the Cardinal to fall off after Harbaugh’s departure, they continued to rise. Stanford opened Zach’s junior season with nine straight victories, and Zach was an integral part of their success, scoring touchdowns in each of the first three games of 2011.

Unfortunately, Zach’s junior campaign was setback by a knee injury suffered in a Oct. 29 thriller against rival USC.

“We were playing very well as a team, undefeated at the time, and it was tough knowing I was going to miss four or five games with a knee injury—something I couldn’t control,” Zach recalled.

With Zach sidelined, No. 3 Stanford’s hopes for an undefeated season were derailed by a loss to No. 6 Oregon on November 12.

Zach returned briefly in the regular season finale, a win over Notre Dame, but didn’t get much chance to make an impact. He was ready for their team’s bowl game just over a month later, however, a Fiesta Bowl date with Oklahoma State. Stanford lost a shootout with the Cowboys, but No. 86 put together another a strong finish to a season with four catches and a touchdown.

They were the last balls he would catch from Luck, who became the No. 1 overall selection in the 2012 NFL Draft. Still, playing two seasons with Luck as his team’s quarterback was an invaluable experience. Zach credits the signal caller with aiding his rapid growth as a tight end.

“When I was getting recruited, the coaches were always saying, ‘If you come here, you’re going to have someone very special throwing you the ball,’” he recalled. “I didn’t know how good he was at the time, but looking back, I’m so glad I went to Stanford because I was able to play with a great quarterback like him.”

With Luck and Fleener departed for the NFL, Zach took center stage for his senior season, and he quickly became the number one target for Stanford’s quarterbacks.

“I think I knew right away I was going to be a key cog in the offense,” Zach said of his big start to his junior year. “I knew at the beginning of the year that the coaches were going to put me in very good situations to be successful. It was great to just even have those opportunities in the first place.”

His first breakout came in the season’s third week. Zach took a pass 37 yards for a game-winning touchdown, helping then No. 21 Stanford knock off No. 2 USC, 21-14. It was the first of a career-high six touchdowns for Zach that season. (He would finish the year catching 69 passes for 898 yards.)

A month later, Zach helped the Cardinal bounce back from a loss to Notre Dame with a six-catch, 134-yard, one touchdown outing in a win over Cal. But his signature performance came in a crucial November showdown with Chip Kelly’s Oregon squad at Autzen Stadium, home of the Ducks. Oregon, ranked No. 1 in the country at the time, was lined up for a national championship berth.

No. 86 hauled in a career-high 11 catches, including a touchdown with 1:35 remaining that tied the score and sent the game to overtime. After Oregon’s kicker missed a field goal at the outset of the extra session, Stanford’s Jordan Williamson drilled his kick from 37 yards to send the Cardinal to victory.

“They’ve always been a great team. After those two years where they beat us and ended our aspirations for a national championship, it was very sweet to do that to them,” Zach said. “It was a game I’ll never forget.”

The Cardinal won again the following week, completing the regular season at 10-2, 8-1 in conference for the second straight year, But this time, thanks to the win over Oregon, Stanford earned a spot in the Pac 12 title game. In a fitting twist, Zach found himself facing the program he had strongly considered four years earlier: UCLA.

Stanford won the game, 27-24, to earn a berth in the Rose Bowl against Wisconsin.

The Cardinal completed the incredible season with a 20-14 victory over the Badgers, culminating Zach’s second 12-win season with a second BCS Bowl win. The season-ending run, which included a national championship-derailing win over Oregon, a Pac-12 title clinching victory over UCLA, and a Rose Bowl title, will go down as the highlight of Zach’s college career.

“After those victories, I knew I’d accomplished all I could at Stanford,” he said. “I had a ton of fun doing it with a lot of great teammates and people, but that was kind of the end of my run at Stanford. It was quite a way to go out.”

Zach decided to forego his remaining year of college, and move on to the next stage of his life. After completing his degree in management science and engineering in the spring, the NFL was calling. He got coach Shaw’s blessing to answer that call.

“The graduation was a big thing. I knew I was going to be able to graduate in the spring and Coach Shaw had advised me to go pro as well. He said, ‘You’ve kind of accomplished all you needed at this level, and if you want to go pro, you have my full backing.’ That was big for me. It let me know that I was ready.”

A BIRD OF A DIFFERENT FEATHER

NFL scouts also let Zach know he was ready to take the next step. Many ranked him the top tight end prospect in the 2013 draft. And after another season when passing offenses were led by standout tight ends like New England’s Rob Gronkowski, New Orleans’ Jimmy Graham and Atlanta’s Tony Gonzalez, Zach and Notre Dame’s Tyler Eifert were both expected to go in the first round.

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The 2013 NFL Draft also marked just the fourth year that the draft was airing its first round in primetime on a Thursday night. That made draft night even more nerve-wracking for prospects like Zach, who were unsure if they’d hear their name called in the first 32 picks.

For a brief moment midway through the first round, it looked as though Zach might continue his career in Northern California. The San Francisco 49ers traded with the Dallas Cowboys, moving up 13 spots to No. 18. Based on meetings with the team and his close relationship with 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, Zach knew that San Francisco was interested in him.

“I thought I was gonna be drafted at the end of the first round, early in the second round,” Zach recalls. “There were a lot of teams in those areas that kind of needed a tight end. The 49ers had a few picks there and needed a tight end, and I had a great relationship with Coach Harbaugh. So that was kind of the place that I thought that might look at me.”

But the 49ers used the pick from Dallas to select safety Eric Reid. Three picks later, the Cincinnati Bengals selected Eifert at No. 21 overall. In the 11 picks that followed to complete the first round, only three offensive players came off the board, two wide receivers and a center. Zach was forced to wait another day to learn where the next step in his career would take him.

He didn’t have to wait long. The Philadelphia Eagles, coached by his old college rival Chip Kelly, made Zach the 35th overall pick, the third pick of Day 2.

“There were some guys I thought I was better than who were picked ahead of me and I just decided I was gonna prove everyone wrong. There were 32 teams that have an opportunity to draft in the first round and 32 teams passed on me. That’s motivation for me,” he said. “But I said going into the draft that I’m not going to let the draft define me or how good I’m going to be in the pros. After the first day went down, it was disappointing, but it all worked out. Ever since I was drafted by the Eagles, I’ve been just in love with Philadelphia. It’s been a great city to play in.”

FLYING HIGH

With Kelly at the helm of the Eagles, Zach found himself in a familiar offense, ready to help change the pace of the NFL game. There was no redshirt season in the pros. No. 86 was thrust right into the action, playing in all 16 regular season games for the Eagles as a rookie, and catching passes in all but two of them.

In Week 9 of the 2013 season, Zach had his biggest game of his young career back home in Northern California. Against the Oakland Raiders, Zach hauled in five passes for 42 yards — including his first NFL touchdown — in a 49-20 Philadelphia win.

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Three weeks later, Zach tied his career mark with five receptions, including two more touchdowns, in a win over Arizona. He was a crucial element in the Eagles offense down the stretch of his rookie season, and Philadelphia won seven of its final eight regular season game, clinching the NFC East crown and a playoff berth.

Zach finished the year with 36 receptions for 469 yards and four touchdowns. He added three catches for 22 yards in a Wild Card round shootout with the Saints, the last of which — a three-yard touchdown pass with under five minutes remaining — briefly staked Philadelphia to a one-point lead. Unfortunately, New Orleans came back and kicked a field goal as time expired to end the Eagles’ season.

But experiencing the playoff atmosphere in Philly as a rookie made Zach even more determined to accomplish more with the Eagles in subsequent seasons.

“It was an unbelievable experience. It was a great feeling to go to the playoffs for a city like Philly that is just so passionate about football,” he said. “I love Philadelphia. The fans here are honest with you. If you’re playing poorly they’re going to let you know you’re playing poorly. If you’re playing great they’re going to let you know you’re playing great. I think it’s that honesty and that blue-collar mentality that has attracted me and allowed me to gravitate to such a great city.”

Both Zach and the Eagles entered his second season with high aspirations, and year got off to a great start. Zach had a touchdown catch in the season opening win over Jacksonville, and again hauled in passes in all but one game for the team. Philly ran out to a 9-3 record entering the month of December with another NFC East crown in their sights. But three straight losses knocked them out of the playoff picture.

Zach noted that the disappointing finish to the season made him appreciate the hard work needed to reach the postseason in the NFL.

“I think I’ve learned more in this year by not going to the playoffs than I did as a rookie. It made me appreciate how good that feeling of going to the playoffs is. At Stanford, we were always playing in big bowl games. So I think just the disappointment of this year looking back on not having the opportunity to go to the playoffs has really stuck a needle in my side.”

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There was also plenty to build on. In the second to last game of the season, No. 86 had the best game of his young career, hauling in an Eagles record 15 passes for 115 yards. He finished the season with 58 catches for 702 yards and three touchdowns, one of the best receiving seasons among tight ends in the league.

The 2015 season began with a setback for No. 86. He underwent an operation to repair a groin injury during the offseason and missed valuable time building a rapport with Philly’s new quarterback, Sam Bradford. Zach returned for the start of the season and began to hit his stride midway through the year—only to suffer another scary setback. While trying to hurdle a defender for first-down yardage against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ZE was upended and landed on his head and neck, sustaining a concussion that sidelined him for the remainder of that game and the following week.

But when Zach returned, he picked up right where he left off, hauling in his first touchdown of the season in a monumental win over the New England Patriots. A 98-yard performance followed in a win over Buffalo, and he carried that forward with 78-yard effort while pulling down another scoring reception against the Arizona Cardinals. ZE then broke his career-high with 122 receiving yards—but the big week was spoiled by a loss to the Washington Redskins that ended Philly’s chances at the playoffs. But even though the Eagles were left out of the postseason, they finished the regular season strong. Zach again shattered his career-high amassing 152 yards on nine receptions. Behind ZE’s outstanding day, Philly beat the New York Giants 35-30 to close the regular season.

It all boiled down to another step up for No. 86. Zach made strides in his pass blocking, which resulted in his snap count skyrocketing. His targets went up to a career-high 112. His receptions: a career-high 75. He ended the year with 853 receiving yards and more than 2,000 in his three-year career. The Eagles took notice. On Jan. 25, Zach signed a five-year contract extension to keep him right where he wants to be: in Philadelphia.

“When people think of great tight ends in Philly, I want to be the guy that they think of,” Zach said. “I look at (Brian) Dawkins, I look at Donovan (McNabb), I look at (Brian) Westbrook. These guys left lasting legacies in the city. Those are the guys I want to be mentioned with.”